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Aug 14 2012

Marketing Atheism

The second set of breakout sessions at the Midwest Freethought Conference included another practical session. (Okay, the session on secular parenting was practical, but not for me.) In this case, it was Adam Brown giving some background on marketing with atheist groups in mind. Here are the results from my live-tweeting of the session.

  • Adam Brown talking about how to advertise atheism in general and your group/events in particular.
  • Not comfortable about “perception is everything” slogan for this session, but it is the point of marketing.
  • Churches market. It reaches people. If we don’t market, we’ll miss reaching some people.
  • Atheists have “dick” reputation. Need to increase visibility of things other than (funny) blasphemy.
  • Lots of atheists in the closet. Getting them out helps.
  • If we don’t market, fellow atheists may not know that support is out there and available to them.
  • Who is our audience?
  • What do we want them to do?
  • How do we motivate them to do it?
  • Where can they see our message?
  • When do we deliver our message?
  • Shotgun (untargeted) marketing can reach a large audience quickly or a few people hidden (closeted) in a group.
  • Special event marketing can attract a broad audience. A creative event can be fun and carry a message.
  • Documenting what you do as a group is part of your marketing. Do a charity event? Put a description and pictures on your site.
  • American Atheist “You know it’s a myth” billboards being used as good examples of marketing.


  • “We have nothing to sell based on fear, except fear of wasting your life.” Humor is a better tactic.
  • Getting attention is good, but how do you want people to engage? What do you want them to do?
  • Atheism is growing. Makes a bandwagon appeal possible if your group is comfortable with it.
  • Don’t be boring. Don’t underestimate the power of good visual design.
  • “Come hang out with us because we’re so much smarter than you” just not a good marketing strategy.
  • Lots of funny in-group appeals not suitable for marketing. Save them for your Facebook friends.
  • Do not shy away from the term “atheist”. We have different emphases, but this is our uniting, umbrella term.
  • If you want your press release paid attention to, cultivate relationships with reporters. Have snappy headlines.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    pipenta

    Yes, yes, YES.

    You’re hitting all the nails on the head here.

  2. 2
    Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion

    I’ve been doing a little thinking about this kind of thing and as I’m a marketing newbie, my insights are probably incredibly obvious and useless. This is FTB however, where we’re free to spout nonsense as long as we expect to be called out on it, so here goes :P

    Wording. Billboards and bus signs and the like need short, punchy slogan-type advertising that conveys a clear message. the difficult bit is getting that message to come across in the best way possible. Let’s take “You can be good without god” for an example.
    “You can be good without god” is a good length. It is a decent message, though problematic in its use of the word “can”. You “can” implies that it is possible to do something, not that it’s something that comes naturally or is easy. This message could be taken as an apologetic – It is possible to be good without god… no, really!

    “It’s easy to be good without god.” Punchier and less passive, also gets rid of the apologetic nature of the word “can”. Now, though, the message has an assertive quality that, if the statement isn’t obviously true for viewers, will cause them to think about it (or dismiss it and scoff if they’re blatantly religious).

    “It’s easier to be good without god.” Takes the message a step further. More assertive and will annoy more people, but also cause more discussion. Good for an academic audience, perhaps – university campuses, maybe?

    Then you’ve got the word “god” itself. Do we pluralise it? Do we capitalise it? It’s all in the target audience. For a general population who are mostly religious, it might be better to calitalise it so as not to seem too mocking. For an academic environment, you might want not to capitalise and to pluralise it to incorporate a wider view and stimulate more thought.

    Anyway, that’s my little thing.
    Personally, I’d love to see a walk-by billboard or mural type pictorial advertisement as follows:
    Santa, the easter bunny and jesus all holding hands, skipping down the yellow brick road in a fantasy kingdom with unicorns, dragons and well-known fictional characters incorporated into the scene. Preferably make the background as detailed as possible, containing as many mythical constructs and mythological beings (gods, heroes etc.) as possible. It’d be a gorgeous piece of art and a very subtle and fun way to say that it’s all made up. It’d also draw people in to look at it. All it’d beed for advertising purposes would be a web address down the bottom.
    I’d do it myself, but I’m not sure I’d do it justice. Might give it a go sometime with help from some regulars here :)

  3. 3
    Josh R.

    The point that sticks out the most for me is the “Don’t shy away from the term ‘Atheist’.” (wow that’s bad punctuation. sorry)

    This has been the topic of a lot of debates (maybe debate is too generous a term) for me. The thing is, I agree. I think that Atheist is the right banner to gather under. Sure there are other terms that are possibly more descriptive or better suit certain individuals (humanist, rationalist, skeptic, freethinker, objectivist, secularist, bright<–so glad that never caught on, etc. ist ist ist) but none of those terms have as solid a footing in the mainstream lexicon as Atheist. Atheist just has an obvious meaning right out of the gate. There's a visceral quality to it. People know what it means. Sure, most people that aren't involved in "The Movement" might only have a shallow understanding. Something akin to "Atheists don't believe in [insert your favorite deit(y/ies) here]. But that's better than a term like Humanist which many people (in my experience) have sort of a fuzzy not-quite-formed definition of. (Like Hippies?) or Skeptic, which some people haven't even heard of with the capital S.

