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What’s the Deal With Those ‘He Gets Us’ Ads?

Stirring black and white images of very relatable people going through life’s ups and downs, ending with a spiritual encouragement: Jesus went through the same things you go through.

This is the basic look of He Gets Us, a new series of ads rolling out in what might be Christianity’s biggest marketing campaign of all time. You may have already seen them and if you haven’t, you will. Michigan-based marketing agency HAVEN | a creative hub, is leading the effort, and the rollout will rival the likes of Old Navy and Mercedes-Benz.

Like any good campaign, the message came after months of market research and testing. HAVEN President Jason Vanderground says he and his team found that while many people remain unconvinced about the benefits of Christianity, they still like Jesus. He’s hoping these ads can reflect the relevance of what Jesus said and how he lived for modern viewers. (Full disclosure: RELEVANT has partnered with He Gets Us.)

Vanderground sat down with RELEVANT to discuss the origin of these ads and what he hopes they accomplish. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

RELEVANT: Tell me a little bit about who you are and how you got into this work

JASON: I’m Jason Vanderground and I’m the president at Haven. It’s a creative hub, a marketing and advertising firm. I’ve spent my entire career working in marketing, advertising and branding, looking at both things in mainstream media and also how faith-based ideas can be represented there.

RELEVANT: In your experience, why is that gap between mainstream entertainment and faith-based storytelling so hard to bridge?

JASON: I think Christians have wondered what’s the best way to engage with culture. Some of them have said that we need to be battling culture. You hear a lot of war language. Other people have said, “It’s really God over culture, and God supersedes all those things.”

I think others say, “Let’s just keep our separation. Let’s keep our distance.” And there was a time where Christianity led many of the arts and the cultural things. It’s been many years since that happened.

So the great thing is we’re still finding that Jesus is incredibly relevant in culture. And so it’s just about being in the places where people are spending their time and finding relevant ways to connect Him to their lives.

RELEVANT: So that’s where He Gets Us comes into play, right?

JASON: Yeah. So the whole idea started with a problem statement: How did the greatest love story become known as a hate group? A lot of people in Christianity are focused on that now. And there are a lot of ways to answer that question. But I think there’s two main categories.

One would be, there are self-inflicted wounds that Jesus followers have caused to create that situation. So many times Christians have become more known for what they’re against than what they stand for. It’s no longer the thing that Jesus said, which is, it’s the way that you love and treat each other. Really, Christians are kind of known for what they stand against a lot of times.

But it’s also true that in mainstream media, there is a heavy push towards secularization and away from Jesus. Technology can reinforce that. Media can reinforce that. Academia can reinforce that.

So there are a lot of things that have been working to create that narrative, which seems to be pretty predominant today, that what was supposed to be focused on a love story is now more seen as being against others.

RELEVANT: So that’s the problem. What’s the solution?

JASON: The main goals of what we’re trying to do is, one, increase the respect and the personal relevance of Jesus, and then, two, as we do that, to call up Christians to reflect that authentic Jesus in how they treat each other.

And so we started last year. We did four to five months worth of research. And what we found was that skeptics, and even cultural Christians, weren’t so much interested in Christians, Christianity and the Church, but they very much still resonated with Jesus.

We asked them what their values were, and what historical religious figures they felt like represented those values. And Jesus was the one, far and away, that most connected with their values.

There were four specific things that people want for themselves today that they see reflected in Jesus, and the top one is seeking peace. To be able to make peace with yourself and peace with others around you, because the top pain point that people are experiencing now is toxic relationships. Many people used to have a certain way of being civil with with family, friends, sometimes even fellow motorists. But now, we’re so on edge with each other, even on the road. It plays out in every aspect of life.

So people are desperately seeking peace and they see in Jesus an example of someone who was able to create that with himself and with those around him.

But then there are three other values: approachable, compassionate and loving all.. Those three things go together. They see Jesus as very relevant to them. So, even though they are not fully engaged in religious activity or institutional Christianity, that value set that Jesus represents is very relevant to people who are on the fence about what they believe when it comes to faith.

RELEVANT: So, it sounds to me like you’re trying to try to talk to two groups. You’re trying to talk to the people who are unconvinced that Christianity is going to meet needs in their lives, and you’re talking to a Christian audience who see there’s more to your faith than a culture war.

JASON: Yeah, and the way that it works together is there’s a national campaign that’s rolling out. We’re getting ready to launch a 100 million dollar plus campaign. That’s the size of Old Navy or Mercedes-Benz. We’re launching that campaign. People will see it.

As we do that, we know that people are gonna see those ads. We’ve already had it happen based on our test campaign and they want to reach out for some conversation, but skeptics want to do that on their own terms.

I liken it to, you know, maybe you’re in your favorite store, but you have a really terrible salesperson in there. You love this store. But the salesperson keeps bothering you. That’s what the skeptics told us the Christian is in their faith journey.

So one of the other points of the campaign is to say, “Hey, as many more hundreds of thousands of skeptics reach out, let’s be ready as Jesus followers to speak skeptic. Let’s be ready to engage them on their terms. Let’s know some insights and some language to talk to them, just like you would if you were appealing to people anywhere else in the world.”

