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Faith-Based Ads Air During Super Bowl

Viewers could meet Jesus, boost their prayer life and confront antisemitism

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(RNS) — For the second year in a row, Jesus made an appearance during the Super Bowl.

The Christian savior was featured in a pair of ads during the big game, both with the tagline “He Gets Us.” Those ads — one ran in the first quarter, the other in the second half — are part of an ongoing billion-dollar ad campaign aimed at redeeming the Jesus brand at a time when people are losing faith in organized religion.

This year’s He Gets Us ads focused on loving your neighbor, a core Christian teaching, said Greg Miller, a spokesman for Come Near, a new nonprofit set up to oversee the He Gets Us campaign. The group’s name is drawn from a passage from the New Testament Book of James, which reads, “Come near to God and he will come near to you.”

Theirs weren’t the only Super Bowl ads that featured religion this year — in addition to the He Gets Us spots, there was an ad for Hallow, a popular Catholic prayer app, and an ad for a new campaign called “Stand Up to Jewish Hate,” aimed at confronting the rise of antisemitism.

Alex Jones, the CEO and co-founder of Hallow, said the timing of the Super Bowl, which was played on the Sunday just before Ash Wednesday, was too good to pass up. The app is currently promoting a campaign to get people to pray every day during the season of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday and leads into Easter.

Jones said the 30-second ad for Hallow was “a simple invitation to pray together.”

“Our hope is that it reaches out to someone who maybe hasn’t prayed in a long time,” he told RNS in an email. “That it might just allow someone somewhere an opportunity to let Christ into their hearts for the first time. If we can reach out to just one person like that — someone in a tough place, someone lost — and help them to begin a journey back to God, then yes, it will have been worth it.”

The antisemitism ad, sponsored by the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism, which was founded by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, featured Clarence Jones, an attorney who was a speechwriter and adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. A clip of the ad features Jones in his office writing on a legal pad as a photo of King looks on.

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“Sometimes I imagine what I would write today for my dear friend, Martin,” Jones said.

“With this ad, we hope to continue to spread Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of unity and equality at a time in which the country needs it most,” Kraft said.

The ad, entitled “Silence,” will encourage Americans to speak up in the face of hatred, claiming that “hatred thrives on the silence of others,” and will point out the rise in antisemitism. It’s part of an ongoing campaign called “Stand Up to Jewish Hate,” according to organizers.

Ken Calwell, the CEO of Come Near, said this year’s He Gets Us ads were also meant to address polarization and isolation rampant in American culture.

“We have a loneliness and isolation epidemic,” said Calwell, a former marketing executive for Wendy’s, Domino’s Pizza and Compassion International, the Christian humanitarian nonprofit that focuses on child poverty around the world. With a divisive election coming up, things are unlikely to get better, he said, and Americans are more likely to withdraw from one another.

In that environment, the best message to share is one about love, said Calwell.

“What I see in the gospels about Jesus is that he would seek out hurting people,” he said. “He would stop everything he was doing and make them the center of attention. They would feel seen by him — very valued and very loved.”

Calwell had been consulting for the He Gets Us campaign as it ramped up over the last few years. He became the full-time CEO of Come Near this past fall. The campaign had been run during its start-up phase by the Signatry, a Kansas City-based donor-advised fund for Christians, and recently became an independent nonprofit. The Signatry also funded Christian groups that focus on culture war issues, which has caused some controversy for the campaign, whose major funders include the founders of the Hobby Lobby craft store chain.

The 61-year-old Calwell seems well-fitted to the new role. A long-time marketing pro, he had a spiritual awakening as a young adult after being hit by a car while on a training ride for a triathlon. Calwell said he’d grown up going to church but hadn’t taken faith seriously until that accident.

After recovering, he became more active in his nondenominational church, volunteering and going on mission trips, eventually leaving his corporate career behind to work in the nonprofit world. Faith, it appears, is not another product he is selling but something he passionately believes in.

Calwell was in Las Vegas over the weekend, helping organize a “Hey Neighbor” outreach event, including a grocery giveaway and programs for kids led by NFL players. The idea was to demonstrate the kind of love that the ads advocated for, he said.

The Kansas City native got to celebrate his team’s win, as the Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Francisco 49ers 25-22 in the big game.

“I’ve been a Chiefs fan since I was 5 years old,” he said.

Jones, the CEO of Hallow, was a little more coy about his rooting plans. Prior to the game, when asked who he would be cheering for, he had a one-word reply.


Main photo: A “He Gets Us” football display ahead of the Super Bowl on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy He Gets Us)

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Bob Smietana

Bob has served as a senior writer for Facts & Trends, senior editor of Christianity Today, religion writer at The Tennessean, correspondent for RNS and contributor to OnFaith, USA Today and The Washington Post.