When David Morring was thirteen, it was rare to find him without a notebook in his hand. He’d sometimes write about life in his small farming town in Alabama, but mostly he’d jot down sketch ideas that he hoped could someday take him to New York, where he dreamed of working for Saturday Night Live. He filled notebooks with dark humor, bits he’d file away for future use. Later, in college at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, he studied advertising and it all clicked. “I realized, this is my Saturday Night Live,” he tells Texas Monthly. “I can make people laugh through commercials about toothpaste or potato chips and do thirty-second comedy skits on TV and get paid for it.” His work eventually took him to a bigger city: Dallas, where he writes copy as a creative principal for Lerma. Today he lives in one of Dallas’s suburbs, Richardson.
Over the years, his style evolved from gallows humor to something more heartfelt—if you saw his commercials for Orkin pest control (featuring a giant cockroach butting in on a couple’s hot-tub time and rats playing Guitar Hero), you almost wouldn’t believe it came from the same creative brain as an earnest Christmas ad for Hobby Lobby. But one thing didn’t change—even now, at 58 years old, Morring has stayed faithful to his Moleskines. “I keep a notebook and pen by my bed,” he says. “I often write at four a.m. or whenever an idea hits me.” And it was in these pages that he came up with the name for He Gets Us—a campaign funded by the Servant Foundation, an organization backed by the Christian fund the Signatry—which he says aims to rebrand and “reintroduce” Jesus to America. “I looked at the word ‘Jesus’ and saw the word ‘us’ at the end,” Morring remembers. “I circled that part. I said, wait a second . . . he gets us—we’re all in his story. I wrote those three words down in my notebook because I thought, Maybe there’s something there. That was the impetus.”
Now, through billboards, commercials, and merchandise, the He Gets Us campaign targets a group its literature calls “spiritually open skeptics” and young people who’ve fallen away from Christianity. Ads designed by Morring and other creatives at Lerma attempt to relate to the audience by saying that “Jesus felt alone” and “let his hair down” too. Jesus also threw dinner parties (the Last Supper) and was “fed up with politics.” (“Back then, it was Pharisees and Sadducees,” the site notes. “Today, we have conservatives and liberals.”) And this weekend, the campaign will culminate with two ads worth about $20 million in total that will run at the Super Bowl, a He Gets Us spokesperson confirmed.
Morring—who refers to himself as “a believer”—wrote the two ads airing Sunday. In fact, he—along with his creative partner, Ryan Beals, who describes himself as a spiritual “skeptic,” according to Morring—has been deeply involved in sixteen out of the seventeen He Gets Us video ads that have aired so far since the program’s test launch in late 2021. During the writing process, Morring says, the pair would check each other’s differing faith perspectives, creating a tension he says was “magic” and part of why the ads have resonated with so many people. And they have reached people—as of February 5, He Gets Us videos had been viewed a total of 2.98 billion times, with 1.75 million folks actively engaging on the website, a He Gets Us spokesperson told Texas Monthly. At the Super Bowl, the team anticipates an additional 450 million impressions. Morring also attributes the success to the campaign’s “authenticity.” “We didn’t want it to sound like it was coming from a church,” he says. “Like those billboards you see on I-35 when you drive between Dallas and Austin. This is not another ‘Jesus Loves’ campaign or ‘Where are you going to go after you die?’ . . . The goal is to reintroduce Jesus in a fresh new way.”
The campaign does that in part by featuring social content littered with hashtags such as #RealLife, #Struggle, and #Activist, seemingly designed to entice millennial and Gen Z could-be Christians. On the website, you can find He Gets Us caps and T-shirts that cannot be purchased with money, but only through spiritual capital, which can be gained by doing a good deed such as forgiving someone or helping a new neighbor.
But will a rebrand of Jesus change the public perception of some of his followers? Olivia Julianna, a twenty-year-old activist from Houston and an organizer for Gen Z for Change, is skeptical. As a teenager, Julianna came out as queer and became an outspoken abortion activist; like many in her generation, she felt judged by evangelical Christians for her beliefs, even though she has always identified as a Christian. Julianna says she’s seen similar messaging in Christian youth initiatives she’s participated in; she says she worries the He Gets Us campaign will connect folks with Christians in their communities who won’t provide a safe space. “Especially growing up closeted and being told God hates gay people, I’m very hesitant to embrace youth-targeted Christian activities, because I know the ones I participated in when I was younger only pushed me further from God,” she says.
