The traditional Nativity scene of the infant Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a straw-filled manger is so commonplace that it is almost part of the seasonal wallpaper rather than the beating heart of what Christmas is supposed to be about.
So a British church group that specializes in eye-catching advertisements figured it would try to shake things up this year, and it certainly did so with an ultrasound image
of a halo-wearing fetus -- a sort of pre-Christmas card that can resonate with many expectant parents as well as reminding everyone about the reason for the season.
"He's on His way," reads the ad's text. "Christmas starts with Christ."
But abortion opponents who have been using ultrasound fetal photos as a pro-life tactic can relate to the image as well, and have thrilled to the pro-life message they believe it proclaims, a development that doesn't necessarily sit well with the chairman of ChurchAds.net
, the ecumenical group that is seeking to put the ad on 2,010 billboards and bus shelters across Britain by Christmas in an effort to reach 40 million people.
"We're a reasonably PR-savvy group of people," said Francis Goodwin, a semi-retired ad man who specializes in poster campaigns and helped found ChurchAds.net nearly 20 years ago. "We were aware that people would try to hijack it," he said, referring to the poster.
"But we've steadfastly said that this" -- abortion -- "is not our agenda," he said. "If other people want to try to hijack it and use it for other means, well, so be it. That's what they'll do."
Goodwin said that within his group, which has representatives from the Church of England, the Baptist Union, the United Reformed Church and the Methodist churches, there is probably no consensus on a pro-life message.
"Our intention at this time of year is purely to celebrate the birth of Jesus," Goodwin said. The "Baby Scan Jesus" poster "does communicate very quickly the humanity and the divinity of Jesus."
And it does so in such a way that for the first time in nearly two decades Catholic organizations are taking a major role by distributing 40,000 smaller versions of the poster, in part because of the implicit, or perhaps explicit, pro-life message.
"The advert is saying that Jesus was alive as a person before he was born," John Smeaton, of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, told The Guardian
. "They have a halo round his head and you don't have a halo around the head of a blob of jelly or a cluster of cells. This is not a cluster of cells but a human person and it just happens to be the God man Jesus. It is about the humanity of the unborn. That is a very, very powerful statement that will strike a chord with the general population."
Goodwin said he's received a huge response from people in the United States who have heard about the campaign, which officially launched this week with a goal of generating enough interest and funding to buy billboard and bus shelter space in the week before Christmas. The campaign also has several radio ads that it will broadcast nationally.
If the campaign draws enough U.S. interest, Goodwin would like to launch a drive next Christmas in America using the same theme. Whether he'd find supporters to work with is another question given the different religious and political cultures between Britain and the United States.
Goodwin says he doesn't want "to be like the ultra-right evangelicals who turn people off. We want to provoke thought and debate."
But in the United States, the mainline churches who would be Goodwin's natural allies might shy away from the poster's potential anti-abortion ramifications while conservative Christian groups would likely want to make that message a centerpiece. The political battle over abortion rights, Goodwin, said, "is not as strong an issue in the U.K."
On the other hand, Goodwin is a veteran media professional, and he knows that buzz is the key to a successful campaign, even if the chatter isn't on point.
"If people write about it and discuss it, that's half our job done," Goodwin said. "It's so hard to get faith on the agenda in a modern, relevant way without sounding preachy."
Besides, Goodwin is justifiably proud of his group's success with this campaign. Every year they have an edgy message aimed at the many unchurched folk in deeply secular Britain, such as last year's depiction
of the Holy Family in a bus shelter.
But he said they haven't had so much buzz surrounding a holiday blitz since their 1999 effort
featuring Jesus as a revolutionary in the iconic Che Guevara pose. "Meek. Mild. As if," the slogan ran.
ChurchAds.net is still getting requests for that one, and they're likely to be fielding requests for this year's "Baby Scan Jesus" for a long time to come.
"The idea that you can get one photo conveying an idea with eight words is sort of the Holy Grail of poster design," Goodwin said. "This is extremely high quality."