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The Church awakens: Anglican leaders use the force of a marketing controversy

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been trending on Twitter and become staple media fodder – so far, so predictable. Less predictable perhaps, is that the Lord’s Prayer and the Church of England has too, after three of the UK’s major cinema chains refused to show the Church of England’s advert for before the new Star Wars film.

The press has attributed the refusal to concerns about causing offence to audiences, prompting religious media commentators (Giles Fraser), celebrity academics (Richard Dawkins) and that bastion of gaffedom, Boris Johnson, to gnash their collective teeth.

The 60-second advert shows a variety of people, from the Archbishop of Canterbury to a weightlifter sporting a “Tough Talk” T-shirt, recite lines from the Lord’s Prayer. The advert was cleared by the Cinema Advertising Authority and British Board of Film Classification, but Odeon, Cineworld and Vue, cinema chains which control 80% of screens around the country, have refused to show the ad.

Giles Fraser commented in The Guardian that “banning the Lord’s Prayer from cinemas is nonsense on stilts” and the cinemas’ decision “stinks of bureaucratic and commercial cowardice”. Ouch. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, never the wallflower when it comes to wading into debates on religion, has added his two penn'orth and backed the CofE advert. A spokesperson for David Cameron said the cinemas’ decision was “ridiculous”. On his “Ask Boris” Twitter hashtag Boris Johnson labelled the cinemas’ refusal to screen the ad as “outrageous”:

Smart move

It seems that a pay rise and a congratulatory email to the CofE PR team is in order. This controversy is a brilliant marketing manoeuvre. Amid the din of cries about a “ban” and the prayer “causing offence” and assaults on “free speech”, the advert has got more media traction than it would have if it had been screened.

The advert hasn’t received “a ban”. It was actually refused screening at these three cinema chains because Digital Cinema Media (DCM), which handles most of the cinema advertising in the UK, maintain this general policy:

Not to run advertising connected to personal beliefs, specifically those related to politics or religion. Our members have found that showing such advertisements carries the risk of upsetting, or offending, audiences.

In other words, the cinemas haven’t suggested that the advert is offensive, just that all political or religious advertisements “run the risk” of offending audiences. Semantics aside, few commentators seem to have realised that the real stroke of genius here was the CofE’s decision to put out a press release about the cinemas’ refusal, generating some serious press coverage and high profile media discussion and debate. That 60-second ad hasn’t half had some bang for its CofE buck.

A matter of free speech?

And they’re milking it for all it’s worth. Rev Arun Arora, director of communications for the Church of England, said:

The prospect of a multigenerational cultural event offered by the release of Star Wars: the Force Awakens on 18 December – a week before Christmas Day – was too good an opportunity to miss and we are bewildered by the decision of the cinemas.

Taking a similar stance to Boris Johnson by appealing to the cultural influence of the Lord’s Prayer, Arora goes on to say:

The Lord’s Prayer is prayed by billions of people across the globe every day and in this country has been part of everyday life for centuries. Prayer permeates every aspect of our culture from pop songs and requiems to daily assemblies and national commemorations. For millions of people in the United Kingdom, prayer is a constant part of their lives whether as part thanksgiving and praise, or as a companion through their darkest hours.

In one way the decision of the cinemas is just plain silly but the fact that they have insisted upon it makes it rather chilling in terms of limiting free speech. There is still time for the cinemas to change their mind and we would certainly welcome that.

Is the “chilling” aspect of this story the cinemas’ decision not to screen campaigns by political and religious organisations, or the seeming attitude of the CofE that it transcends such policies? The church seems to think it should receive special treatment and an exemption from general policy extended to everyone else because of its cultural privilege. Let’s #JustPray that’s not the case.

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