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 (Quick note: All the billboards have watermarked stock photos on them, but they would’ve been replaced by pictures of local atheists if approved.)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 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.