    So for better or worse, even with all of the baggage that the term has acquired partly because of it's ubiquity (<–is that a word?) I think that Atheist should be the rallying cry and the dominant description. We can add in the nuance later.

    (I kinda relate it to how different sects of Christianity all gather under that one umbrella. Even though that analogy doesn't quite fit in this situation. I actually see Atheism as a subset of rational thought but it gets to sit on top of the heirarchy because it's more recognizable.)

  4. 4
    punchdrunk

    @ Josh R.
    Not all rationalists, humanists, skeptics, freethinkers, and secularists are atheists.

  5. 5
    jman3030

    @punchdrunk

    Yeah, I know. The analogy to Christianity is a very bad one. I’m not sure what should be at the top of the heirarchy but I gather everything under Atheism because the main thrust of most, if not all, of these groups seems to be working towards a more secular society. The group working towards a more secular society with the most name recognition is currently Atheists.(I think) So I just gather everything under Atheism and let the nuance follow.

    I really don’t like being so broad and, let’s face it, incorrect by grouping everyone together like that but it just seems like the easiest way to do it. If we were to use a broader term that encompases Atheism without necessarily excluding those secularists that do believe in certain supernatural entities or phenomena first of all, I’m not sure which one it should be. Secondly, we then have to start (almost) all over to cultivate another Brand to be the public face.

    Atheism, while far (far, far, far) from perfect already has the benefit of being a recognizable Brand by most people. It occurs to me that that is akin to saying “Sure the food is terrible but you get huge portions at a low cost.” But then, I’m not much of an activist…

    I’m not sure where I’m going with all of this.

  6. 6
    Clarissa

    Keep telling believers how stupid and delusional they are!

    That will keep money coming in from atheist donors…American Atheists has that down pat.

    Of course, if help confirm peoples beleifs that athesists are dicks, but think of the revenue!

    SHOW ME THE MONEY!

  7. 7
    Stephanie Zvan

    Clarissa, you’re either putting someone else’s words with which you don’t agree in your mouth without disclaimers, or you haven’t read the post. Care to clarify which it is?

  8. 8
    jman3030

    Clarissa, if you’re referring to the billboards. It says that the billboards are a good example of marketing. Not that the billboards are an example of good marketing. There’s a distinction to be made there. (Though honestly that’s just arguing grammar and semantics. I don’t actually know whether they meant the latter when saying the former or not.)

    It also goes on to say:
    •“Come hang out with us because we’re so much smarter than you” just not a good marketing strategy.
    •Atheists have “dick” reputation. Need to increase visibility of things other than (funny) blasphemy.

    But then there’s this one that kinda bugs me:
    •“We have nothing to sell based on fear, except fear of wasting your life.” Humor is a better tactic.

    Humor is fine and dandy. (and useful and powerful when done correctly) The trick is to find something that your intended audience finds funny and not just you and your friends. They actually noted this:
    •Lots of funny in-group appeals not suitable for marketing. Save them for your Facebook friends.
    But the phrase that they used as an example of humorous just doesn’t strike me as funny. I think that they’re walking a fine line by trying to draw distinctions between the religious and the non-religious in a humorous way because it can too easily come off as just mocking believers which is a tactic that they are explicitly trying to avoid.

    An approach that I’d like to see would be something more along the lines of highlighting the similarities between the religious and the non-religious. Something like a Cialis commercial. A happy man plays frisbee with his family… you’d never know that he takes boner pills!

    Except our commercial/billboard/whatever would be: A happy family doing some quintessential American activity(eating apple pie at a picnic, throwing a frisbee at the beach, playing with the family dog, watching their child graduate…etc.) With a message similar to the “Good without God” line. Or maybe just some depiction of a professional just doing their every day work. Something that says: “It’s ok to live a life without belief in God(s).” Hi, I am just a normal person living my life every day just like everyone else and I’m doing just fine without a belief in the supernatural.

    I’m not in marketing but I’m sure somebody somewhere could get that message across without making it sound like some horror movie. i.e. They’ve already infiltrated every level of society… (like the Red Scare)

  9. 9
    jman3030

    Just to add that the point was that if we want more members that the message should be inclusive and inviting instead of divisive and exclusionary.

    Hey! Everybody’s welcome. Just please leave your religion at the door. You can pick it up on the way out if you still want it.

  10. 10
    davros

    Atheist marketing really is bad.

    One important reason not mentioned is that to the key to good marketing is a clearly defined brand. You need to know what you stand for and be able to express it very clearly and briefly. Then you need to keep using the same message (brand) consistently over time. Even if we occasionally say something that’s a little bit clear, its never pushed with any consistency.

    Effective marketing usually is controlled with an iron fist for clarity and consistency, and that’s what atheists will never do.

    I’ve no idea how to solve that…

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