The Theist Bus: False Advertising?

I’ve just spotted an advertisement on a London bus that reads “THERE DEFINITELY IS A GOD”.

This, of course, is in response to the Atheist Bus Campaign put on earlier in the year by the British Humanist Association. The campaign saw buses across the UK decked out in advertising posters that read “there’s probably no god, now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. The obvious first question (and the first to come up in discussion on Jender’s earlier post on the ads) is “why ‘probably’ from an atheist organisation?” And as we discovered, the ‘probably’ was included for two reasons. On a practical level, the ‘probably’ avoided the risk of the ads being found in violation of Advertising Standards Agency code. For integrity’s sake, the ‘probably’ made clear that the claim is not one that has been or can be proved. Richard Dawkins points out that we can’t really even say that unicorns definitely don’t exist; negative existential claims simply can’t be proved.

So, if the British Humanists were forced to say ‘probably’, then why can these theist ads say ‘definitely’? The answer is: technically they can’t. They’re in violation of ASA code. But practically, they probably can, because dissenting views on theism tend to be ignored, and I think this largely to do with the conduct of atheists and agnostics: we tend to shut up and/or grumble in the privacy of our own homes. We’re liberals who care about freedom of expression, so we’re loathe to complain about others expressing their views. And in particular: we’re a minority! If free speech is curtailed, ours will be the first views to be silenced. So the question becomes, does the ASA code, in this instance, curtail free speech? First, here are the two relevant clauses in the code:

3.1 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication,
marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove all claims, whether direct
or implied, that are capable of objective substantiation.
Relevant evidence should be sent without delay if requested by the ASA or
CAP.  The adequacy of evidence will be judged on whether it supports both the
detailed claims and the overall impression created by the marketing
communication.  The full name and geographical business address of
marketers should be provided without delay if requested by the ASA or CAP.

3.2 If there is a significant division of informed opinion about any claims made in a
marketing communication they should not be portrayed as generally agreed.

The second of these, to my mind, is decisive as regards the theist bus adverts. So, if 3.2 is enforced, will this constrain religious expression in an egregious, anti-liberal way? I’d like to put it to you that it will not. The appropriate and accurate way for a theist organisation to express their beliefs truly is to advertise that “we the members of such-and-such organisation believe that god definitely exists”. This would be a true statement of fact that would constitute full and adequate religious expression.

To hold any one group to a lesser standard than this would be to show favouritism to that group and thereby infringe on the rights of groups with apposing views. If you agree with me, you can file a complaint with the ASA here.

22 thoughts on “The Theist Bus: False Advertising?

  1. There’s a difference between free speech and advertisement. Advertisements should be held to an evidence-based standard. That doesn’t have anything to do with curtailing free speech because ads are intended to sell a product and thus anything misleading (anything without “evidence to prove all claims”) needs to be avoided. Companies that advertise that a product helps you fly wouldn’t be able to claim their right to free speech is curtailed when they’re asked to pony up evidence or pull the ads… So, theists can go around claiming that there is a god – that’s free speech – but once they put that on an ad, they better follow the rules of advertisement rather than of speech.

  2. Equality in Liberty: I’m going to delete your post because it contains racial slurs, slurs against women, and other offensive content. My aim, however, is not to silence your point of view. so if you’d like to repost your opinion without using hate-speech, I’m sure your views could play a part in the discussion.

  3. That’s cool…I knew you would. However, I would like to know how I used racial slurs and slurs against women. I don’t hate anyone…ever. I am not racist…either. I love all people -even people I do not agree with.

    “Hate-speech” is totally a subjective term (as you have just proven) -typically used as a means of controlling individuals. It is also a quick card that can be pulled out of the deck when you are on the losing side of an argument. I could fire back and say that your hating me by infringing my free-speech rights. But I am realistic,…I know that you just have an agenda and it is, “Free-speech for all who do not contradict my speech in a way I do not approve of.” Stalin did the same thing. Only difference is, he had a gun.

    Liberty would dictate that, I could say what I wanted and your visitors could either agree or not. I think your true fear is that someone could actually agree with me. If I am in the wrong, I believe your visitors to be intelligent enough to make that decision –instead of you making it for them by stifling me. The same is true with the bus incident. Neither side should try stopping the other’s message. Let those who see the bus decide for themselves what is right. The population is smart enough to figure things out without having an elite few censoring what they see/hear.

    Political correctness is just political without being correct because political correctness is also subjective issue that is bent to AGAIN control people. What you find appropriate is different than what I would and vice versa. So why can we both not EQUALLY be allowed to speak as we see fit? –Cuz it is your site and you have a right to censor your content as you see fit…I know, I know.

