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'He Gets Us': A Kansas campaign spent $20 million on Super Bowl ads to rebrand Jesus Christ

Workers prepare for the NFL Super Bowl LVII football game outside State Farm Stadium, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Matt York
Workers prepare for the NFL Super Bowl LVII football game outside State Farm Stadium, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

The black-and-white video opens with a young Black man, surrounded by followers, an “influencer” moving in a scene that looks like it's taken from the 2020 #BlackLivesMatter protests.

Then the man is shown hugging a white police officer and a voice says that “one day he stood up for something he believed in.” But the establishment tried to shut him up. The words “Jesus was canceled” flash on screen.

“They nailed him to a cross,” the voice says.

Titled “The Influencer,” the 30-second video was posted on YouTube in April and has racked up nearly 12.2 million views so far. It’s just one piece in the billion-dollar “He Gets Us” ad campaign, funded by what had been a quiet, wealthy non-profit called the Servant Foundation, an Overland Park entity that does business as The Signatry.

This Sunday, the “He Gets Us” campaign will air two ads during the Super Bowl,spending $20 million to spread the brand of Jesus as a guy who had empathy for the poor, was an activist, or who was just as sick of politics as the rest of us.

The campaign, which its creators say will ultimately cost $1 billion, attempts to remove the idea of Jesus as being owned by conservatives or a religious denomination, replacing the hate with a human who loves and forgives.

“This is a rebranding of Christ as a revolutionary,” said Gerard J. Tellis, the Neely Chaired Professor of American Enterprise at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.

The effort began in March 2021 with a question, said Jason Vanderground, president of Haven Creative Hub, a branding and marketing firm working on the campaign.

“It was a very troubling question, and it said, ‘How did the world's greatest love story become known as a hate group?’” he said.

“Actually, the brand of Jesus performs very well among the American people,” Vanderground said. “It's that his brand has become associated with some of these other things.”

Vanderground said the campaign was built around market research targeted at “spiritually open skeptics.”

“We found that when they look at Christianity, they see, unfortunately, hypocrisy and judgmentalism and discrimination many, many times,” he said. “And sometimes that's because those things have happened. Other times it's because that's really what's perpetuated through media, sometimes through tech, through academia, that to hold a belief is inherently to hate the other.”

Who’s funding "He Gets Us?"

So far, the only donor who has claimed ownership of the campaign is billionaire David Green, the founder and CEO of Hobby Lobby, which won a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case that exempted some companies with strong religious beliefs from providing employees some contraceptive care.

Donors to The Signatry want to remain anonymous, Vandergroup said, though he confirmed that Green and another 50 families are funding the effort.

Green mentioned the “He Gets Us” campaign in November to Glenn Beck, the conservative TV and radio host, saying the government is coming for Christians, who are seen “as the haters.”

“So we're wanting to say — we being a lot of different people — that he gets us. He understands all of us. He loves who we hate,” he said. “We have to let the public know and create a movement, really.”

Since the beginning of 2022, the “He Gets Us” ads have shown up online, on billboards, and during televised sporting events like NASCAR races and baseball and football games. The ads offer viewers the ability to connect with Bible reading groups, get supportive text messages or contact a local church, Vanderground said.

Tellis, the marketing professor, said he was impressed with the campaign because it does two things he tells his students to do: tell a story and be controversial, because both will bring attention to the ads. The campaign’s target audience is younger people who have more liberal views and often watch a lot of sports, he said.

But ultimately, Tellis thinks the campaign will not succeed, despite its religious underpinnings.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Tellis said, “because when these people go to these conservative places and hear the homilies, they’ll be turned off and they won’t go a second time.”

The campaign also risks turning off those who already believe. Natasha Crain, a popular Christian blogger and podcaster, was critical of the campaign because she says in emphasizing Jesus' relatable humanity, it minimizes that Christians also consider him to be divine.

“The Jesus of this campaign is nothing more than an inspiring human who relates to our problems and cares a whole lot about a culturally palatable version of social justice,” she wrote on her blog. “Because of this, He Gets Us has the potential to actually harm the public understanding of Jesus,” Crain wrote. “People need to know that Jesus is our Savior, not a compassionate buddy.”

How is the money spent?

According to its latest tax filing, the Signatry reported net assets in 2021 of nearly $977 million, and the group's $20 million for the “He Gets Us” campaign is hardly its only — or even its largest — donation.

By far its largest recipients are various donor-advised funds, which allow individuals to contribute to a non-profit that disburses the funds. One of its largest gifts in 2021 was $51 million to the National Christian Foundation, the nation’s largest Christian charity. Another $48 million went to Every Home for Christ, an international missionary organization.

The list of smaller grant recipients includes multiple individual churches, organizations devoted to spreading the gospel, Christian universities, anti-abortion counseling centers — often called crisis pregnancy centers — and anti-abortion groups, assorted faith-based museums, publishers, legal organizations and Christian fellowship groups.

A small donation, $5,000, went to the Academy for Climate and Energy Analysis Inc. in Shawnee, Kansas, a climate-change-denying group whose spokesperson is former meteorologist Mike Thompson, now a Republican Kansas state senator in Johnson County.

Assorted non-sectarian groups also received grants, including Children’s Mercy Hospital, the Kansas City Symphony, the Kansas Humane Society, the University of Kansas Endowment and the Jewish Community Center.

Other large grants include:

  • $20.8 million to One Hope Inc., an international ministry based in Pompano Beach, Florida. One Hope has partnered with Toy Gun Films, which Servant helped fund with $6.2 million.
  • $16.7 million to Alliance Defending Freedom, which is behind the campaign to limit legal protections for LGBTQ people.
  • $10.5 million to Answers in Genesis, a Kentucky group that takes a strict creationist view of the Bible and is known for its Noah’s Ark-themed amusement park and its Creation Museum, which promotes Young-Earth Creationism (the view that the Earth is only about 6,000 years old).
  • $8.5 million to the Life Church of Edmund, Oklahoma, one of the largest churches in the country.
  • $5.4 million to Maranatha Christian Academy in Shawnee, Kansas.
  • $2.4 million to Mid-American Christian University in Oklahoma City.
  • $2 million to Human Condition, an anti-abortion group.
  • $1 million to Live Action, an anti-abortion group.
  • $1 million to Campus Crusade for Christ.
Peggy Lowe is an investigative reporter at KCUR in Kansas City.
Dan was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and moved to Kansas City with his family when he was eight years old. He majored in philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis and holds law and journalism degrees from Boston University. He has been an avid public radio listener for as long as he can remember – which these days isn’t very long… Dan has been a two-time finalist in The Gerald Loeb Awards for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism, and has won multiple regional awards for his legal and health care coverage. Dan doesn't have any hobbies as such, but devours one to three books a week, assiduously works The New York Times Crossword puzzle Thursdays through Sundays and, for physical exercise, tries to get in a couple of rounds of racquetball per week.