Protip for AA: Here’s how to do a billboard

I met the fine crew from Mid-Ohio Atheists at Reason Rally, where they proudly informed me of their upcoming billboard campaign. And it turns out they have reason to be proud. This is how it’s done. Clean design. A simple, easily processed message. No clutter. Just the facts, ma’am.


For the last few years, American Atheists have been throwing billboards up around the country, and pretty much all of them have been a preposterous fail. Setting aside the often poor and flat-out amateurish graphic design on most of them (bad choice of colors and ugly fonts), they have either made the mistake of thinking that a billboard was an appropriate format for launching a philosophical argument; or they’ve made baseless, idiotic assertions that have simply left themselves wide open to snarky theistic ripostes; or they’ve just been muddled and borderline incomprehensible (remember that the message of a billboard needs to nestle firmly and swiftly in the brain of someone driving past it at 65 mph); or they’ve clumsily attempted to make statements about religiously inspired racism, only to trip over their own execution and faceplant, with the result that they were interpreted as racist themselves.

Seriously, guys, stop this shit. You’re embarrassing us.

Why AA always manages to get something that should be so simple so flamboyantly wrong is a mystery. (Perhaps effective billboard advertising is an area where they’d rather fly their Dunning-Kruger flag instead of spending a few bucks hiring a media consultant or PR firm.) But in future, maybe they should consider playing to their strengths, like organizing conventions and rallies, and leave campaigns like these to people who know what they’re about.

Addendum: Justin Griffith has replied, and points out that the Mid Ohio Atheists billboards were in fact produced with the assistance of AA. While it isn’t clear if designers Elliot Fuller and Brandon Adams are themselves AA members or graphic designers hired by the organization, it does appear that AA has taken criticisms of their past billboards to heart (the slavery one came in for some harsh opprobrium, really) and improved their message. So I appreciate Justin’s corrections and regret any unfairness on the part of my own criticisms based on misinformation.

Addendum the Second: Michael of Mid Ohio Atheists writes on their blog that AA did help MOA, by kicking an around 25% of the billboards’ costs, but that Justin overstates their involvement:

So Justin’s claim when referencing Martins original blog post that “Mid-Ohio Atheists billboards that he praises were in fact American Atheists billboards” isn’t 100% true. American Atheists were part, but only a small part and while we are extremely thankful to have had them involved I can’t help be reiterate the tireless dedication to this project that I witnessed from our President Ron Stephens and the other members of our group.

While I apologize to any individual(s) whose efforts might have been slighted by anything I wrote in my OP — though I’m really not the first or only one to point out that AA’s older billboards were not especially professional efforts, and I stand by my opinions of them in that regard — I guess it’s good that the record is getting set straight.


  1. RickRay says

    I think the atheist billboards are great! Not perfect, but great! At least they deal in reality, unlike the theist ones that deal in fairy tales! Don’t be so f……..g critical! We’re just starting for C……sake!

  2. says

    Since when is “dealing in reality” the only criterion that matters for advertising success? Taco Bell food isn’t healthy, but if you put a shot of some of it on a billboard looking delicious, you’re going to sell a bunch of fucking 99¢ tacos.

    The goal is to get across a clear message effectively. This the AA billboards have emphatically not done. A message that alienates rather than resonates is the very opposite of “great.” No one is above criticism. If you can’t do billboards well, find something else you can do well and do that instead.

  3. says

    Yeah! This is how it’s done. Simple, easy to read as you’re zipping by on the highway, doesn’t leave a giant opening for a wise-ass parody by the theists. AA has been putting up crap billboards for what feels like forever.

  4. terrycollins says

    As long as the message is promoted by atheists, many believers will think it is evil. Instead, atheist groups should covertly pay for the billboard promotion of non OT-based gods. A major part of my “conversion” was learning God was just one claim among many.

  5. m6wg4bxw says

    Atheists designed a billboard that looks like it has already been vandalized.

  6. says

    Unlike the theists, we have limited resources. I think it’d be best to make sure those resources are used as wisely as possible.

  7. says

    Whatever their intent may have been, what I was describing was their result. Clearly they did not succeed in their intent, which makes them a big fail.

  8. Justin Griffith says

    I’m the Military Director for American Atheists. I liked some of what you said, but hated a lot of it. I responded here.

  9. anon atheist says

    As he says in the video AA membership is up 25 % and he credits this to the billboard campaigns and he considers this to be a success. This is one of the results.

    I don’t see how you are criticizing the results. As far as I can tell you can only be criticizing two things. Either that these billboards did not have the intent you wanted them to have which is not a valid criticism or that the intent of the billboards was misunderstood and that this misunderstanding had negative consequences. But for that last part you need to provide evidence. And I want to stress here that the last billboard you mentioned was not from the AA.

  10. anon atheist says

    It was paid by AA but it does not belong to the generic AA campaigns Silverman was talking about.

  11. Rilian says

    I don’t see how anyone could have thought that the slavery billboard was promoting slavery.

