Atheist Billboard Publicity Leads to Dramatic Increase in Attendance at Meetings

Back in December, the Blue Ridge Coalition of Reason (in Virginia) put up four billboards that looked like this:

It wasn’t long before two of the billboards were vandalized:

Dan Casey in the Roanoke Times points out that, instead of discouraging the atheists and turning people away from their cause, the publicity gained through the billboards has resulted in a dramatic increase in group attendance:

Since the billboards went up and the vandalism was publicized, “We’ve gotten 38 new members,” [Southern Virginia Atheists founder Justin] True told me. In other words, the SVA is more than 1,000 percent larger now than it was in September.

Another group, the Secular Humanists of Roanoke, have grown from 81 to 109 members in the past month, [Blue Ridge Coalition of Reason coordinator Paul] Hoyt said.

Huh. No mention anywhere of what the billboards looked like. It’s almost as if that didn’t make a bit of difference. Interesting.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    Maybe some of the new members are believers coming in in response to the (vandalized) version of the billboard that said “believe in God… Join the club”.

  • Simon

    If the group gained 38 new members and is now “1,000 percent larger”…they started with…4 members?

  • baal

    I’m sure that if a number of folks with god belief showed up to a secular group’s meeting, stood up, sat down, kneeled, sat down, stood up, threw money at every one and then left, the secular group wouldn’t necessarily mind.

    (note I intentionally left out the singing and other verbal acts )

  • John Small Berries

    Huh. No mention anywhere of what the billboards looked like. It’s almost as if that didn’t make a bit of difference. Interesting.

    Huh. Still no ACTUAL STUDIES or STATISTICS to support your assertion. It’s almost as if you think merely repeating an opinion will make it a fact. Interesting.

  • ruth

    And the billboards are decent billboards, not some goofy, wordy mess.

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    I would even be OK with them doing a little singing! (Depending on the songs… and depending how much money they had left in the coffers!)

  • Rob

    To actually answer the question of whether the design of the billboards makes a difference, you’d have to trial different billboards and then make a note of how many new members joined. Even that wouldn’t be properly scientific, because there are probably certain times of year when you’re likely to get more members (around Christmas, for example?) and you’d have to be sure that people had joined because they saw the billboards and for no other reason.

    You could also get a test group of people (from a mixture of religious and non-religious backgrounds), show them a variety of billboards and ask them to fill in a questionnaire, with questions like ‘after seeing this billboard, how likely is it you’ll join this organisation?’ You’d have to have an option for ‘less likely than before’ to see if any of the billboards were putting people off. I’m aware that this kind of study would cost money, but you can’t really confidently make statements like ‘it doesn’t matter what kind of billboard we put up’ unless they’ve actually tested it. It’s possible that with a different billboard, they could have got 86 new members instead.

    Even so, it’s good they’re growing.

  • This was my first thought…

    You put you left hand in, you put your left hand out,
    in out in out shake it all about!
    Give the secularist some money and show yourself out
    that’s what it’s aaaaall about!

  • Joy

    People with God belief would be totally welcome at a secular meeting. A secular state benefits them as much as anyone, especially if they’re from a minority religion or denomination. Religious states have always persecuted members of other religions. If they turned up at an atheists’ meeting, that would be odd, but as long as they weren’t handing out tracts or yelling at everyone, there’s no reason they couldn’t stay.

  • Octoberfurst

    Yeah, probably. :-)

  • abb3w

    The last meeting of the Charlottesville Skeptics (one of the groups under the umbrella) was up by about four or five new attendees, compared to the usual eight or so. There’s a lot of folk nominally associated through the meetup who attend only irregularly, and a few more who’ve joined the Meetup but not yet attended.

    UVA is still out for winter break/JTerm, so it’s not clear whether there’s any impact on the Virginia Atheists & Agnostics attendance (the local student group, also under the umbrella); I’m not sure if they’ll have the first spring semester meeting next week or the week after.

  • J-Rex

    And yet I doubt you would have been satisfied with a yellow cover for your book with comic sans font and a badly photoshopped picture of some random high school student.

