The Unhealthy Rhetoric of the “He Gets Us” Ad Campaign
I’ll confess I didn’t watch the Super Bowl this year, but I certainly heard an awful lot about the $20 million spent on “Jesus ads” that aired there. I’ve seen a lot of articles pointing out how people from both the left and the right are critiquing various aspects of this total $100 million “He Gets Us” ad campaign, which various sources has reported is funded at least in part by the same fund connected to the founder of Hobby Lobby (you can read more here, here, here, here, and here, for instance). But I have yet to see a rhetorical analysis of the techniques used in these ads, so that’s what I’m here to do in this week’s post.
As you’ll see, I find it particularly egregious that these ads were aired during #BlackHistoryMonth.
It’s important for us all to understand the unhealthy rhetoric of these ads and how it works so we can properly speak back to it. Thanks for giving me a few minutes to unwrap a few of the techniques used in a few of the “He Gets Us” ads.
My Background and Standpoint
As always, I’m coming at this from the perspective of a pastor’s kid from a right-leaning moderate white Evangelical church who went on to become a communication scholar focusing on stress, trauma, and conflict communication.
That is to say, I grew up in an environment, as I’ve discussed before, that often claimed to be allergic to both the left and the right, but ended up leaning right when push came to shove.
Starting with the “He Gets Us” Ads: “Love Your Enemies”
In the years since the 2016 election, the people I grew up with practiced a lot of bothsidesism, which as I’ve discussed before is a form of false equivalency that too often supports fascistic rhetoric and policies. Because of that, I cringed hard when watching the He Gets Us campaign’s “love your enemies” ad that aired during the Super Bowl and started to recognize so much bothsidesism there.
Bothsidesism in Action
If you haven’t seen it, this highly produced ad shows a variety of images of people that seem to be in conflict mode, with a high proportion of people of darker skin tones. Sprinkled in are images from different kinds of protests, including both Black Lives Matter protests and white supremacist protests.
The message at the end of the commercial says that “Jesus loved the people we hate. He gets us. All of us.”
Ohhh, Just What We Needed in Black History Month—More “All Lives Matter” Rhetoric (Eyeroll)
Let’s be clear: it’s slickly produced, but this is really profoundly messed up, toxic, all lives matter, both sides are the same style rhetoric. (I’ve written about the toxic sides of all lives matter rhetoric before, here.)
I have so soooo many issues about the words used here, few though they may be. But let me say first that one of my biggest issues about this ad is that the images move so fast that it’s super hard to tell that white supremacists are being included in the set of images at all.
Those images are rather buried in the stack. If you were watching fast, you might not notice they were there—that the false equivalency was being drawn.
Nonetheless, they are there.
And then…well, let’s talk about those words, shall we?
Wait, So Calls for Equality and Justice Are…Hate???
Can we talk about the fact that there’s a huge presumption being made here in the words coming together with the fast-moving pictures that Black Lives Matter protests are rooted in hate????
Ummmm, no. Let’s be absolutely clear: people asking for equality and justice under the law is about 15 million miles from hate. (And it’s just as disturbing to suggest that BLM might be an “enemy.” Everything about this is incredibly wrongheaded.)
Add In Some Sin-Leveling Nonsense….
And yeah, the implication here is that all people EQUALLY hate others. That combined with the commercial title of “love your enemies” implies that people only get enemies from hating others. And everyone has enemies because everyone hates, of course.
Which….whew. All of this brings us right back to sin-leveling, which I recently talked about here. If you missed that post, a quick definition of sin-leveling is that it’s a rhetorical technique that tries to say everyone sins and that all sins are equally bad.
The reason for this is to let the real offenders off the hook while making the innocent look guilty.
Oh Good…Good Old Fashioned White Supremacist False Equivalency!
This ad’s bothsidesist conflation between Black Lives Matter protests, which are motivated to try to ask for equality and motivated from survival needs, and white supremacist protests motivated by a desire to dominate, does exactly that.
By using the same word of moral judgment—hate—to apply equally to both the dominators and the dominated, the rhetoric of the ad seeks to persuade bystanders that it’s their moral duty to love white supremacists as well as Black Lives Matter protestors.
And in so doing, it absolutely encourages bystander viewers to let the white supremacists off the hook.
Tone Policing Too (So Many Things in 30 Expensive Seconds!)
Simultaneously, it implicitly offers a curt dismissal to the Black Lives Matter protestors asking for justice. By labeling their protests as coming from “hate” (just like everyone’s!) they get labeled as “guilty” and “in need of repentance.”
This curt dismissal is disturbing variant of the spiritual bypassing crap I talked about here.
