News and analysis
January 15, 2015

Presbyterian Church Pulls Ads Skewered as Racist and Demeaning

The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. released the above ads in order to drive donations to its Special Offerings effort, a four-times-a-year fundraising campaign.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is backpedaling on a suite of fundraising campaign ads that some members of its community have denounced as racist and demeaning.

First made public in December, the ads were an attempt at a "provocative" rebranding of the church’s 2015 Special Offerings, a four-times-a-year fundraising effort that supports antihunger, disaster response, and other programming.

One ad features a photo of a young Asian girl with the words "Needs help with her drinking problem" in boldface behind her. In smaller type toward of the bottom of the ad are the words, "She can’t find water." Another ad features a young man with the message "Needs help getting high," followed in smaller type by "above the flood waters."

Sam Locke, director of Special Offerings for the church, issued a statement of apology Monday, saying, "We strive for excellence in our work and are deeply sorry when we miss the mark."

In an email to The Chronicle on Thursday, he said it is always his team’s process to solicit feedback.

"Clearly in this instance we were not as tuned in to those important voices as we should have been, and we deeply regret that," he said.

The ads were intended to subvert stereotypes about individuals who might benefit from services like those provided by the church and to increase the approximately 50-percent participation rate in the Special Offerings, according to Mr. Locke.

But critics said the ads were not only confusing, they actually perpetuated stereotypes about minorities and women while also alienating individuals struggling with issues like substance abuse. Ads featuring a woman with the primary message "Needs to be put in her place" and another with a middle-aged man stating "Needs help buying drugs" are especially upsetting, they said.

"We want to be a safe place where women who are suffering from domestic violence are able to come," said Sung Yeon Choimorrow, a lay church leader in Chicago. "But when you see a poster that says, ‘Put her back in per place,’ how would you feel safe coming to that church?"

Another ad featuring a black child with the words "Needs help with recurring anger issues" followed in smaller text by "His country’s" was apparently scratched after the topic was deemed too sensitive.

Backlash within the Presbyterian Church, which has a membership of 1.7 million, began to grow late last week after the ads became a point of discussion at a meeting of the church’s Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns, in Louisville, Ky. Critics took to Facebook and Twitter under the hashtag #NotMyOGHS and called for the ads to be pulled.

"Part of the goal in rebranding special offerings was to reach out to a younger audience that doesn’t normally participate in Special Offerings," said Rev. Kerri Allen, a hospital chaplain in Chicago. "I’d say they have had some success in getting the attention of that demographic, but the attention is all negative."

The ads were designed by an Indianapolis-based marketing firm called xiik. Mr. Locke said they will be revised by next week based on input from "a variety of Presbyterians." The first shipment of materials went out to about 300 churches on the West Coast last Friday. The ads were to be inserted in bulletins, among other uses. Shipments have been suspended, and the churches that already received the materials have been directed not to use them, Mr. Locke said. It will cost about $65,000 and four weeks to replace the printed materials.

The anger about the campaign should be no surprise to Mr. Locke and other leaders, said Ms. Choimorrow, Ms. Allen, and others. In fact, the decision makers had plenty of warning. The ads were previewed for various church constituency groups and staff members starting in the fall, and multiple people expressed concern.

"One of the larger concerns that people are having is there is no accountability," Ms. Choimorrow said. "Sam just gets to say, ‘Sorry, I guess I should have listened to you.’ He is acting like this is the first time he has heard that these are inappropriate. I would really like the higher-ups to take a look at what went wrong."

Mr. Locke acknowledged he has received feedback on the ads when they were still in draft form but said he believed the concerns had been sufficiently addressed.

"We had already made revisions to the draft pieces as a direct result of the feedback process," Mr. Locke said. "We know now that their concerns ran much deeper to the campaign as a whole."

Ms. Choimorrow, who is Korean-American and is married to an African-American, described her concerns as "very personal." Her infant daughter could someday soon look much like the young Asian girl depicted in the ad, she pointed out.

"I really don’t need a bunch of Presbyterians thinking that my young daughter has a drinking problem," she said.

Some are calling for a more substantive apology and a thorough examination of how and why concerns about racism and sexism voiced by individuals who look like those featured in the ads were ignored.

"It is problematic, especially from a denomination that is 90-percent white." said Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, who from 2008 to 2010 served as moderator of the general assembly, the highest elected position in the Presbyterian Church. "It felt like we were saying, ‘We are beyond this [stereotype], so we can play with it,’ and I think that is a gross overestimation of where we are as a denomination."

Correction: An earlier version of this article included two sample advertisements considered by the Presbyterian Church (USA) with a caption stating that one of the ads was released and the other was not. Neither image was released as part of the church’s ad campaign. 

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