What’s God Got To Do With It?

Faced with new competition for its local NBA coverage from ESPN, Fox Sports Net decided that the best way to attract viewers was to put the fear of God into them.

In a commercial last December for a Celtics vs. Knicks matchup, a man in a Knicks sweat shirt tries to walk down a city street, but unexplained forces thwart him. Other pedestrians seem to have no problem with the weather, but he’s caught in his very own wind tunnel. His cap blows off, then his motion slows and his jowls ripple, and he’s thrown to the floor, sliding into a pile of trash. He gets up, but another blast of air quickly lifts him and tosses him into a parked car. As sirens blare, the spot cuts to the punch line: “God is a Celtics fan.” Details about the broadcast follow.

The work from Cliff Freeman and Partners in New York is tailored to each market. In another execution, a man in a 76ers shirt watches a golf game from a nearby gift shop as storm clouds gather and thunder growls. He shakes his head at the players in disgust when a lightning bolt tears out of the sky and hits him, shattering glass and causing heads to turn on the golf course. One spot shows a man being pummeled by hail at a bus stop.

“Typically, we try to get the work to reflect the fanaticism of home-team fans,” explains Neil Tiles, evp of marketing at Fox Sports Net in Los Angeles. And what better way to express the excitement inspired by local team sports than with a campaign featuring God as the ultimate fan?

“Whenever you talk to a diehard sports fan who is watching their favorite team, they often use religious references in both the positive or the negative to express themselves,” says Tiles. “Religion plays a big part in sports. In football and other sports, you see players huddle and pray together. We wanted to tap into that.”

Enlisting God for a campaign can be tricky. When the goal is to make consumers laugh, religious references usually spark little notice, but when the pitch is earnest and straightforward, controversy can quickly erupt.

For political consultancy Zimmerman & Markman in Santa Monica, Calif., the whole point of the recent “What would Jesus drive?” campaign for the Evangelical Environmental Network was to stir a national debate. The provocative question topped an ad that appeared last month in Christianity Today. Below the headline, a traditional image of Jesus in prayer was juxtaposed with a photograph of a crowded highway. “Of all the choices we make as consumers, the cars we drive have the single biggest impact on all of God’s creation,” reads the ad, describing the ill effects of pollution from cars. “We call upon America’s automobile industry to manufacture more fuel-efficient vehicles. And we call upon Christians to drive them. Because it’s about more than vehicles—it’s about values.”

A TV spot that aired in four states in December further made the point with traffic-filled highways, flooded streets and images of the sick. “If we love our neighbor and we cherish God’s creation, maybe we should ask, ‘What would Jesus drive?’ ” the voiceover concludes.

The Rev. Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network called the campaign “blasphemy” and “a joke.” And the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers parried with, “[Jesus] may well choose an SUV so that several of his apostles could travel with him.”

“We hoped it would rub people the wrong way, that it would promote controversy,” says Bill Zimmerman, president of Zimmerman & Markman. “We spent about $40,000, and we managed to orchestrate a couple of million dollars’ worth of publicity in one week.”

The Rev. Jim Ball, executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network, draws a distinction between an ad with a clearly humorous reference to God and one that enlists religion to sell the product. “It’s a matter of taste,” he says. “I don’t have any trouble with ads [in which] people know it is a joke. There is no moral aspect to it.” The environmental campaign, which may be revived for a run on Christian radio, is in a different category entirely, he says: “We weren’t selling anything. We were getting a message out that we believe in.”

Lighthearted religious references have brought a heavenly edge to advertising since at least the mid-’70s, when Hebrew National, a Con-Agra brand, started using Ed McCabe’s line “We answer to a higher authority” on its packaging and advertising for kosher hot dogs and cold cuts. The current campaign from Grey in New York features comedian Robert Klein as the voice of the almighty.

God also speaks out in a humorous Staples spot in which an employee gets office-supply advice from a booming, faceless voice emanating from above. In the 1999 commercial from former Staples agency Cliff Freeman, the voice is revealed to be that of a throaty janitor, and the halo of light beaming down is from a light bulb he’s changing. The voice of God also speaks on behalf of Mercedes-Benz of Omaha in three executions promoting various models that broke last fall. A deep voice compliments drivers on their cars and asks how much they paid, then asks if it’s possible to own a Mercedes for the same price. Keys drop out of the sky.

“If you were interacting with the supreme being, tongue-in-cheek only, the brand you’d negotiate for would have to be Mercedes-Benz, because it’s widely regarded as premium,” explains Lynn Hinderaker, president of local dealer shop Omegapoint Advertising in Omaha, Neb.

The Rev. Bell himself may not mind a lighthearted laugh when it comes to God. (He says he’s heard many a “Jesus drives” joke and while “there are a lot of lame ones, I don’t have a problem with having a little fun.”) But at what point does a harmless joke begin to offend? “One can imagine some successful use of religion in advertising, but you really have to test that advertising,” says Tom Smith at the University of Chicago’s National Organization for Research. “You’re taking a lot of risk. It’s very easy to cross the line. The idea that God wants you to buy a brand is not likely to pass [muster]. … You have to be subtle, and it’s very easy not to fall within acceptable bounds.”

Similarly, Cliff Freeman copywriter Ari Weiss, who worked on the Fox Sports Net campaign with partner Aaron Adler, points out that though religion can be a useful creative tool for advertising, “it can be used heavy-handedly. You have to walk a thin line between offending and communicating something in a different way that is interesting and fun.”

A 1998 study led by Smith and funded by the National Science Foundation asked approximately 1,400 randomly selected adults whether they approved of religious images in advertising for non-religious products. Nearly two-thirds of the group was either somewhat or strongly opposed to it. In contrast, asked about the presence of religion in athletic events, such as a football player thanking God for a touchdown, more than half somewhat or strongly approved.

Religion is showing up not only in sports culture but also more frequently in the culture at large, from the popularity of Christian rock to shows like Touched by an Angel to films like Mel Gibson’s The Passion, about Jesus’ final hours, due next year. “There used to be a sharp boundary between pop culture and religion,” notes Smith. “Those boundaries are breaking down. Something similar is happening in advertising.”

Weiss credits the stream of religious themes in popular culture to the nation’s current uneasiness. “It’s a slightly confusing time,” he says. “Every once in a while you need a reminder: What do we have to hold on to? Whether your answer is sports, religion, car, your family, we—as thought provokers—want people to think about it or check in once in a while.”

Hinderaker adds, “It’s about our quest for meaning. It’s about connecting to a higher power. Tangible, superficial things become tinged with spiritual qualities. Marketers know people are looking for meaning in their lives.”

Tiles looks no further than a church perched right next to Comerica Park, the home of the Detroit Tigers, to know that the Fox Sports Net campaign is right on track. “Pray for the Tigers,” urges a sign on the building. “If a church next to a stadium can say, ‘Pray for the Tigers,’ ” says Tiles, “I think people can understand where we’re coming from.”