Connection with Christian community is part of the campaign’s goal: ads direct viewers to the website, where they can “connect with someone local.” When asked what would happen if a queer person came to the site and filled out the form, Jason Vanderground, president of the branding firm Haven, which directed the campaign, responded vaguely. “In every situation, we try to understand the person, and we want to connect them with the person who is going to just be best to serve their needs,” he said. “And so, everybody is unique; everybody is different. And we’re very multicultural; we’re all different, but that’s what we have in common. And so we just want to understand who that person is, and be able to connect them with the right person for them.” He added that there is a “huge” team to make sure people get connected. When asked if He Gets Us will work with denominations that don’t accept LGBTQ individuals, Vanderground said: “We’ve really made a point of not taking sides on issues.”
He Get Us claims to be apolitical and nondenominational, although through the Christian fund the Signatry, part of the campaign’s $100 million backing comes from individual donors, such as billionaire Hobby Lobby cofounder David Green. (Hobby Lobby, under Green, famously took on the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate in a landmark Supreme Court case, winning the right to free exercise of religion for privately held corporations.) Morring’s company, Lerma—which landed three ads total in the Super Bowl this year—is the ad agency of record for Haven, the Michigan-based branding company that directed this campaign, according to Lerma founder Pedro Lerma, of Dallas. Haven has reportedly been involved with campaigns for other Christian organizations such as the American Bible Society and the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal group that the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled an anti-LGBTQ “hate group,” though the organization has disputed this. (When asked directly about this connection, Morring said: “I have only worked with Haven on He Gets Us and have never had any connection with ADF. . . . Lerma was founded on inclusivity and our work reflects that.”)
On its partners website, He Gets Us says the campaign does not have its own statement of beliefs—a list of religious tenets common to denominations and religious organizations—but that it does ascribe to the Lausanne Covenant, a statement drafted and signed at a 1974 gathering of Christian leaders from around the world that defines the basics of evangelical theology and practice.
Lerma says he sees He Gets Us acting as a kind of olive branch to connect a public that’s staunchly separated by politics—one that will bring people together despite their differences. Lerma, who is also a donor to the campaign, says his own political beliefs are “center left.” “I’m a believer, but, in a lot of ways, I’m also very secular. . . . I understand how to be a bridge between these two worlds,” he says. “This campaign, to us, is about inclusivity and it’s not about condemning anyone.”
But rather than holding the middle ground, Tony Keddie, an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, says the campaign simply has different codings to appeal to folks on both sides of the political aisle. “There’s no such thing as an apolitical interpretation of Jesus,” he says. For instance, one commercial, whose tagline is “Jesus was a refugee,” pays homage to arguments over immigration at the border, though it notes on the site that Jesus eventually returned to Israel. Meanwhile, another video proclaiming that “Jesus was canceled” evokes feelings that might entice more-right-leaning folks who have feelings about accountability culture. “They’re trying to say they’re not political, which is a long-standing strategy of Southern evangelical politics,” says Chad Seales, another Religious Studies associate professor at UT-Austin.
Morring admits that some of the campaign’s visuals were inspired by political messaging. For example, he says the agency took inspiration from photographs of the civil rights movement. It also included a black and white photo of a protest sign reading “God Hates You” in one ad. “The irony is that in Christianity, we profess that God loves you,” Morring says. “That sign seems completely antithetical to what Christianity stands for. That sign represented people using the name of Jesus, or God, in a way to judge and harm and divide and to alienate. To us, that sign was a way to speak to skeptics or people who’ve been marginalized or feel hurt by religion or Christianity. . . . But we also thought it spoke to like-minded Christians who say, ‘You know what? That doesn’t reflect what I believe.’ ” The campaign’s “problem statement,” incidentally, was “How did the world’s greatest love story in Jesus become known as a hate group?”
Both Vanderground and Morring say they realize the goals of He Gets Us have raised—and even furrowed—the brows of some Christians who don’t like the idea elevating Jesus’s humanity above his divinity, as well as those who believe the campaign has a hidden right-wing agenda—something He Gets Us has attempted to refute with a post on the site titled “He Gets Us has an agenda.” The project “is going to cause people to be skeptical or cynical and it’s going to have its detractors,” Morring says. “But we’re really trying to be very careful and purposeful in how we deliver this message, and realize that we’re doing it for the right reason and for the right motives.”
Despite questions about the campaign’s agenda and the money behind it, Morring believes in the message of this campaign almost as much as he believes in the power of storytelling—and in God. “Look,” he says. “Naturally, people are going to say, ‘Follow the money.’ I understand that. There’s this natural suspicion that if somebody’s doing something and they’re putting a lot of money behind it, there must be an ulterior motive. . . . This campaign is not about pushing a political agenda or convincing someone Jesus was this or that—the idea is that we can all learn something from the story of Jesus and what he taught, and hopefully it will inspire us all to be a little better.”