This week, the Atheist Bus Campaign will learn if it is allowed to run ads stating, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life,” on Ottawa buses. The slogan first ran in London, England, and has now appeared in dozens of cities worldwide. However, OC Transpo management banned it in Ottawa last month. Council will now decide whether to overturn that decision.
I’m all for the atheist ads. That’s not necessarily because I agree with the statement, but because they will breathe life into the public sphere. But regulations do need tightening up.
Sophisticated advertising uses psychological pressure. Ads for beauty products, for example, often look to exploit personal insecurities about appearance. Yet the atheist campaign slogan hides nothing. The wording is fairly innocuous. It’s certainly a non-attempt to unconvert the converted.
Yet ads run on buses where the intent of the message isn’t just obscured, it’s hidden completely. Take the Alpha Canada campaign, an organization running introductory courses to the Christian faith. Alpha’s ads — which have run on OC Transpo — invite passengers to “explore the meaning of life.” God is not mentioned on the ad, but if you sign up for a course, it soon becomes clear the meaning of life centres on Him. Its aims are hidden. Why not be upfront and just mention God?
Then there’s Birthright, a crisis pregnancy counselling service that also advertises on Ottawa buses.
Birth-right’s charter includes a clause instructing its volunteers to, “never give any help, directly or indirectly, to any girl or woman to terminate her pregnancy.” The organization deliberately keeps a low profile on the abortion issue. “Birthright’s function is to help pregnant girls and women to carry to term,” the charter continues. “Many come to us because they believe we will help them to obtain an abortion. If we wish to reach abortion-minded girls, we must avoid getting involved in the abortion debate.”
Birthright’s bus ads, however, make no mention of its pro-life stance.
It’s a double standard when a slogan is banned, while ads with less obvious ideological intent are allowed. In an open public sphere, Alpha Canada and Birthright have as much right to advertise as the Atheist Bus Campaign. But regulations must be put in place so their beliefs are there for all to see.