These Atheist Billboards Were Deemed ‘Too Controversial’ for Salt Lake City, Utah

American Atheists has their big 2014 National Convention coming up next year in Salt Lake City, Utah, and they wanted to put up a billboard to generate some publicity for the group and the event itself. But the Salt Lake Tribune reports on the ridiculous rejections AA has received when it comes to putting up its billboards. It appears that an atheist sign — any sign — will rub Mormon residents the wrong way:

AA officials say they called nine Utah companies looking for three to five billboards to promote September’s early-bird rates, but after repeated attempts, only two called them back.

[AA public relations director] Muscato said Reagan Outdoor Advertising told him they’d pass, and YESCO, after first rejecting a play on the church’s “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign, then nixed three other submissions that made no mention of Mormons

In an email to Muscato, a YESCO employee wrote that his ad director signed off on AA’s resubmissions but that the company’s sales director and president declined the contract because “it was deemed to be too controversial for our Salt Lake market.”

“Too controversial”? I know AA has a reputation for ads that generate all sorts of hate-mail, but how offensive were these billboards?!

Here’s the first one that was rejected, presumably for using the word “Mormon”:

Okay… so I guess it’s mean to mention that some people might have left Mormonism?

But what about the other three that made no mention of the “M” word? (Quick note: All the billboards have watermarked stock photos on them, but they would’ve been replaced by pictures of local atheists if approved.)

All rejected. All deemed “too controversial.” In fact, YESCO even went a step further when writing to the newspaper:

In a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune, YESCO wrote: “We believe that our medium is an effective outlet for free speech. However, we balance that with a strong commitment to adhere to community standards and to ensure that the messages we advertise are not offensive towards any business, group or individual. … In rare instances, we reject advertisements that we find to be misleading, deceptive or offensive to the moral standards of the community.”

Misleading. Deceptive. Offensive.

Not a single word on that list applies to these billboards. The signs are completely honest, not-at-all adversarial, and don’t even come close to criticizing Mormonism!

You can bet YESCO and the other companies would have rejected the “Kittens are cute” billboard that Skepticon put up in Missouri last year:

There’s just no excuse for this sort of behavior. These are private companies, so a legal solution may not be an option, but keep in mind these same companies put up religious billboards all the time. Yet, show them ads portraying atheists as kind, normal, respectable members of the community and they can’t run away from the money fast enough.

As Dave Muscato said in the article, this isn’t just discrimination — it’s bad capitalism. If there was any backlash against these signs, the bad press wouldn’t be directed at the ad companies. It would go against the boycotters and their incredibly thin skin.

To paraphrase one commenter, though, free press in the newspaper may be better than expensive ads on the side of the highway. I hope AA keeps submitting increasingly inoffensive ads to these companies. Let’s see what else they’ll reject. Hell, just reword the ads so they say that some students are Jewish. Or Hindu. Or Muslim. Anything but atheist. Let’s see the companies reject those on account of being offensive. Then, they’ll find out what a real boycott looks like.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Gus

    Wait, the American Atheists convention will be in Utah!? Awesome.

    Of course we all know that our very existence is deeply insulting to religious people, pointing it out to them is even worse.

    I would point out that the first sign that doesn’t use the word “Mormon” might as well, since the word “elder” in a heavily Mormon area has a very specific meaning that is not “people old enough for Medicare”. So I can see why that one might be rejected on the same grounds that the one that does mention Mormons. Not that those grounds are particularly legitimate in the first place.

    I wonder if you went a step beyond even the kittens billboard and proposed one with no picture whatsoever, just the text from the black bar at the bottom of these billboards. Pick nice colors and fonts, and keep the AA logo, but have no other adornment, just plain text nicely laid out that says:

    American Atheists National Convention.

    April 17- 20, 2014.

    Hilton Salt Lake Center

    atheists.org.

    They should try that, just to see if they’ll take any ad whatsoever.

    • guest

      Remember, BYOB!

      • Lurker111

        Bring Your Own Brain?

        • ShoeUnited

          Bring Your Own Billboard

    • Ashley

      You said that your “very existence is deeply insulting to religious people.” I find that both sad and funny. First, sad that you think I am insulted by someone disagreeing with me. Second, arrogantly funny because you think your thoughts will/do have a sway over my emotions. It isn’t the case. I guess I’m what you would call “religious” as I am a Christian. I’m not offended by your existence, are you offended by mine?

      • Gus

        To anyone who finds billboards 3 and 4 above offensive. To any number of religious people who feel the need to comment on atheists and how evil we are, ranging from the Pope (yes, he made such comments almost immediately before the slightly more polite comments suggesting that heaven isn’t completely off limits to us under the right circumstances) to any number of pastors and representatives and run of the mill believers of a large number of sects. No, I don’t think all religious people think that way, but it’s widespread enough and comes up often enough when atheists have the simple temerity to state proudly that they exist that I feel no need to parse my words to exclude the “good” religious people.