    “Advertisements should be held to an evidence-based standard.” -So all ads that are not factual should get pulled? LOL! There goes all the creativity in advertising. Look, if a ad for a pill says it will cure a headache and have no side effects, it better not cause your arm to fall off. Those are facts used to sell a product. The bus wasn’t selling anything. It was an opinion. It was a sharing of an idea. There was nothing on there that was a call to action to buy anything or contribute to anything with promises of what it will give you in return. Nothing was touted as an item for sale and there were no factual expectations a viewer was intended to have happen to them. It was just their opinion. It wasn’t an opinion you share perhaps, but you have no proof whether it is true or not. If I think this or that and I want to pay to tell you…so be it. Leave me to it. I will let you do the same. This is the basis for the ads put out by MoveOn.org, the RNC, DNC, etc… no facts…just opinion based advertising which amounts to a “we are better than them” approach. Why don’t you file ad complaints at those organizations? They are the bigger fish to fry.

    While you enjoy your liberty, refresh yourself with the definition of the word: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/liberty

  4. EiL: thanks for sharing your views. yours is quite a common view, i suspect, so it’s good to get it in the discussion. regarding racial slurs and slurs against women, i can’t help but try to offer you assistance. i gather you’re in america, and i know this fact isn’t always clear in america these days, so i’ll let you in on it: muslims are people. every last one of them. using derogatory slang to refer to muslims (or did you mean arabs? they are people too) counts as slur.

    furthermore, regardless of where you are in the world you ought to be told: calling women with whom you disagree “mixed up chicks” is disparaging to women. you may to speak that way in the privacy of your own home. but you may refer to our posted policies to verify that we hold a blanket prohibition against being needlessly insulting to contributors or other commenters.

  5. btw the theist bus ads, as i’ve now learnt, have been put up by the Christian Party–a fringe political party–and read in full “there definitely is a god, so join the christian party and enjoy your life”. in small print, they encourage readers to text “amen” to their number. i would bet my life that’s not a free text.

    further, here is an opinion piece by the originator of the theist bus ads: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2009/feb/05/religion-christianity-christian-bus-ads

    and he links to an article saying two interesting things: first, that there are also two other organisations planning to run theist bus banners; oh joy. and second, that there were almost 150 complaints from christian groups to the ASA about the athiest buses, and the ASA ruled that they weren’t in violation of the code. here’s that article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/feb/05/atheist-bus-christian-response

  6. The theist bus ads might well be in violation of the ASA codes; but if they are, I can’t see why the atheist ones weren’t as well. Adding ‘probably’ doesn’t make the claim uncontentious, because ‘probably, p’ doesn’t mean ‘we believe p’, it means ‘it is probable that p’. At least in the context, I think objective probability is suggested: of course, theists don’t think the obejctive probability of God’s existence is below 50%. Even if we’re talking about subjective probability, I take it the theist is not going to agree that God probably does not exist.

    And whether the theist is right or wrong isn’t the point, of course. Where’s the atheists evidence for this probability claim? There’s certainly a significant disagreement in informed opinion regarding its truth or falsity. So by all means file your complaint against the theist bus ads: but I can’t see that it would be anything other than hypocritical not to then file the same complaint against the theist bus ads.

    (For my part, I won’t be filing any complaint. Neither ad seems in the slightest bit misleading to me, since it’s common knowledge that any claim of this sort or it’s negation is one that is going to be contested and a matter of personal belief. Both ads are obvioulsy (I think) a mile away from, e.g., an ad saying categorically that some product does something that it doesn’t do, and that one could demonstrate that it doesn’t do to any impartial observer.)

  7. I meant, of course, it would be hypocritical not to then file a complaint against the atheist ads.

  8. ross: yes i had this very discussion with someone yesterday, so i have a preformulated answer for you! (how thoughtful of me!) my answer is: this is not a formal language sentence in the context of a carefully structured argument; this is an english-language sentence on the side of a bus. i think the ‘probably’ functions quite clearly in this context to mean something like ‘we can’t claim to be sure, but we rather think that…’, rather than expressing some number between 0 and 1. and i suspect that’s why the ASA ruled the atheist buses were not in violation of code. (christian groups did complain.) on the other hand the ‘definitely’ seems very explicitly to function as a denial of any contentiousness to the claim. and for that reason i think the theist message is in violation while the atheist one was not. and that’s why, with no hypocrisy, i filed a complaint against the theist bus, and not the atheist bus.

