It’s a murky November day in a windswept, sodden Heaton Park, north of Manchester city centre. The sky is a dismal, slate grey. In one corner of the park, Manchester City boss Kevin Keegan draws up in a car, talks discreetly into cupped mobile, then smiling amiably, waits patiently while a TV cameraman checks angles, sound and lighting. A few hundred yards away, international athlete Diane Modahl radiates warm cheerfulness to another busy film crew, in spite of insistent rain. In the nearby golf club, two families, children bubbling because they've landed an unexpected day off school (and might end up being famous for five seconds), are given the once over by a diligent make-up artist.

Underneath the curved arch of a farm centre, builder Jeff Turner, best known for his appearances on Granada TV’s Muck ‘n’ Jeff, takes an E flat from the sound man. A few miles away, Sale Sharks rugby star Apollo Perelini, a gentle giant of a man, spreads out his arms in preparation. All of them, from housewife to house-hold name, have braved the elements to contribute to, arguably, the most unusual advert on British TV this year.

Messrs Keegan, Turner, Perelini et al are playing their part in a new church initiative -and all they’ve got to do is hum and sing along to one of the best-known melodies of all time. More than 130 churches, representing most major denominations, are already partners in the Campaign for Real Christmas, a TV, radio and poster advertising campaign in Greater Manchester. Its aim is simple - encouraging people to attend a carol service this Christmas.

“There is a ‘comfort zone’ about a carol service that is unique,” explains David Clark, director of advertising agency CMC who are driving the creative side of the campaign, in association with the Anglican Diocese of Manchester. “They are a natural way in for people who wouldn't normally see themselves as church-goers. Attending carol services is not perceived as a committedly religious act, merely part of what makes Christmas, Christmas. The church needs to take advantage of its own inheritance.”

The centrepiece of the campaign is a 30-second TV advert paid for entirely by trust funds. Transmitted for the first time throughout the Granada region on Monday 26th November, the advert was seen during the commercial break of leading soap Emmerdale. Next day it appeared in the middle of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? - another prime slot. Several dozen transmissions are scheduled until 16th December. By the end of the campaign more than 80 per cent of the adult population in the Granada region are expected to have seen the campaign at least four times.

Contributors to the advert gathered in Heaton Park to sing the campaign jingle – ‘Sing your hearts out for the lad’. To the chorus of the classic hymn Bread of Heaven, and with varying degrees of tunefulness, they gave it their best shot. The chant is a firm favourite with football fans, though the two are different in one vital respect. The fans’ version ends with the plural ‘lads’. The campaign version throws an altogether different, and seasonal, slant on things.

Aware that the scale and nature of the campaign required careful research, focus groups were held to test a dozen different slogans among churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike (see responses later). Both groups turned down most of the proposals, for a variety of intriguing reasons, but there was unanimous support for ‘Sing your hearts out...’ David Gibbons, account director for CMC, stressed how important the research proved to be.

“Any slogan which induced guilt, looked like an appeal for money or just felt plain ‘churchy’ was immediately rejected,” he explained. The clinching phrase was endorsed by one person because it “doesn’t make Jesus seem religious.” It avoids church language, too, deemed a turn-off by non-churchgoers. “Most thought it a surprisingly brave message,” said David. “One person said it has humour and you don't expect that to come from the church.”

He was optimistic about the campaign’s impact. “After two days’ filming we’ve got so much good footage it is going to be a nightmare leaving anything out, ”he admitted. “Kevin Keegan was very enthusiastic. The Rev Tony Porter, Manchester City’s club chaplain, had even persuaded him to leave an important meeting at Maine Road to be part of it - though he did his job between takes, negotiating terms with some player or other!”

But CMC’s efforts will be in vain unless churches join the campaign and their members invite non church-attending friends to carol services. To help them do this thousands of special invitations have been printed for people to use on an individual basis. There’s a campaign edition of Mark’s Gospel available for free distribution. Partner churches are being encouraged to form prayer triplets for members to pray for each other and their friends. Follow-up courses are also part of the package.

“The research showed that the majority of non-churchgoers would be tempted to go to a carol service if invited to do so by a friend,” said David Clark..

“No matter how effective the adverts, the campaign’s success depends, finally, on people using them as an opportunity to invite families, friends and colleagues to their church carol service.”

Campaign For Real Christmas. Tel: 0161 428 6116. Fax: 0161 428 5599. Email: Website:

Focus Groups Mould Carol Campaign

How the pre-launch research among focus groups shaped the end adverts.

Clark Marketing Communications (CMC), a Cheadle-based agency, invested in some careful research for the Campaign for Real Christmas - the kind usually reserved for its high-profile mainstream clients. CMC used two types of focus groups in Greater Manchester, one drawn from committed churchgoers, the other from non-churchgoers broadly sympathetic to Christianity.