        Arrogant? You think I care about your thoughts or emotions enough to want to have sway over them?

      • redjon

        If the existence of atheists isn’t what was offensive about the signs, then what was offensive?

  • KMR

    The first one would probably be considered by every religion to be controversial simply because it gives a simplistic view of de-conversion which no religion wants to acknowledge. The second billboard mentions the word “elders”. The Mormon faith has elders in their church so it kind of reads like the church has a problem with closet atheists in their midst. They do of course, all churches do, but no one wants to think it’s their leadership. I’m stumped on the last two. Can’t think of anything that could be even remotely construed as controversial about them. Maybe it’s because the atheists look happy? Everyone knows religious people are the happy ones, not atheists ;)

    • Ms Morlowe

      I actually thought the de-conversion on the billboard showed the struggle to find a new identity: I read each of the words crossed out as identifiers that had fit for a while, but left a whole; or as someone coming to terms with their lack of faith: I’m Mormon….well, I don’t go to church, or really believe in God anymore…I suppose I’m an ex-Mormon, but well…Okay, I’m comfortable identifying as atheist.

    • smrnda

      I find it comical to be have Mormon ‘elders’ who appear barely old enough to be out of high school out trying to recruit people.

    • midnight rambler

      The second billboard mentions the word “elders”. The Mormon faith has elders in their church so it kind of reads like the church has a problem with closet atheists in their midst.

      But this one is sort of a word play. The Mormons who are most often referred to as “Elder” are very young men, not those in the leadership like most churches. The billboard shows a couple of actual elderly people.

      • KMR

        I’m not misunderstanding the point of the billboards. I am saying I understand how at least two of them could be viewed as controversial.

  • C Peterson

    I’d reject that sign, too. It makes the entire region look uneducated when they can’t even spell “Moron” correctly.

    • MKW

      Agreed, I never could figure out why so many people in Utah and surrounding area always spelled it with 2 M’s. But then again what do you expect from people that call 18 year old missionaries “Elder”

    • Art_Vandelay

      Hemant should make down-votes public so I can smite the person that down-voted this comment.

  • Jasper

    I wonder how far they’d get rejecting an Ad for some Black social group in a heavily racist area for being “too offensive to the morals of the community”.

    It’s a clever loophole… just swap out “religious discrimination” for “it’s offensive to the community”, and tada! Anti-discrimination laws circumvented.

    • Art_Vandelay

      They’d never have the audacity to utter such a thing about another group. Atheists though? Free pass…as always.

  • WallofSleep

    “Yet, show them ads portraying atheists as kind, normal, respectable
    members of the community as existing, and they can’t run away from the money fast enough.”

    Fixed that for greater accuracy. ;P

  • SansDeus

    “offensive to the moral standards of the community.”

    Apparently anything including mention of Atheist is going to be offensive to the large mormon community; it might cause their kids to ask what an Atheist is and that might challenge the parents to give an honest answer. Or their kids might use the internet *gasp* to look up what Atheist means. Then they’ll realize that some guy reading from gold tablets that nobody else ever saw is complete bologna. Then they’ll want to make sex with animals!

    • Jim Smith

      The last sentence made me laugh, and then think of Clerks 2..

      • SansDeus

        Hey!

  • MKW

    “…will rub Mormon residents the wrong way…”

    I’m assuming the right way to rub them is under their cloths but above their magic underwear?

    • C Peterson

      I’m pretty sure they consider it a sin to be rubbed the right way…

    • Utah Joe

      Yep, this kind of insult is exactly what would help bring two groups closer together.

      These signs were rejected by private companies, not by the LDS people as a whole. I’m Mormon, and would have no problem with these signs. I welcome opportunities to learn from other ideas than my own.

      But go ahead. Make fun of us for wearing weird underwear. Call us morons instead of Mormons. Call our leaders frauds. Insult out intelligence because we believe differently than you. All you’re doing is giving ammunition to the people that choose to reject Atheist billboards.

      Or you could try something different. You could try to find where have things in common, not where we have differences. Your call.

  • Timmah

    They should of just gone full out and had a billboard of Joseph Smith bent over looking into a glowing hat and “LOL WUT” in the lower right corner.

    • JET

      I giggled…

  • Baby_Raptor

    Apparently Atheists aren’t individuals. Turning down the billboards and then talking shit about us certainly is offensive.

  • eric

    Going along with the kittens theme, I’d be interested to see if AA got rejected if they changed the last three signs just to have convention info paired with the couple/family/student pictures. Maybe something that just reads “Join us for the American Atheists convention. [Dates, Location]” with some nice, smiling people next to it.
    I bet those would be rejected too.

