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“Big Questions” Campaign Helps Templeton Advance Mission

What would you do if your foundation wanted to spark some thoughtful discussions on topics that range from the meaning of life to the existence of God, especially if the goal is show that these questions can be answered by “open-minded” scientific inquiry? 

For the John Templeton Foundation, the way to do is through a national print advertising campaign (and companion website) called Big Questions. Since summer 2007, the foundation has been running four-page advertisements in national publications such as The New York Times and The New Yorker, posing questions to distinguished thinkers – whose answers also appear in the  ads – that include: Does the universe have a purpose? Will money solve Africa’s development problems? Does science make belief in God obsolete? Does the free market corrode moral character?

The campaign goes beyond just creating awareness of the foundation’s mission, which is to support “open-minded” scientific inquiry designed to “advance human progress through breakthrough discoveries.” Instead, the campaign was started to counter misperceptions about the foundation. The biggest was that instead of being “open-minded,” the foundation actually was pushing a narrow point of view.

According to Pamela Thompson, vice president of communications, “We needed to distinguish ourselves — we needed to make our own reputation rather than having other people make our reputation for us. We had to think of a way to be bold and then do it, to say ‘This is who we are.’ ”

Developed by writer Rodes Fishburne and graphic designer Milton Glaser, each of the ads in the Templeton Big Questions campaign has similar elements:

  • A provocative question that touches upon Templeton’s grantmaking and which is asked in a way that provides opportunities for thoughtful discussion.
  • Responses from well- and lesser-known thinkers representing diverse views. Each of the ads bring together people representing a spectrum of beliefs.  Some are well-known, while others are selected because what they have to say deserves to be heard by a wider audience. For instance, to answer the question about whether free markets erode moral character, the foundation invited former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, former Clinton Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, and Russian chess champion Gary Kasparov to respond. Also included in the ad was the lesser-known but highly respected Chinese economist Qinglian.
  • Opportunity for more discussion on the Templeton Web site. The print ads are also featured on the Templeton website, where people can post comments in response, and view selected videos that go into more depth about the topics under discussion. For instance one video features a panel discussion by three of Templeton’s thinkers about economics and moral character, and which is moderated by the BBC’s Stephanie Flanders.

According to Thompson the campaign is working. She says more people now think of Templeton as funding rigorous, non-ideological research.



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