  12. says

    I would LOVE to see an ACA billboard. The mind wobbles at what it might look like and say, but also the GUTS needed in order to pull that off would be impressive. After all this…

  13. says

    Justin, it seems a little disingenuous to take credit for the Mid Ohio billboards, or to claim that the are, in fact, American Atheist billboards. It seems the success of the message and graphic design of the Mid Ohio billboards is based entirely on the work of those few members in Ohio, and not on their affiliation with the larger organization. The fact is, the billboards produced in the past by AA were not as good. I say this as a graphic designer, as an atheist, and mostly as a guy who really REALLY wants to see us get this kind of thing right.

  14. says

    How is AA embarrassing us? If their billboards are that bad, and I don’t think they were, the only ones they embarrass are themselves.

    So if we follow that logic, if the MOA billboard are terrible, those of us down in Florida should be embarrassed by what happens on a billboard in Ohio?

    If a Baptist church in California puts up an incredibly moronic billboard, then all Baptists are up for humiliation?

    How about you take David Silverman at his word for what his intent was and believe him when he says his goal was satisfied.

  15. says

    People do tend to make associations, however sensible that may or may not be. Look how many Christians try to discredit atheism as a whole by bringing up Stalin and Pol Pot…because it’s totally our responsibility what some nasty dictators did 40-60 years ago. A good message helps us all. A bad message hurts us all, even if we didn’t endorse it or have any part in its creation.

  16. says

    Simply because someone makes a ridiculous association doesn’t mean we have to validate it.

    I simply do NOT agree that a bad message hurts us all. That’s nonsense. You are giving way too much power to one group or billboard and stating it represents EVERY atheist. Poohucky.

    Does WBC represent ALL christians?

  17. 'Tis Himself says

    If Silverman’s intent was to put up sucky billboards then he achieved it. If Silverman’s intent was to advertise atheism in an intelligent, thought-provoking way, then he failed miserably.

    I have a mental image of Silverman presiding over the Billboard Design Committee of American Atheists. He opens the meeting with a challenge: “How can we design a billboard that sucks even more and offends more people than our last one?”

  18. Martina says

    They should have a billboard design contest with the winner receiving a gift of art supplies or a scholarship… maybe also a science billboard? Engaging the mind through art and science seems more productive than just a pedantic message to the masses.

  19. Rusty says

    Protip for skeptics – when evaluating ads, first take the time to discover the strategy behind those ads and then evaluate the ads against that strategy. Otherwise your criticism appears dishonest and irrelevant.

  20. says

    WBC doesn’t, but the homophobia practiced by them and (to a less insane but still appalling degree) the Family Research Council, American Family Association, and, hell, pretty much anyone on the political right these days has become so inextricably identified with Christianity that when people these days hear the word “Christian,” the first thought in their heads is usually, “Oh, those people who hate gays.” Which is a rather distressing fact for liberal Christians who don’t. Christian homophobia is listed as a central reason that so many Millennials (college kids today) are leaving Christianity in droves.

    So yes, the actions and viewpoints of one subset of a group can and often does color general public perception of the whole group. It’s reality, not “poohucky.” Just pay attention to what goes on in the world, and you’ll see it happening all the time.

  21. says

    We had one of those COR billboards in town a couple of years ago. You know, “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.” I was interviewed by Channel 8 News about it.

  22. MarkB says

    As much as I loved them, they weren’t uniquely ACA themed…it was part of the coalition’s national campaign. I’d love to see one that the ACA folks would come up with personally.

  23. Rilian says

    I’ve read about that, too.

    That blog entry seemed to be saying, as far as I could tell, that that billboard was racist because it was a picture of a black person put up by white people. I don’t see how that’s racist.

  24. says

    I think Sikivu’s main point was that when people from outside the black community (you know, white people) try to deliver a message of supposed solidarity with that community, without it even occurring to them to make enough of an effort to understand the community well enough to know what kind of messages resonate and are received favorably, the result is usually considered patronizing and insulting for its sheer cluelessness, however good its intentions may have been.

  25. says

    Um, I think there was actually a lot more to my response than that. Of course, if you just want to ignore all of it but my last sentence, and then choose to interpret that as some kind of personal attack, I suppose that’s your prerogative.

  26. Brandon Adams says

    Hey Martin. Thanks for the post. I am one of the graphic designers who designed one of the new MOA billboards. I initially approached them on their website to try my hand at redesigning their original attempt at taking a local church’s billboard, using the same message, and turning it into an atheist billboard. I am not an AA or MOA member — just a guy who’s a fan of the atheist community at large. I wasn’t hired, but offered my design as a donation of sorts. Elliot’s design was chosen from a contest they held. Hope that clears things up.


  27. says

    Telling me to pay attention to what’s happening in the world is assuming that I am not and it is patronizing and condescending. That you don’t see that as personal attack on me is disturbing.

    I am keenly aware of what is going on in the REAL world. Anyone that knows the slightest bit of info about me wouldn’t have made such a statement.

  28. says

    Rhetorical Tricks You Should Think Twice About Using, #628: When someone points out flaws in your argument, make the discussion all about you and your hurt feelings.


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