Hmmm…Doesn’t Actually Sound Like Jesus At All
If you’re curious, that’s a far cry from Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 about how Christ can be found in vulnerable populations and those who were more privileged would be judged based on their actions toward these vulnerable and marginalized folks.
Moving On to Other “He Gets Us” Ads
Think I’m interpreting this ad unfairly? Well, let’s talk about a few of the other ones, then, just to round out the picture and illustrate how slick ad production is covering over some really unpleasant stuff.
Oh Good, Jesus as…Weirdly Always Submissive???
Okay, so let’s talk about the ad with the title “Outrage.”
Here’s the script for the voiceover that comes with this one: “There was this controversial figure. Everywhere he went, people challenged him, they questioned his ideology, trolled him, called him ugly names. But he never took the bait, never raised his voice, refused to retaliate, by turning the other cheek.”
After that, the words appeared on the screen: “Jesus had to control his outrage too. He gets us. All of us.”
I’ll confess, having read all of the Bible, including all the gospels, many times in my life (I wrote about this here) I had to do a HUGE double take at this one.
Did They Read the Bible At All? Or Were They Just Ignoring Most of It???
Like…had the people who wrote this ad never read the bits of the gospels where Jesus was calling out hypocrisy and spiritual abuse by the religious leaders of his day? With super strong language?
It certainly doesn’t seem like it.
Also didn’t seem like they read the part where Jesus went into the temple with whips.
Promoting “White (Supremacist) Christian Nice,” Not Jesus!
Nope, this ad isn’t out to promote Jesus. It’s out to promote the spiritualization of the accommodation conflict style, which I’ve been talking about frequently since this post. And the fact that it used a dark-skinned figure to illustrate Jesus, well….that’s just disturbing, once again.
Especially built onto what we just looked at in the previous ad.
Alarming Under the Surface
See, looking at these ads at first glance, it looks like they’re promoting DIVERSITY! LOVE! TOGETHERNESS!
But they actually are super disturbing and often quite fascistic and white supremacist once you scratch the surface.
Jesus Crucifixion Meant He Was…Canceled??????? Ummm, No.
Sooo, now that we’ve established that, it’s time to dig deeper into another ad of the series. This one’s called “The Influencer.”
Here’s the voiceover for this one. And, again, the visuals going with this voiceover are of a young black man. (Once again: A young dark-skinned young man, note.)
Jesus as an…Influencer???
“There was an influencer who became insanely popular. Everybody started following him. And one day he stood up for something he believed in. People got angry. The establishment called him an extremist, said he shouldn’t be allowed to share his views. They would stop at nothing to shut him up. They did what they had to do. They nailed him to a cross.”
At the same time those last words are spoken, the words “Jesus was canceled” appear on the screen, followed by the words “He gets us. All of us.”
No. Just No.
Sooooo yeah. I’ll confess this one makes me want to pull out some sort of primal scream thing, especially when it gets to those final written words.
Because let’s be clear—once again, an absolutely ridiculous false equivalency is being indiscriminately leveled here in truly truly evil ways, without explicitly coming out and saying it.
And anyone who has seen any applications of the term “canceled” in recent years ought to know it.
Let’s Talk about Persecution Complexes for Being Held Accountable!
Because let’s be clear: the large bulk of the “cancellations” in American culture in recent years have been a matter of calling people to account for egregious violations such as hate speech, fascism, and sexual assault and harassment.
This ad, by implying simultaneously that these kinds of situations are in any way equivalent to the kind of persecution and scapegoating Jesus endured, well….
No. Just no.
So Much False Equivalency!
So yeah, once again we’re getting the same message as with the first ad. So many deeply disturbing layers here, especially since once again it’s trying to equate a poor person of color’s standing up for equality standing up for what they believe with bullies being called on their crap.
Which means we’re not shockingly back in the same “all lives matter” type false equivalency sin-leveling crap, this time with the cherry on top of a persecution complex for bullies who get held to account for unhealthy behavior.
So. Much. White. Supremacy.
Is it clear by now that these ads, while pretending to be DIVERSE! And about INCLUSION! And LOVING OTHERS! are really about white supremacy?
Let’s be clear: these ads are doing making the exact same rhetorical moves as the former president did when after Charlottesville he said that there were fine people on both sides of the equation.
They’re just doing it in a much much slicker package.
UGH UGH UGH
This is spiritually abusive, white supremacist, fascistic rhetoric. Being sold at the Super Bowl. In 2023. During Black History Month.
Those who are connected to this billion dollar ad campaign in any way should be ashamed of themselves.