  • Jim Smith

    Maybe if they had a picture of an Atheist eating the head off of a chicken while spitting at the bible and have the ad saying “Don’t let your kids use the internet”, it would have been posted all over Utah.

  • Hagrid

    Some people just need to grow up

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    These are the descendants of people who built their mountain fortress-kingdom to be safe from persecution, and also to be safe from having their beliefs challenged in any way. To them, anything that challenges their beliefs in any way IS persecution, so anything that just says that atheists exist is a threat and persecution, and they defend themselves. They won’t accept any billboards containing the word “atheist,” even with kittens, puppies, or “Please drive safely.”

    I think it’s likely there is a strong social-political machine run by powerful church and government officials that quickly pressured every billboard company to reject anything from American Atheists. I’m quite surprised that the Salt Lake City Hilton accepted hosting the convention. Maybe they couldn’t find a way to avoid a lawsuit.

  • SattaMassagana

    The reddit exmormon forum also had their billboards rejected by every local company, things like:”If it wasn’t true, would you want to know?- mormonthink.com”

  • Pofarmer

    Considering that about the only Christians I would say are crazier then teh Catholics are teh Mormons, who would be surprised?

  • guestpest

    It sounds like this billboard company could use some competition.

    • SattaMassagana

      *9 billboard companies

  • Mitch

    I’m guessing the last three were rejected because they introduce the controversial concept of “thought.” That’s some serious evil to be putting up in a good, decent, Mormon area.

    On another note, aren’t the religious always pushing to “teach the controversy?” I’m smelling me some double-standard bullshit here.

    • David Kopp

      You’re just now smelling that? I thought that double-standard was the de-facto scent of religion in this country. All people are equal, but the religious are more equal. Didn’t god send you the memo?

      • Mitch

        Sorry, no. Me and the G man/woman/thing/group (?) haven’t really been on speaking terms for a while now.

  • islandbrewer

    …offensive to the moral standards of the community.

    Wait, isn’t Utah the biggest consumer of porn in the US?

    http://consumerist.com/2009/03/05/which-state-consumes-the-most-online-porn/

    Maybe the billboards just need more porn.

    • Timmah

      It was uh, research. YES research on how naughty the rest of the country is.

    • http://www.molestedcatholics.com/ John A Brown

      I get the image of Morons hiding behind curtains fapping madly while fearing the pending inevitable doom coming as Atheists approach the town

    • midnight rambler

      Note that that study is about how many people pay for porn, not how many people view it. I think it’s highly likely that people in Utah are a mix of really honest in paying for the porn they download, and not savvy enough to find it for free.

      • Stev84

        The Mormon church also made it impossible to buy porn in good old brick and mortar stores. So people have to make their sex-related purchases online.

      • islandbrewer

        So, Utavians are dumb but honest porn consumers.

        Ok, that’s one hypothesis …

        • 3lemenope

          Perhaps a simpler hypothesis would be merely that Utah has the most porn consumption in the above-35y.o. age bracket.

          Everyone younger knows how to get it for free, and pretty much nobody younger is willing to show anyone older how to get it for free. Because awwwwkward.

  • Cincinatheist

    So when will YESCO be changing their name to NOCO?

    • phantomreader42

      I’d say they’d need to be sued first, but “Sue NOCO” is already taken.

  • Mick

    “it was deemed to be too controversial for our Salt Lake market.”
    Translation: “We might get boycotted and lose money – and we’d rather be rich than fair.”

  • Bode

    It’s fine for these scumbags to beat us over the head with their noxious fairy tales. They don’t mind treating us like dog shit because we don’t believe in their bronze age myths. But denying us the right to put up a sign as innocuous as these is beyond wrong. The ACLU needs to intervene immediately.

    • Dave Muscato

      Or even… American Atheists… ;)

  • guest

    Billboard wars. SMH.

    • JohnnieCanuck

      Google told me what your SMH acronym probably means, but I kind of like my first attempt.

      Smiting May Happen.

      • Insanitydividedby0

        My first time seeing it, I thought it meant Shit May Happen. But in the context that it was used, it made no sense.

      • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw/ m6wg4bxw

        I also needed a reference. Stereophonic marmoset homunculus.

  • Matt D

    I’m amused when any religion professing truth makes efforts to suppress views that differ from their own. It’s one of the reasons I became an Atheist, actually.

  • AFabulousAtlantanAtheist

    I guess being gay and atheist, merely existing in a community must make me doubly offensive to those poor persecuted Xtians.

  • bismarket 1

    “Moral standards of the community”? Hmmmm, that statement speaks volumes.

    • Stev84

      Unfortunately, it’s a common legal principle in the US. At least when it comes to judging what’s is “obscene”.

