Pro-tip: first check to see if yours was ‘pro’ and/or ‘tip’ at all

Martin Wagner over at the Atheist Experience blog lashed out at American Atheists (AA).

For the last few years, American Atheists have been throwing billboards up around the country, and pretty much all of them have been a preposterous fail. Setting aside the often poor and flat-out amateurish graphic design on most of them (bad choice of colors and ugly fonts), they have either made the mistake of thinking that a billboard was an appropriate format for launching a philosophical argument; or they’ve made baseless, idiotic assertions that have simply left themselves wide open to snarky theistic ripostes; or they’ve just been muddled and borderline incomprehensible (remember that the message of a billboard needs to nestle firmly and swiftly in the brain of someone driving past it at 65 mph); or they’ve clumsily attempted to make statements about religiously inspired racism, only to trip over their own execution and faceplant, with the result that they were interpreted as racist themselves.

Seriously, guys, stop this shit. You’re embarrassing us.

Why AA always manages to get something that should be so simple so flamboyantly wrong is a mystery. (Perhaps effective billboard advertising is an area where they’d rather fly their Dunning-Kruger flag instead of spending a few bucks hiring a media consultant or PR firm.) But in future, maybe they should consider playing to their strengths, like organizing conventions and rallies, and leave campaigns like these to people who know what they’re about.

Whoa whoa whoa…

I ‘work’ at AA. I totally agree that our first round was visually lackluster – to put it mildly. When I came on board here, the relevant people were unaware that their billboards were so unanimously hated in the ‘internet atheist crowd’.

I said “They think you make billboards in MS Paint.”

They said “We never hired a person to do them, I see your point.”

So we have a different situation than many might assume. What is actually going on is volunteers doing what they can, maybe when they shouldn’t have. Keep in mind, this may be a past-tense problem… more on that in a bit.

In defense of American Atheists (and our network of volunteers), we have been doing a lot of good. FYI – the ring leader behind the Reason Rally that Martin praised was David Silverman, President of American Atheists. We probably aren’t always going to put the best possible billboard out, but hey – we are listening. I’ll pass along Martin’s article to the leadership at American Atheists. Some of the things you say needed to be said at some point.

Just remember – you’re dealing largely with volunteers in a somewhat nebulous environment. Many on the crew are not used to the quality control and self-reflection that the internet hate machine provides. I’ll even post this on the American Atheists Facepalm page despite the butthurt it might generate. It’s easy to get defensive even when your critics are right. On the other hand, American Atheists has publicly available phone numbers and are very approachable. Nastygrams like this are not necessary.

Pro-tip: the billboards you praised are from American Atheists

Martin praises the Mid-Ohio Atheists for their amazing billboards, rightfully so. Unfortunately, he fails to realize that the Mid-Ohio Atheists billboards that he praises were in fact American Atheists billboards. Yeah… not sure what to say about Martin’s ‘pro-tip’ now.

Here’s another billboard from the same campaign he praises as being much better than AA’s billboards.

Pro-tip: check to see if your pro-tips are, in fact, ‘pro’ and/or ‘tips’.

Despite all this, we could definitely use some help! American Atheists is too awesome of an organization to ignore these criticisms – albeit they are speaking of our earliest billboards for the most part. You can help though! We’ve got a massive campaign for Pennsylvania.

We’re  trying to draw attention to the state House’s recent designation of 2012 as “The Year of the Bible” Fuck everything about that – help us! Here is how you can help with the new campaign:

  • Pick a (short) passage in the bible that’s ridiculous. There are many. New Testament, even better!
  • All artwork must be creative commons or original design.
  • The very bottom sliver must say “American Atheists – Reasonable since 1963 –” (or very similar)
  • Dimensions must scale to 20′ x 60′ (USA – ‘feet’!) – it’s best to send in a web version like a .JPG and a lossless high quality version like a .PDF
  • Submit high-quality graphic design concepts to the right person. Please also leave links in the comments section so that others can see your awesome work.
  • ‘Like’ us on Facebook to get the word out about our ‘good’ billboards. (whatever that means)

I’ll even sweeten the pot. If your billboard is used you’ll get a free t-shirt and a one year AA membership. Please spread the word. American Atheists runs towards the gunfire. Even if it’s fellow atheists firing.

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  • ‘Tis Himself

    You mean AA and His Holiness St. Silverberg have finally realized that their billboards were absolute shit? There must be a god because this is an absolute miracle. I had the idea St. Silverberg and his cronies sat around a table arguing about “how can we make this next billboard even more worthless and offensive than the last?”

    I was particularly impressed when numerous blacks complained about the slavery billboard and St. Silverberg sneered at them for not getting the point.

  • Justin Griffith

    SAINT SILVERMAN! GET IT RIGHT OR PAY THE PRICE! I’ll put a shitty billboard up in your backyard.

  • Thank you for the corrections. I have posted an addendum to the original blog apologizing for any errors.

  • Cyndi

    Question. What did Martin say in praise of the Ohio billboards? That seems to be left out of this post. You mention THAT he praised them, but not WHAT that praise was.

  • Justin Griffith

    @ Cyndi: Martin wrote this, after posting a picture from OUR campaign.

    “I met the fine crew from Mid-Ohio Atheists at Reason Rally, where they proudly informed me of their upcoming billboard campaign. And it turns out they have reason to be proud. This is how it’s done. Clean design. A simple, easily processed message. No clutter. Just the facts, ma’am.”