    No one mentioned the design of the billboards partly because people are more likely to notice when things are done badly, and this one looks fine. You never go to a website to shop and say, “Wow, these fonts look perfect! I love the letter spacing!” Everything just looks correct, so you don’t think anything of it. However, there are plenty of websites that look like they were thrown together by someone with very minimal skills and you are more likely to click the “About” section to try and make sure that it’s legit.
    Of course graphic design matters a lot more when it comes to shopping, and not quite as much with some sort of club, but it still communicates a message and you want to be sure that you’re communicating the right message. This billboard is great and professional, but others say “We’re not well organized,” “We didn’t take much time on this,” or “We just meet up in someone’s basement.” I doubt we’ll ever hear about people who took no interest in local atheist meetings because of a billboard design because that’s not newsworthy, but it would not surprise me at all.

  • Hemant Mehta

    But I’m trying to sell my book. These billboards aren’t there to “sell atheism” (even if people think that’s what the purpose is). They’re up in order to get publicity for the groups. And they succeed.

    I still say bad design on an atheist billboard will get as much publicity as good design — because all that matters to the media is the message. It’s happened before; we know it works.

  • Jack

    It’s just a dig at that fool from pharyngula.

  • A3Kr0n

    “They headed into early December with about 33 members.”


    “We’ve gotten 38 new members,” True told me. In other words, the SVA is
    more than 1,000 percent larger now than it was in September.”


    1000% increase? I’ve never been good at math.

  • J-Rex

    Well obviously no one’s going to say “They’re billboard looks stupid, so I’m not going to be an atheist,” but we still have to “sell” it in the sense that we want people to come to meetings and be more active about their atheism, we want people to have a positive impression of atheism, and we want people to see that we are a growing influence.
    What works about this billboard is that it is simple, so everyone has time to read it when they pass it. The cloudy sky is calm and pleasant, influencing people’s emotions in a good way when they see it. And it’s neat and professional, which shows that we’re not just some small group of people that get together and complain about God; we’re a growing demographic and a force to be reckoned with.
    You’ll never hear complaints about the design of a billboard because you’ll never hear from the people who didn’t notice it was there or didn’t have time to read it because it had too much information on it. You’ll never hear a news story about someone who saw it, but it looked really cheesy and badly done, and they didn’t feel like joining a group that looked unorganized. You won’t hear about someone who saw a well-designed billboard and just felt drawn to it for some reason and took more time to read it and visit the website it mentioned. But just because you don’t hear about these things doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. It’s subtle, but the way we sense things does impact what we choose to think about and how we think about it.

  • John Small Berries

    Is it? Because he seems to be quite sincere in his assertions that billboard design doesn’t matter in this post. And in the comments here, he gloated that his comments about design went “unchallenged” (apparently he didn’t read very many comments on that original thread – or if he did read them, he’s suffering from some severe reading comprehension issues).

    For some reason, Hemant seems to be abandoning skepticism on this particular issue, and embracing the theists’ playbook: expecting people to simply accept his claim on faith, ignoring any requests for evidence, ignoring contrary views, and just making the same claim over and over again as if enough repetition will suffice in place of evidence.

  • Dan Casey

    Hemant, thanks for the plug for my column.

    It’s true the text column made no mention, “anywhere” of what the billboards looked like. That’s because it ran in the paper with three photos of the billboard (undefaced, defaced #1 and defaced #2) and it ran online with one photo (undefaced). When readers can see for themselves what something looks like, I usually avoid attempting to describe it for them.

  • chicago dyke

    i support groups of us meeting, but i don’t really have any impulse to go to one. this blog is good enough for me when i feel the urge to discuss atheist and religious news and opinion. i suppose if a person feels very isolated and surrounded by believers and has a hard time feeling safe about coming out as an atheist, they serve a purpose. but i gotta say that i have never been punished or ostracized for my lack of belief, and i’m pretty loud about it.

    once people realize they can’t make you afraid of their “god(s)” most of the time they back down and leave you alone. of course i realize that in some parts of this country that could be considerably more of a challenge.

  • Tom_Nightingale

    Former VAA member, class of ’08 here :)

  • abb3w

    “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

  • Eric B

    Interesting that this billboard actually looks professional. hmm. I wonder if people who perceive a group as more professional(even if only subconsciously) would be more likely to attend a meeting?

  • Kevin Bates

    UGH. We get that you have no eye for design, stop talking about it already!~

  • tootfoot

    I belong to a Humanist group in Portland OR – not exactly a challenging area to be a non-believer! The reason I attend is not so much to discuss atheist/religious topics, but to be part of a like-minded community. That’s one thing religious groups have going for them: community. We have a speaker every week on topics ranging from women’s rights to clean water to medical care to dragonflies, and I’ve learned a lot that I would not have otherwise. We also have social activities and participate in community service projects. You might want to give it a try!