What the Jesus Super Bowl ads get right (and wrong) about evangelization
Last night during the Super Bowl, a campaign known as “He Gets Us” spent 20 million dollars to do 60- and 30-second spots about Jesus. Funded by the head of the conservative Christian business Hobby Lobby among others, “He Gets Us” describes itself as a “movement to reintroduce people to the Jesus of the Bible and his confounding love and forgiveness.”
The ads presented at the Super Bowl, “Love Your Enemies” and “Be Childlike,” are striking for their use of modern-day imagery and music to tell their stories. In the 60-second “Love Your Enemies” ad, we are confronted with a series of black-and-white photographs of violent confrontations—a Black man shouting in the face of a Black police officer in riot gear; an older woman shouting at young people on a bus; a man having to be held back from leaping at shocked employees across a fast-food counter. The situations are extremely violent and clearly meant to remind us of recent events. There is a white guy wearing a horned Viking helmet screaming into a bullhorn in the ear of a Black man; a woman in a car with a “Liberty over Lockdown” sticker shouts at a man in medical scrubs and a mask blocking her way.
Meanwhile, in the 30-second “Be Childlike” ad, we are shown a series of black-and-white images of children being just plain adorable—cleaning the house, taking care of pets and above all helping each other, while Patsy Cline sings, “If I Could See the World (Through the Eyes of a Child).”
The Super Bowl ads are effective precisely because they’re less interested in Jesus and more interested in getting us to think about our choices.
Each episode has a tagline at the end that connects the ad to Jesus. “Jesus loved the people we hate,” reads the first. “He gets us. All of us. Jesus.” The second ends similarly: “Jesus didn’t want us to act like adults. He gets us. All of us. Jesus.”
Even before the Super Bowl, there was a lot of talk about these ads and the broader “He Gets Us” campaign, which has produced more than a dozen ads like this over the last year, many of them intent on recasting some aspect of Jesus’ life, like his conflicts with authority or his crucifixion, in modern-day terms. “Refugee” tells the story of a poor but happy Latin American family who has to flee after violence breaks out in their country, with the twist at the end that what we are hearing is actually the story of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. “Jesus is relevant today” often seems to be the movement’s message.
But the Super Bowl ads are a little bit different, and I would say more effective, precisely because they’re less interested in Jesus and more interested in getting us to think about our choices. You cannot watch that children’s spot without feeling the pull to be more kind and loving yourself. The first part of the tagline, “Jesus didn’t want us to act like adults,” only points us further in that direction.
The tag of the longer spot similarly seems to issue a call to action, this time directed at our resentments and hatreds. All those people we fear and hate, Jesus loved, so rethink your actions, people. As a piece, it is a lot less effective; the violence of the images is just too dramatic and upsetting for that tagline to land. More than anything one finishes the spot feeling alienated and despondent.
The thing that makes us attractive as Catholics is not that we “have” Jesus, any more than what made Jesus attractive to people was any self-promotion.
But the intent seems mostly good, if overly simplistic. Jesus had love for everyone, but he also took sides. He defended the woman caught in adultery from the crowd that wanted to murder her. He challenged teachings of the Pharisees that marginalized people and spent time with with sinners. These kinds of actions are a big part of why he was killed. Just because he didn’t show up and shout at protests did not mean he wasn’t political.
In the Catholic Church, we regularly talk about evangelization, and watch parishes and dioceses launch campaigns like “Catholics Come Home.” Much of the time I find those discussions misunderstand what they are meant to be selling. The thing that makes us attractive as Catholics is not that we “have” Jesus, any more than what made Jesus attractive to people was any self-promotion. (Jesus did not do PR and told his disciples to stop whenever they tried to do some for him.) No, what makes us worth considering is how we choose to spend our lives—who we help, who we forgive, how we show love—our choices.
Many of the “He Gets Us” spots miss the mark, in my opinion, because, like many of us, they try to sell Jesus, when they should be trying to sell what Jesus sold: a generous and merciful way of life. Jesus doesn’t need to be “reintroduced.” Trying to make him seem relevant to a media-savvy younger generation only makes Christianity seem that much more out of touch and cringe. The fact that each ad ends on the word “Jesus,” with the “us” highlighted dramatically in yellow, as though to say we are a subset of Jesus, is so overwrought and goofy I can just about hear my nephews and nieces in the Midwest shrieking with laughter from here. As people have since pointed out online, You’re trying too hard, boomer.
But at the Super Bowl, “He Gets Us” got it right, or at least tried to, anyway. The point of being a Christian isn’t to make more Christians. It’s to work toward that kingdom of friendship and mercy that Jesus himself was building. And anything that helps inspire others to do that is worth paying attention to and learning from.