  • h2ocean

    nit-picking a bit here, but the one with the family isn’t ideal; at least one of the kids in that image (probably 2) aren’t really old enough to have a clear opinion either way.

    • Insanitydividedby0

      When we are born we don’t believe in any deity until we are told to, so technically he is an atheist until he is old enough to choose for himself.

      • h2ocean

        I guess because Dawkins and others emphasis so much that it is absurd to label kids with a religion when we don’t label them as liberals or conservatives etc., I am a bit sensitive to us being/being seen as hypocritical in that regard. Fair point though. Never really thought of that!

        • Insanitydividedby0

          No problem. Wow this has been the nicest response anyone has given me to a reply. It has made my day! It is silly because I never mean anything bad by my replies because I always love when someone is nice when they respond to me with something else. It is so rare though that I can’t help but point out how nice this has been and in only three comments too..lol. Although this page has the nicest people, mostly because those who know I am an atheist elsewhere tend to already be on the defensive. I really wish I still lived in Utah now, because it would be really nice to be able to go to the convention and actually be in the same room as likeminded people.

    • redjon

      And yet, there would be no problem showing a picture of children going to church with their parents not being old enough to have a clear opinion.

      Pesky double standards, anyway.

      Do atheist families not have the same rights as religious families?
      Well, no. Religious families, for one thing, can appear together on billboards.

  • rg57

    “These are private companies, so a legal solution may not be an option”

    You bet there’s a legal solution. These companies are providing a service available to the public, and yet they are restricting access based on religious (or non-religious) viewpoint. That’s a big, big no-no.

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw/ m6wg4bxw

    Hemant knows many religious people are offended by the mere existence of atheists and atheism. It’s naive of him to claim that billboards about atheism, posted in areas with high religiosity, aren’t offensive.

    • Sandrilene

      It’s possible for an atheist billboard to be offensive. But I really don’t understand the problem with any of the notices depicted. They’re not insulting religion, they’re just acknowledging the existence of atheists.

      • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw/ m6wg4bxw

        I agree, but it’s a risk for a business to deal with someone the community dislikes. This is speculation, but the billboard companies might be trying to avoid a religious boycott. Losing one atheist client is better than losing many (or all) religious ones.

        • Niall Hosking

          Right, but if you start even saying that the existence of something is ‘offensive’, then you have to deny whole swathes of reality.
          I mean, imagine how many Teabagger states would find mention of the existence of a ‘taxman’ as ‘too offensive’? (But not of course government handouts to the rich.)

          • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw/ m6wg4bxw

            I don’t understand the relationship you suggest between describing something to be offensiveness and denial of reality.

  • TrueBlue42

    Sorry, Hemant; I don’t buy it. Yes, I’m an Atheist; yes, I agree that YESCO is wrong to refuse to display these billboards, but it’s completely naive to think they would have ever approved them. While I personally agree that the boards are not “misleading, deceptive, or offensive”, your claim that “not a single word on that list applies to these billboards” isn’t a claim you can make for everyone, especially not for a company ad exec in Salt Lake City who knows his/her bread is buttered by the Mormons who live in that city. Even if they shouldn’t have been offended, it’s obvious that they WOULD have been offended by these boards, so your point is lost.

    AA needs a better publicity plan than this; if/when they come up with one, I’ll consider supporting AA. Until AA improves, it’s just not worth my time and/or money.

  • Jimmy Rustler

    “Misleading. Deceptive. Offensive.
    Not a single word on that list applies to these billboards. The signs are completely honest”

    The billboards use stock photos and claim the people in them are atheists. That there is deception.

    • Atheist Bunneh

      “All the billboards have watermarked stock photos on them, but they would’ve been replaced by pictures of local atheists if approved.”

      • Jimmy Rustler

        Oh. I didn’t see that bit. I retract my previous statement.

    • redjon

      Oh, oops. See comment below.

  • Lindsey S.

    Salt Lake is pretty much the most liberal and open minded place in the entire state too. Ponder that for a while.

  • pagansister

    It seems the city is fine with renting a venue for the group to hold it’s meetings and renting motel/hotel rooms to the members of the group, because financially they will benefit from that, huh?

  • redjon

    It was YESCO, in case anyone is interested, that erected Harold Camping’s “Judgment Day, May 21, 2011″ signs in the I-15 corridor. Nothing “controversial” or “misleading” or “deceptive” there, eh?

  • Utah Guest

    Bad capitalism? Rule #1 in sales/advertising is know your market . Rejecting those billboards as written was good capitalism for those companies for the SLC market. Not everywhere is like NYC, San Fran or LA.

    Just promote atheism as a choice without making reference to anything LDS, Utah based or whatever. It would work better in religious markets anyway.

    • Utah Guest

      even just a billboard announcing the convention date and location, then inviting the residents to attend, would work better. Open invitations are sort of a Utah thing.


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