As might be expected, the non-churchgoers had a stereotypical view of churchgoers as ‘judgmental’. In their opinion, this attitude kept them away from the pews. Interestingly, they were also uncomfortable about the growing commercialisation of Christmas and the fact that its spiritual origins have been obscured. Most enjoyed carol services and said they would consider going to one at their local church if they received a personal invitation - more so if somebody was there with them to show them the ropes.

Focus groups with church members, on the other hand, were keen on the campaign but generally shied away from inviting friends to attend a carol service for fear of losing their friendship. David Clark, founder of CMC and a committed Christian, said: “One of the most common and simple fears about going to church is doing the wrong thing at the wrong time - or the fear of sitting in someone else’s seat. So you have two diametrically-opposed perceptions - and it seems to me that churchgoers face the bigger challenge.”

Both groups turned down many of the proposed advertising slogans, for the reasons listed below. The “winning” slogan was universally welcomed, however. CMC conclude that if the campaign is to succeed, churches “must look hard and urgently at their approach to the welcome and management of new visitors and that people in the pew need to be fully involved - not just ministers, pastors and elders.”
In all, 11 concepts were put to each focus group. Responses from five of the propositions were as follows:

1. .com all ye faithful

The novelty of this slogan was enjoyed by all members of the focus groups. They instantly recognised the clever juxtaposition of traditional carol with contemporary technoology. For a number of people, though,the idea didn’t have any charm or personality. Comments included: “It’s too modern and the church isn’t like that” and "The internet is too modern for the church”. So, on the one hand, the church is perceived as too traditional and “churchy”- but when it makes a statement within a contemporary setting, it is seen as stepping beyond its brief, of being too modern. A clear case of being beaten by both ends of the same stick.

2. Come and see the original Man with the Beard

The built-in puzzle interested many. There was confusion though, as to whether this proposition referred to Santa or Jesus. Comments included: “Doesn’t it make you think that if you go to church someone is going to come out with a beard on?” and “Religious people might find it blasphemous”. As an advertising theme, all groups rated this message as the least viable.

3. It took three wise man to find Him the first time. We've made it a lot easier

This message was generally well received. The wise men were readily recognised as part of the Christmas story which everyone had been taught at school. The proposition had a sense of mystery to it, suggesting there may be something to add to what they already knew. Even though the message was a direct reference to Christ, the groups were comfortable with it. On a negative tack one person commented: “You need more than these words to tell you it’s about a carol service”.

4. Christmas is forgiving

The instant response was that this was a call for charitable giving. “All it means is that they’re after a donation,” said one person. “It’s a message from the church saying you’ll be forgiven for not coming before. It’s patronising,” said another..

5. Sing your hearts out for the lad

Non church-goers received this message with universal enthusiasm. It was seen as cheerful - countering their negative perceptions of the church. At the same time, they did not think it implausible for the church to put out this sort of message or that it could not live up to its promise. Most thought it brave and surprising. Their response suggested it has a strong motivational ingredient to it. “That’s the key,” said one. “People know Christmas hymns. That’s what you like to do ... sing your heart out.” When asked for the specific identity of the “lad”, the unanimous response was “Jesus”. The proposition’s greatest strength was seen in the fact that it parodied a football anthem - so it was inevitable that male members were warmly in favour.

However, female members were happy to endorse it, too. Church groups were equally enthusiastic because they recognised the need to use the right language in the public domain to communicate effectively with those least receptive to Christian messages. There were no fears over the irreverence of the word “lad” for Jesus..

The Campaign for Real Christmas is:

  • A media campaign promoting local church carol services during Christmas 2001
  • Co-ordinated by the Diocese of Manchester
  • Funded independently by local individuals and trusts
  • A resource point for churches of all major denominations
  • How one church is responding to the Campaign for Real Christmas

For some churches, Campaign for Real Christmas will give their outreach a boost - but it has been picked up by others whose outreach is already going strong. At St Paul with Emmanuel, Bolton-le Moors, no less than three carol services are planned with two targeted at their special outreaches. The merged congregations will have an all-age carol service on Sunday 23rd December at St Paul’s, Deansgate but later that day comes a service with a difference at Emmanuel Church Centre, Vicarage Street, Deane.

The GAP carol party is a Christmas celebration for the church's pioneering GAP Service, which takes place at 4pm at Emmanuel Church Centre. GAP provides a less formal style of worship with scripture and praise over a cup of tea and cake. The carol service will take a similar format. Vicar Bob Horrocks told Christianity+Renewal : “We will repeat an idea from last year with our version of ‘pass the parcel’. Every time the wrapper is taken off there will be a carol to sing or a reading to deliver - and somebody from that table will read the passage or lead the carol.”

On Monday 17 December at 6.30pm a Crossroads Carol Service will be held for youngsters aged 8-11 who come to the weekly Crossroads club - run by the church for youngsters on the estate. The youngsters themselves will “sing their hearts out...”, perform drama and make cakes - to be sold in aid of Winterwatch, a local homeless charity.