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In Anti-Xmas Battle, Atheists Take a Page Out of the Pepsi Playbook

The American Atheists group bought a billboard outside New York City's Lincoln Tunnel that shows the Christmas nativity scene under the headline "You KNOW it's a Myth," thus guaranteeing a phenomenal amount of media exposure for their PR dime. Whether it will de-convert anyone is another matter, but it does show that religious beliefs increasingly compete for customers through marketing just like supermarket brands.

Until recently, religions had largely stuck to promoting themselves. The Mormons ran a new campaign this year as did Scientology and the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family. The atheists did much the same thing.

But this year atheists have changed the game by adopting yet another page from the corporate marketing playbook: aggressive comparative advertising. Known to most people as "the Pepsi Challenge," comparative advertising is as much about running down rival brands as it is about promoting your own virtues. The American Humanism Association started a similar campaign earlier this month as did a couple of other non-religious organizations.

Although this marketing technique is as old as the hills in the business world, it's potentially frightening new territory for religious advertisers. Generally, religious people react badly to head-on criticism of their texts. People of faith tend to believe that because their ideas are sacred to them they should be shown respect even by those who do not believe them. Yet those people almost never show the same reverence for atheists' ideas. Some resort to terroristic threats to get atheist messages moved. Others refuse to give atheists the same advertising media that houses of worship routinely enjoy.

The American Atheists' campaign is thus uniquely aggressive because it lands a blow squarely on this contradiction, and does so right in front of Christmas, the Super Bowl of Christianity (in advertising terms).

The response of religious advertisers will be interesting to see. In business, brand managers react to price wars and advertising battles at their peril -- they tend to reduce profitability and detract from long-term brand building. As profitability isn't at stake in the battle for congregations, people of faith shouldn't feel shy about responding in kind.


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