It was six weeks before Christmas and a group of church leaders were called to a meeting in Milton Keynes. Ali Burnett from ChurchAds had come to talk about a new campaign based on the slogan “Christmas Starts with Christ”. It all sounded like a great idea – a way of reversing some of the negative trends in the public perception of Christmas and Church. At the end of the meeting, Ali turned to us and asked, “Could you run a campaign this year?”

I was one of those church leaders and I remember turning to Ali and saying, “No… but we could do something next year…”

I don’t think she was very convinced, but the timing was right. The Mission Partnership was being reorganised to focus on mission – rather than structures – and new possibilities were opening up. The traditional denominational bodies were becoming stronger and new partners were beginning to emerge. It was actually a really good time to do something big together.

We held a number of meetings over the following year, brought Ali back for a second visit, and gradually began to shape our plans. By the next year we were ready to go, and things were about to get really interesting…

Christmas Starts with Christ
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ChurchAds have been around for twenty five years. It began with a group of Christians who were involved in the advertising industry. They’ve produced a number of posters over the years – including a few that have had national impact.

They’ve been focusing on Christmas and Easter because that’s when people are most open to a Christian message.

They also carried out some research and discovered that less than half of the population think that Jesus is relevant to their Christmas. They also discovered that a frighteningly small percentage of the population know the story of Christmas in any detail…

“Christmas Starts with Christ” was identified as a phrase that ordinary non-church people responded to positively. ChurchAds decided to use this slogan over a number of years, because they thought that the repetition would increase the impact. That’s how many big companies get their message across.

The aim of these campaigns is to get people to stop and think – and to overturn some preconceptions. Many people think that the Christian faith is irrelevant or boring. The ChurchAds campaigns tend to suggest that Christian Faith may be worth a second look. They don’t tell anyone what to think, but they can start conversations.

A Radio Campaign?…

ChurchAds started with posters, but the world of advertising has moved on. Posters don’t have the impact that they did in the past, and the internet has had a revolutionary impact on the industry. Internet advertising, however, has a high “avoidance” factor. People just ignore it. TV ads can also be skipped –  thanks to video recorders and online streaming. It turns out that adverts on radio or cinema are the least avoided – and radio is the most trusted medium of all…

It therefore seemed sensible for us to run an advertising campaign on our local commercial radio station – Heart FM. We could reach over 150,000 people for a relatively small amount of money – and there was some great material available which told the Christmas Story in a funny way…

They think it’s all over…

christmas-box-8Our first campaign used two thirty second ads based on the commentary for a football match and a horse race. They were fun, a bit silly, and they got us noticed… We raised £2,500 to pay for the air-time and produced our own web site so people could learn more about the Christian Faith – and find a local carol service.

It worked really well, so we did the same the following year.  We raised a bit more money and involved a few more churches, using a set of adverts based on a chat show…

We did so well that ChurchAds began to take notice. They liked the way we involved a large number of churches and were impressed with the amount of money we could generate. By working collaboratively, locally and ecumenically, we were doing better than any other area in the country!

More than Christmas…

After a couple of years, we were able to run a couple of campaigns at other times of the year. We’ve now done five Christmases, two Easters, and one Fathers’ Day. It’s been a great project for us as churches. It’s demonstrated the value of partnership working and given us a taste of what joined-up mission might look like.

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But things were changing for ChurchAds. The work was being funded by a single donor and those funds eventually ran out. Back in Milton Keynes, we were left without material – although we did manage to dig-out some old ads for last year…

Doing it ourselves…

This has meant a change of approach for our group in MK. We used to use material produced for us by somebody else, but this year we have had to move from the role of consumer to producer!

jesusIt hasn’t been a smooth journey, but we’ve learned a lot along the way. For Easter 2016 we worked with the Heart FM team to produce our first advert. The idea was for something that sounded like the trailer for a superhero movie. We linked it to the national campaign being run by ChurchAds and it sounded pretty good – although some of the voices didn’t quite work…

It was a big step for MK and showed that we could produce high-quality material ourselves – with a little help from the experts. The next step was to do Christmas…

A Funny Old Game…

We run this whole project in an unusual way… Rather than have a fixed committee, we have a “turn-up-ocracy”. In other words, I send out an invitation to a wide group of people from a range of different churches. Those who are interested turn up and make the decisions for the next phase.

hashtagIt works really well, because it keeps the circle of involvement wide, and it’s possible for us to make collaborative decisions. We generally meet three or four times a year, and it’s always fun. Heart FM usually host the meeting, and new-comers often get a studio tour.

Back in July 2016 a group gathered to plan Christmas. They decided to commission three new adverts for Christmas 2016 – which was a really ambitious step! We had a separate brain-storming session and came up with the idea of three adverts based on TV game shows…

And this is where it got really interesting. We worked with the professionals on the scripts and they were then sent away for recording. The recordings came back after a while. They were okay, but something wasn’t quite right. We made some suggestions and tried again.

It turned out that the problem was with the way the recordings were being made. In order to save money, each line was being recorded in a separate location and then edited together afterwards. Once we realised that this was the way the production worked, we began to understand why it was so difficult to get the right subtlety of voice or bring out the humour. This is no criticism of the studio. They bent over backwards to help us and were very patient. I knew that we needed something extra if we were going to have the impact we wanted.

Going into the studio…

Ali was very helpful at this point and suggested going to the Jerusalem Trust with a request for a small grant. Jerusalem were very generous and gave us enough money to go to Jungle Studios in London and recruit a few actors.

christmas-lightsIt was the middle of November and time was getting tight, but it all came together. It was quite an experience. We spent two hours in the studio with some really talented people. They tried the lines in a variety of ways until we were satisfied. We also edited down the scripts so we could keep within the thirty second limit – while getting both the humour and the theology.

A highlight for me was the ad originally known as “Cooking up Christmas”. We suggested that one of the lines should be delivered like the mad scientist from Back to the Future. We also tweaked the script to keep the time down and ended up with the line “Christmas lights you can see from space!” – which he delivered like a mad scientist from the Muppets.

It was a great session and everyone enjoyed it. The guy doing the recording for us said he was going to take them home and play them to his vicar!

Where next?

As we move forward with this project we have some real opportunities. We have shown that it’s possible for churches in an area like this to work together and make an impact. We’ve also learned a lot about the world of commercial radio and the mechanics of advert production…

On the other hand, we won’t be able to rely on material from ChurchAds, and the Jerusalem Trust won’t repeat their generous grant next year…

We do, however, have links with a number of areas who are now trying to do something similar. Perhaps the next step is for us to work with them to produce adverts together. If four areas all put £500 into the pot we would have enough to run the whole thing ourselves…

But that’s something for our “turn-up-ocracy” to discuss when they meet in 2017…

 

 

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