  9. Both ‘definitely’ and ‘probably’ have some pretty loose natural language usages. If I say I’m definitely going to go and see Springsteen play in London, I’m not indicating that the claim I will go is uncontentious or that I am certain of, or even know, its truth: I am claiming something like ‘I have a current commitment and intention to see Springsteen’. I think there are clearly contexts in natural language where ‘definitely, p’ expresses my commitment to the claim rather than my certainty of the term. So if you’re going to play the ‘hey, this is just the loose natural language meaning of the term’ card in one case, I think you should in both cases, so I’m still seeing them as symmetrical.

  10. nope. i am ‘playing’ it in both cases, and it’s my opinion that they work as i’ve described in this context. (in particular, one in which it’s an explicit rule that you can’t present as uncontentious a claim about which there is a significant division of informed opinion.) a theist ad on a bus is not a plan to go to the cinema. just because one context generates one sort of reading, there’s no reason to think that that reading is *the* in-context reading. to think so would be simply to miss the point of pragmatics.

  11. i should correct myself: a theist ad on a bus is not a plan to see the boss. (it isn’t a plan to go to the cinema either, but i was trying to respond to the point made. springsteen apparently looks quite like the movies before my third cup of coffee.)

  12. i definitely send out a complaint which probably succeeds if everyone else raises the issue.

  13. i just received a letter from the ASA about my complaint.

    “The Christian Party is a political party […] so we are unable to deal with the specific issue you raise: we are unable to investigate complaints about advertising which aims to influence voters”

    referring to the trinitarian bible society and the orthodox church advertisements, mentioned in the complaint, they “can be seen as simply reflecting the opinions of the advertisers and were unlikely to mislead readers”.

    well, so much about the asa’s code of practice and not being biased or hypocritical.

  14. I too received a reply from the ASA. It referred to the CAP Code :

    12.1 Any advertisement or direct marketing communication, whenever published or distributed, whose principal function is to influence voters in local, regional, national or international elections or referendums is exempt from the Code.

    The key point here is ‘principal’. By copying the concept, font and colours of the atheist advert, their principle objective was to counter the atheist advertising – not to recruit. If it was to recruit, then they are using a statement that cannot be substantiated. Any exemption on political grounds should still be subject to truthful inquiry.

    I will contact the ASA on these matters – has anyone else?

  15. thanks both of you for keeping us updated. i haven’t received a reply at all yet. (i also know at least one other person who’s complained. she has so far received word that her complaint is being considered, but nothing more.) neil thanks especially for making the point that you have. we should all bear it in mind (and point it out!) when/if we receive replies from ASA like the ones you two have received. keep the updates coming.

  16. i received 2 more replies today, one for the trinitarian bible society and one for the ROC.

    Re: There IS a God, BELIEVE…
    […]The ASA assessed the ad. It concluded that the Russian Orthodox ad was likely to be seen as simply reflecting the opinion of the advertisers and were unlikely to mislead readers.

    It was produced in reaction to the recent British Humanist Association ad and closely reflected the style and wording of the campaign. The emphasis on IS and BELIEVE made clear that the advertiser disputed the BHA claim “there probably is no god” and that it was matter of faith rather than evidence.

    Although we are not pursuing your complaint, we’ve told the advertiser about your concerns (without revealing your identity).

  17. I got the same lame response that stated that the Christian Party adverts were exempt under the section that states:
    12.1 Any advertisement or direct marketing communication, whenever published or distributed, whose principal function is to influence voters in local, regional, national or international elections or referendums is exempt from the Code.

    I have counter claimed to the ASA that the material clearly aims to recruit more members to the party rather than influence voters. At no point in the advert does the text encourage voters to vote for them, it merely sells membership.
    I doubt the ASA would let an advert past that stated:
    You will have more sexual conquests if you join the Labour party.

  18. I sent an email to the ASA – to the lady who emailed me. Her email address was on their letter. That was over 24 hours ago – no acknowledgement or response at all yet.

    I agree – political ads must adhere to some criteria. But if the ASA make them exempt, who does regulate them?

  19. Hahaha!

    They are just scared! Although they’ve piled up a huge fund for this, but thats gonna collape in a few years!

    Long live humanism.

  20. But it’s also good, maybe really good, in a couple of ways.

    One way was the trigger that caused me to quit. It was good that I left.

    I’m an atheist, I think you know. An unbeliever, even an anti-theist. My old joke is “I don’t believe in gods, and I don’t think you should either.”

    Here’s what I do at the newspaper I work at (um, what I “did,” at the newspaper I “worked” at): I’m a special type of editor called a copy editor.

    A little background: Stories come into a newspaper by two separate streams. The major stream, for most newspapers, is the Associated Press. “Wire” stories from all over the country — all over the world, really — show up on the AP Wire, and are picked up, or not, as the local editors choose. The second stream is stories written by staff writers employed by the local newspaper itself.

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