I remember the first time I became aware of the He Gets Us campaign. I was visiting family members in 2022 who had received a direct mail publication from the organization. On the cover was a black & white photo of a young Black man staring directly into the camera. The gritty photo treatment implied grassroots activism and subtly hinted at the Black Lives Matter movement.
This was not your typical church flyer. With its catchy copy, slick photography, and laid-back call-to-action, it had the hallmarks of a professional product marketing campaign. As I flipped through the document, it was clear—and, perhaps, even overstated—who the target audience was: culturally diverse, religiously disaffected, and politically disenfranchised Gen-Zers and Millennials.
In the following months, I began to notice the campaign’s digital assets, including highly-polished videos like “The Influencer,” a 30-second black and white photo montage depicting a protest scene reminiscent of the 2020 global racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd. The voiceover told the story of an “influencer” (Jesus Christ) who gained massive popularity, challenged the establishment, and was eventually “canceled” by way of crucifixion.
As a marketer, I was intrigued. I couldn’t recall a campaign that so blatantly productized Jesus. But as a Millennial consumer, I was skeptical. The campaign imagery reminded me of that controversial Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner that was widely-criticized for trivializing social justice movements. Something about the entire campaign felt off, and I would soon learn why.
Consider The Messenger
By early 2023, word began to spread about the promotion’s plan to spend roughly $20 million on two ads airing during Super Bowl LVII. The goal would be to target “spiritually open skeptics” and young people who had moved away from Christianity by rebranding the image of Jesus as one of love and tolerance.
In an interview with Texas Monthly, David Morring, the creative director behind much of the campaign, said, “The goal is to reintroduce Jesus in a fresh new way.”
But as the Super Bowl neared, revelations about The Servant Foundation, the evangelical Christian nonprofit that funds He Gets Us, called the campaign’s message—and its messenger—into question.
According to reporting by Jacobin magazine, The Servant Foundation has donated over $50 million to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit designated as an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Alliance Defending Freedom is at the center of 303 Creative v. Elenis, a pending U.S. Supreme Court case that the ACLU warns would give business owners “carte blanche to discriminate” against a wide range of minority groups. The ACLU brief says that consequential case would empower service-based businesses to hypothetically announce that “We Do Not Serve Blacks, Gays, or Muslims.”
The ADF also provided the model for the Mississippi abortion law that led to Dobbs v Jackson, the U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned Roe v. Wade, and the group is currently backing legal efforts to ban abortion pills.
Further, as Forbes reported, a major donor behind the He Gets Us Super Bowl ads is David Green, the multi-billionaire founder of Hobby Lobby. The national chain of craft stores has long been at the forefront of conservative corporate activism. It was the plaintiff of the landmark Burwell v. Hobby Lobby U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2014 that allowed privately held employers to deny access to birth control to their employees based on religious beliefs. In 2021, the company lost a discrimination case brought by a transgender employee who was denied access to the women’s bathroom.
A Mixed Message And Misaligned Market
If the goal of He Gets Us is to target a diverse range of young people and “spiritually open skeptics,” the actions of some of the campaign’s affiliated groups and donors might make the skeptics even more skeptical.
On the surface, the creative for He Gets Us checks all the Gen-Z and Millennial marketing boxes: diverse casting, purpose-driven messaging, and appeals to youthful disaffection. But the discovery that some of the campaign’s funders have ties to conservative causes that are antithetical to the left-leaning politics of many Gen-Zers and Millennials highlights a dissonance between He Gets Us and its target audience.
Furthermore, Millennials and Gen-Zers are savvy consumers who are well-versed in digital marketing and are more skeptical of media and brands than older generations. For example, a report by Gen-Z creative consultancy Adolescent Content found that 78% of Gen-Zers believe brands are all talk and no action, and a study by Marigold found that transparency and authenticity are of the utmost importance when marketing to Gen-Z.
Young and culturally diverse consumers are quick to follow the money and push back against performative allyship, such as brands who rainbow-wash during Pride Month while donating to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians the rest of the year. So when it appears that a brand’s marketing is out of step with its actions behind the scenes, young consumers revolt.
As for the He Gets Us campaign, the Super Bowl ads are just the beginning. Jason Vanderground, president of Haven, the branding firm that directed the campaign, told the Washington Post that “The goal is to invest about a billion dollars over the next three years. And that is just the first phase.”
This billion dollar, multi-year and multi-channel program—which will reportedly span radio, digital, TV, billboards, and experiential platforms—rivals some of the largest product marketing campaigns by major consumer brands.
So as He Gets Us embarks on its next phase, a word of advice: when marketing to Gen-Z and Millennials, the messenger is as important as the message.