Cinemas are private establishments, and so are free to advertise whatever they like and decline to advertise whatever they don’t like. Pearl & Dean dominated cinema advertising in the 1950s-70s, but multiple mergers and takeovers gradually depleted their market share, and their cheesy theme tune is now just one among a myriad of agencies competing for your money. The best ads, of course, are the memorable ones: they tend to play on fear, sex, thrills or journeys. If the advertisers want to target young teenage males, for example, they’ll inject the erotic, masculine imagery of adventure and aspiration. The more human and intuitively feeling the ad is, the more successful the brand campaign tends to be.
The Church of England produced an advert promoting their new website JustPray.uk, which seeks to create a digital place for prayer with advice on what prayer is and how to pray. The site also provides a ‘live prayer’ feed of prayers being prayed across the globe via Twitter, Instagram and Vine. The promotional 60-second advert features Christians from all walks of life praying one line of the Lord’s Prayer, and includes weight lifters, a police officer, a commuter, refugees in a support centre, school children, a mourner at a graveside, a festival goer and the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was to have been shown in cinemas from 18th December as part of the ad reel before ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’. Why not harness the Force for the power of the Lord’s Prayer?
But despite receiving clearance from both the Cinema Advertising Authority and British Board of Film Classification (a ‘U’ certification, no less), the country’s three largest cinema chains, Odeon, Cineworld and Vue – who together control 80% of cinema screens around the country – have refused to show the advert because they believe it “carries the risk of upsetting, or offending, audiences”. Which is a bit odd, when you think how many films they screen which carry the same or greater risk.
The Church of England has said it is “bewildered” by this “plain silly” decision. The Rev’d Arun Arora, Director of Communications for the Church of England, has issued a statement:
“The prospect of a multi-generational cultural event offered by the release of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ on 18th December – a week before Christmas Day – was too good an opportunity to miss and we are bewildered by the decision of the cinemas.
“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.
“In the meantime people should visit the site, see the film themselves and make up their own minds as to whether they are upset or offended by it.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury is said to have “reacted with fury”, telling the Mail: “I find it extraordinary that cinemas rule that it is inappropriate for an advert on prayer to be shown in the week before Christmas when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Billions of people across the world pray this prayer on a daily basis. I think they would be astonished and deeply saddened by this decision, especially in the light of the terrorist attack in Paris where many people have found comfort and solace in prayer. This advert is about as ‘offensive’ as a carol service or church service on Christmas Day.”
Well, quite. This isn’t about prohibition on the expression of ‘personal beliefs’ or the thresholds of advertising political views: it is about religious censorship. Cinemas are not subject to the same statutory restrictions as the public broadcast media: they are free to promote political parties and propagate religious beliefs provided that the Cinema Advertising Authority and British Board of Film Classification are both satisfied.
But as the Church of England ponders its legal options and assess whether it’s worth casting Pearl & Dean before swine, we might consider how many more millions might now hear of the ‘Just Pray’ campaign and experience the Lord’s Prayer – perhaps for the first time – courtesy of the BBC, Mail Online and the dozens of other news media outlets which will now pick up on this “plain silly” decision and broadcast it round the globe. ‘And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.‘ Perhaps the Rev’d Arun Arora is actually a communications genius.