If you live in Indianapolis, Houston or any one of the other cities that has a billboard advertising The Chosen, you may have spotted some unusual changes in recent weeks. The straightforward ads marketing the story of Jesus by way of prestige TV sported faux-painted graffiti with schoolyard taunts like “The Chosen is boring” and devil horns and a goofy mustache, all directing people to a website called Chosensux.com.
— TheChosen (@thechosentv) April 12, 2022
Chosensux.com redirects to a pretty entertaining Screwtape-esque video of a classroom full of goofy demons trying to figure out how to stop The Chosen while fully admitting that they’re hooked on the show. You can watch it below. It’s pretty funny.
This is all standard marketing campaign stuff. The Chosen is doing well and can afford this sort of buzzy publicity.
But if you’re looking for a juicier angle, you might suggest that it was part of a deliberate effort on the part of Christians to cosplay as persecuted as a way of drumming up clicks and support. “A Christian television show badly underestimated the concerns of its audience—or understood them all too well,” suggested Slate, which wrote that the Chosen creators “either underestimated—or savvily played upon—Christian ideas about religious persecution,” according to Molly Olmstead.
Only Sky Media, which reports from on “the human experience from a secular point of view,” had a similar take. Hemant Mehta wrote that The Chosen was astroturfing their own backlash, attempting to convince viewers “that people were so furious about the show that they vandalized the billboards so that Christians wouldn’t watch it.”
“Christian vandalism is just as predictable and bland as Christian media,” Mehta wrote. “If you wanted to vandalize the billboard, you wouldn’t draw a cartoonish mustache on Jesus, sign your work ‘The Devil,’ whine about the show’s ‘stupid plots,’ or use the phrase ‘poopy butts.'”
That’s true. Real vandals wouldn’t do that. Which is probably why The Chosen‘s publicity team didn’t think anyone would seriously believe this was the work of actual vandals. “Fake vandalism” is an old billboard trick. Back in 2008, “the Joker” defaced a bunch of Dark Knight posters, and the WB was rightfully confident that nobody would call the police to investigate a clownish vandal who had it out for Batman movies.
It’s easy to see why one might speculate that this marketing campaign was playing to a certain evangelical notion of American persecution. American Christians do love a good persecution yarn, and given the lack of actual persecution in the U.S., are prone to fanfic’ing their own. In 2021, a PRRI study found that 60 percent of white evangelicals rather adorably believe that there is “a lot” of religious discrimination against Christians in the U.S. Undoubtedly, plenty of influential people from church leaders to politicians to entertainers have milked a persecution narrative for their own bad faith ends.
But if the creators were intending to fool their audiences, why did they almost instantly own up to it? Creator Dallas Jenkins ended up apologizing, because too many fans felt hoodwinked by the gag. “I want to apologize to you who are watching who saw those billboards, as a core, passionate, loyal fan of the show, and felt defensive of the show,” he said. “And didn’t know that this was us, didn’t know that this is part of the marketing campaign.”
“Our core fans, when they first saw those billboards, got really upset,” Jenkins said in a later interview. “They were calling billboard companies and going online to really criticize the dastardly people behind it.”
Both Slate and Open Sky reported on the apology, but didn’t let it get in the way of their suspicions that Jenkins was up to something.
It’s true that some fans seem to have let a persecution narrative color their interpretation of what was happening on the billboards. But to the average reasonable person, this all scans as a perfectly innocent gimmick. And even if it didn’t, you need only follow the provided link to see what was going on. Christians have been guilty of forming persecution narratives in the past, but there is just no indicator that that’s what was going on here.