  • Justin Griffith

    @Martin – We’re good, man. Thanks for saying that in your post. To be sure, there are some criticisms that are undeniable about our previous campaigns. As far as American Atheists, the same sentiment can probably be applied to ‘American Airlines’… or even ‘Pepsi’, etc. Seriously – Crystal Pepsi?!

    I think you were trying to do this, but let me finish with this: If you see a problem, don’t mention it without a (viable) solution.

    No worries. Let’s talk about it on AXP or something. Sound good?

  • Ward

    the very first link in the very first sentence takes you to Martin’s article in toto, where you can read the praise in person.

  • Carl

    Blah Blah Blah American Atheists put up ten times better bill boards than any theist ever thought of at least they have balls.

  • Umm… The Mid-Ohio Atheists billboard looks odd to me. Saying “There Is No God.” followed by a sentence that says “Don’t believe everything you hear.” is telling the reader to disregard the first sentence.

    Perhaps “There Is A God?” would have been a better first sentence?

    BTW, asking the critic to provide a viable alternative solution is not really fair either. Criticising is not necessarily being snarky, so shutting down the critique by saying “well, YOU do something better then!” is just going to remove the talentless (eg: me) from providing feedback. I don’t need to be a copy writer to be able to see that something is wrong.

  • F. Bacon

    Not really sure who vets any freethought billboard. As an atheist, I am often confused: Should I not believe there is no god, as the Ohio one suggests?

    One recent billboard proclaims “You don’t need God-to hope, to care, to love, to live”, as though the group believes in a god and as though “God” even is a thing at all.

  • Brian Westley

    I have to object; reddit isn’t the internet hate machine, that’s 4chan’s job.

  • TwoPiDeltaIJ

    The justification you (Justin Griffith) give, that the billboards are largely made by volunteers in a nebulously structured work environment does not refute the idea that an actual PR agency (or something similar) should probably he hired in the future (given that from past results the volunteers are not secret PR or graphic artist savants).

    The idea that people in an atheist movement do not realize or understand that the rest of the movement will criticize them for perceived faults is a problem I did not know our movement had. I thought we were sort of known for having no one be above criticism.

    The example of another billboard from the same campaign is also terrible. So I guess AA only slaps their name on them when they suck? That example specifically falls for the problems brought up in the post by Martin Wagner.

  • Justin Griffith


    I see your point. Can you please help us, though? The religious organizations we’re up against literally throw away tens of millions of dollars on campaigns like this every month.

    You are correcting me – and I see your point… seriously. But can’t you also *HELP* by submitting a superior product? Martin’s post fails because he cited a ‘good billboard’ as being better than all the ‘bad billboards’ at American Atheists… but the ‘good one’ was American Atheists.

  • Justin Griffith

    @Brian Westley

    It’s un4chanate that I can’t reveal how much I may or may not have at some time or another (or anever) staffed at other chans.

  • TwoPiDeltaIJ

    Thanks for a prompt reply.

    I think that like many in the movement the answer is no. I am a scientist (a physicist if its important), and I like many people can see bad graphical design when it is presented to me. Unfortunately, that does not give me the gift of creating good design. So, aside from donating money, no I doubt I could contribute. On the point about donating though, I do not feel inclined to give to AA because they keep pissing me off (see the list of advertising and communication failures in Martin’s post).

    The quip about the ‘good’ example that might in fact be an AA billboard but doesn’t say that it is causes other problems. So if it is an AA billboard you guys have a lot of marketing problems, like failing to put your brand on all your products. So again, Martin’s post was spot on. That one example was good, and no where on it was an AA link or any other indication of affiliation. How would anyone know that you guys have fixed your “we made our billboards in MS paint” problem if you do not put your branding on your good billboards?

    I am sorry if you see this as merely further correction, but in my view correction is one of the few services I can provide.

  • I have no graphic talent, but:

    2012 is ‘The Year of the Bible’?

    Please DO read it from cover to cover,

    then try to tell me God = Love.

    2012 is ‘The Year of the Bible’?

    Please DO read it from cover to cover,

    Pretty nasty, eh?

    2012 is ‘The Year of the Bible’?

    Only if it is cherry-picking season.

  • Justin Griffith

    I appreciate your specification. I’d expect no less from a man who says “I am a scientist

    Too bad I drank too much alcohol tonight to do anything besides vicariously live through music. Maybe that’s a metaphor for AA, eh?

    We are seeking improvement. We need some. Martin had many great points. But you don’t have to be a scientist to help out. We’ll throw out some past to make room for some more future. Or something.

  • Oh, I can’t wait to clear my plate and get on some of this action!

  • Pierce R. Butler

    At least AA hasn’t been taken over by Karl Rove’s less-talented little sister…

  • A rising line o text as in the sign above indicates optimism, so it might be one way to reinforce the idea that atheists are as happy as anyone else, maybe even happier.

  • Pattip

    Also find the mid-ohio atheists billboard to be very confusing. I read it the same way as the previous poster (felt like it was telling me not to believe the (there is no god message). I also think that if these billboards are to reach anyone, they need a positive message, not simply one that criticizes religion.

  • Justin Griffith


    >2012 is ‘The Year of the Bible’?

    >Only if it is cherry-picking season.

    Loved it!

  • 13ruce

    God hates crispy delicious…