Because skeptics in the U.S. are unique. They have their own thoughts, their own ideas, their own vocabulary. Let’s engage with them on their own terms.

RELEVANT: When American Christians talk about evangelism, most of what you hear is how to tell somebody about Jesus who never heard of Him. Not really a problem that you find a whole lot in America. So what does it look like to talk to somebody who knows about Jesus, knows the story, probably isn’t even all that opposed to Jesus’ teaching, but just doesn’t want to take it beyond that?

JASON: Yeah, that’s a great question. So maybe an older model for this would have been, you would have a square, and maybe down the middle you would draw a line. On one side, you would have people who are not Christians. And on the other side, that person is saved. And all I need to do is get the person from the left side of that box over the line to the right side of the box
Not so much how it works with the skeptic today.

So what we’re finding is that there are actually two key bridges, and you can’t cross the second bridge until you get to the first bridge. The first bridge is all about mutual respect. It’s about values. It’s about really emphasizing the values that they respect in Jesus: seeking peace, loving, welcoming all.

But it’s also about seeing that Jesus respects them, that Jesus welcomes them as they are. They don’t have to change to approach Jesus. He just said, “If you’re tired of your current way of living, you’re welcome. Come to me, everybody that’s tired and worn out from what you’re doing.” There’s no prerequisite to just having that initial conversation. He respects you. He welcomes you. He wants you to come to Him.

So that mutual respect can take a lot of time to develop for some people. That could take decades for people. We’re trying to say, “Be patient, remember how God dealt with you in your own life.” It’s getting over that respect bridge.

After that happens, then you come to the Divinity bridge, where you start to realize who Jesus actually was. That He was God’s son. That He’s always been. That He is alive today. That He can impact your life in a very direct way. That you can have a personal relationship with Him.

But the divinity part of God and what He represents in Jesus, we’re finding that for the skeptic, that really comes after spending some time around this idea of respect.

RELEVANT: You mentioned that this all started with a problem statement about how this love story became seen as a hate group. Did you find an answer to that question?

See Also

JASON: There’s sin and evil in everything. It’s innate. It’s in every person. It’s in every organization. I think any organization that’s been around has this as part of their legacy. No one is free from it. This is our curse.

Sometimes, the trouble is that we put the focus on ourselves and say look at me as an example or follow me. But if we can just acknowledge that we’re all committing fouls. We’re all not treating each other like we should. The only person who did this perfectly was Jesus and to put the focus back on Him, we’re finding is very helpful for both the skeptic and the Christian.

The skeptic told us there are three main things they see within the Church and Christianity. One is judgmentalism. That’s great, because we don’t have to judge. That’s totally God’s job to figure out.

The other would be hypocrisy; that we just say one thing, but we do another. That’s human behavior. That happens.

And then third is the discrimination that Christianity has become known for being against women, against minorities, etc. And certainly God said everybody is welcome to come to me, and I think that’s how we’re trying to reframe things.

So getting back and focusing on Jesus — not on what we’re doing, not telling better stories about how Christianity is impacting the world, but telling the story of God’s design within Jesus, which is what the focus is always supposed to be on. Just refocusing on that, it’s such an appropriate solution for today.

RELEVANT: What have you heard from people who see it?

JASON: It’s been incredible. So we have a number of spots, TV commercials. One is Teen Mom,’ and it tells the story of Mary. She was a young teenager when she was pregnant with Jesus. In that first day or two after learning she was pregnant, I’m sure she didn’t fully understand what was going on. She had to figure that out. No one else on earth ever had this experience before. There’s no group that she could go and talk to. She had to explain this, probably to her parents, maybe to her friends, and not knowing what to say.

This commercial connects with Mary, and that idea of being young and vulnerable. I’ve seen older people in their sixties that said, “That’s part of my story. I was that girl at one point in my life. I never really saw that in God’s design for His own story of Jesus.”

RELEVANT: What are you hoping happens here, ideally? What sort of impact do you want to have?

JASON: What we’re hoping for is that we would just be available for people. The campaign invites people to a website called He Gets Us. And on the website, they can read all kinds of stories about how Jesus experienced anxiety, and what we can do in light of that. What did He do when He experienced a broken relationship? Also, Jesus let his hair down. You know, he was at a wedding and he turned water into wine. He had good times, too. And so when you’re in those moments, know that you have somebody that connects with that, too. It’s all aspects of life.

We’ve made available to people four main ways to get in touch with us. They can live chat with us. They can text for prayer and positive vibes. We find a lot of people will engage with that. They’re like, “I just want somebody else to know what I’m going through and if they could offer up some prayer on my behalf, that would be great.” No strings attached.

Another is to be able to connect with a group or with someone local to them. And then the fourth way is we invite them to read the Bible, to see Jesus in His own words, see what He did, see what He said. We invite them to click through and read. We have two seven-day reading plans on YouVersion that they can read.

So there are many different ways for people to get involved in the campaign.

RELEVANT: For people who are excited about what you’re doing, how can they help?

JASON: Prayer is the first way to start.

Also, please go to He Gets Us and get familiar with the campaign. I’m finding that many Jesus followers are encouraged just by seeing the ads themselves. And then also spend a little bit of time on He Gets Us Partners. Use the resources there to be an advocate. Encourage others around you to get ready to engage with skeptics.

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