This goes way beyond spending money that should have been given to the poor.
White Nationalist Jesus? NOT OKAY.
This is the co-optation of Jesus to defend white supremacy and bullying in the name of diversity.
What Jesus Absolutely Was NOT Like
If you were wondering, this is EXACTLY the kind of crap that long-ago “influencer,” Jesus, railed against in those passages when he was calling out the religious leaders of the day, calling them whitewashed tombs that were rotten inside.
What an incredible load of toxic garbage.
(Not to put too fine a point on it.)
Okay, Fine, So the Far-Right Doesn’t Completely Like the Campaign Either…
And sure, there are ads in there that far-right-wing peops don’t like either. But that doesn’t mean the others, especially those I just analyzed, are remotely healthy.
I could go deeper into this stash of ads, but honestly that’s all I can stomach for now.
It’s So Easy to Fall for This Sh*t, Sadly
And listen, if you’ve found these ads appealing, I don’t blame you.
The people who made them knew exactly what they were doing.
They’re slickly produced.
So Easy to Think the “Moral Middle” Is Somehow Better
And it’s incredibly easy to get suckered into that illusion that those who are in the middle, who stay out of the fray, are somehow morally above it.
I grew up in that. I get the seduction of that message.
“All Lives Matter” Bothsidesism! Now with a Nifty Spiritual Abuse Wrapper!
But that doesn’t mean this series isn’t rotten at its core. It is absolutely no different from the kinds of abuse that “all lives matter” too often gets put to, just with a slick spiritual wrapper on it.
What We Can Do In Response
Let’s not give into this crap, friends.
And specifically, let’s continue to call it out and work for an actually healthier world for us ALL.
Which means we need to actually hold the bullies accountable for things, and stop blaming the assertive vulnerable and their allies for standing up for what is right.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are to stand up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
Want to help keep this work going? I finally, after more than 4 years of this project, have tip jars set up at Venmo and PayPal so you can help keep the lights on and such (THANK YOU for whatever you can do!). Here’s the info:
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5 thoughts on “The Unhealthy Rhetoric of the “He Gets Us” Ad Campaign”
Initially I thought you were a hysteric. I share your concern for misrepresentation and spin. And I wholeheartedly want to hold the bullies of the world accountable thank you for your thoughtful dissertation.
Hmmm. Thank you for your support. And yes, this material comes from my work in my scholarly discipline–it isn’t just a random rant. As a note, the term “hysteric” has a horrible history. I recommend looking it up and avoiding using it in the large majority of situations moving forward.
So, I know some of the folks personally that have have put these ads together. One of the things I find interesting is that the group, while agreeably tends to be more white and tend to lean right, the team that actually create the content is fairly diverse and tends to lean left. In fact, I had to laugh over a recent breakfast, as I heard about the bantering that went back and forth as the team worked to create content.
So, part one of my comment is, they are not as right and white leaning as you proport. In fact, 2 of the main drivers behind this ad campaign has been the fact that the American church (particularly white evangelical church) has been waaaaay to complicit in the hate mongering of the last few years and the damage that has done to people and the damage it has done to the reputation of Christ.
That said, I can see your point, and the fact that the Super Bowl is during BHM, they should have chosen different content. But I also know (or at least this is what I have been told by the folks I know personally who are involved) is that the intent of the ad is point people to Jesus. Period.
That really seems to be their heart.
Therefore, here my question to you.
IF we take them at their word that their desire is to just point people to Jesus, to show that Jesus as God in the Flesh actually gets us and therefore is for us,
how would you advise them moving forward to change the ads so that message is heard better by the people you know who have been hurt by the church?
Please take this as a serious question because I understand your argument as you have expressed it. When I watched the ads, my thought was, “How will people receive this?”
I hear you so I sincerely ask for your reflection and input.
Thanks and thanks for all you write. There are a lot of people on the margins, hurt by those in the church and your words gives voice to their pain.
Hi Rick! I have no doubt that some of the people producing these ads have good intentions. I have worked in organizations that have produced Evangelical Christian content and there were lots of people with good intentions there. That doesn’t mean they might not be creating content that ultimately harms. A lot of the people I grew up with have amazing intentions, and yet some of the theology and politics they participated in was extremely harmful to many people. Both things can be true at once. Please let those people know that if they really want my input, and want to find ways to produce things that are less harmful, they can absolutely get in touch. Communication professors are in our wheelhouse when it comes to audience analysis and discussing ethical means of persuasion. Sincerely, DS Leiter
I deeply appreciated this article. It gave me much pause.
PS, I would love a copy of the guide.