Churches Go Commercial To Spread Their Message
TV Campaigns Bring Denominations to Homes
By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page A01
Inspiration came to Ron Buford at 3 a.m. The way he remembers it, he sat bolt upright in bed with the thought that God was speaking.
What burst into the Cleveland marketing executive's head that night in January 2002, however, was not a message from the Almighty. It was a slogan for a television advertising campaign. Beginning this fall, the United Church of Christ plans to spend $30 million to promote itself using the line that came to Buford in his sleep -- "God is still speaking" -- to reflect its willingness to reinterpret the Bible and embrace such innovations as same-sex marriage and openly gay ministers.
The 1.4 million-member UCC is far from the only church seeking to publicize its positions at a time of deepening conflict and reawakening interest in American religion. In a swelling choir of self-promotion, half a dozen major Protestant denominations are either in the middle of, or are about to launch, national ad campaigns that collectively could cost $150 million over several years.
Moreover, this unprecedented boom in religious advertising is being led by mainline denominations -- such as the UCC, Methodists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians -- that used to consider TV advertising below their dignity or beyond their means. Faced with declining memberships, they are making a beeline from their tall-steeple churches to Madison Avenue.
"In the '70s or '80s or even the '90s, TV would have seemed too commercial. There would have been a big debate about whether a mainline church should be on TV," said Buford, who worked for AT&T and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western Pennsylvania before he was hired in July 2000 as the UCC's in-house advertising expert. "Now everybody's doing it."
The Episcopal Church, for example, has faced an insurrection by conservative parishes since its ordination of a gay bishop in New Hampshire last year. But marketers see an opportunity.
"Among 20- to 30-year-olds, everybody's heard of the gay bishop. And in focus groups, the words that keep coming up are that we are a 'progressive,' 'open' and 'nonjudgmental' church," said Daniel B. England, the church's director of communication.
Thus, the Episcopalians will launch their first national TV ad campaign on Election Day with a 15-second spot that pivots off the presidential campaign to appeal for new members.
"We think this could be a very divisive election," England said. "We're saying to people, 'If you're fed up with all the divisions, you might want to take a look at us, because we're in the business of inclusion, not division.' "
At its annual convention early this month in Richmond, the Presbyterian Church (USA) unveiled a 2005-06 ad campaign. Aimed at people ages 25 to 49, it will show the church helping young adults through times of crisis and transition; one ad is an extended close-up of a woman grunting through childbirth.
A smaller Presbyterian ad campaign that began in 1997, called "Stop In and Find Out," was aimed at spiritual drifters looking for a religious home. But that was part of an early wave of warm-and-fuzzy advertising; the new wave is more pragmatic and pointed. "Back then, it was all about seekers. Today, it's all about relevance to what's going on in people's lives," said the Rev. Douglas A. Wilson, who runs the Presbyterians' national evangelism effort.
The UCC's ads are especially edgy. One shows a pair of bouncers manning a rope line outside a church, admitting a white heterosexual couple but barring gays and racial minorities. "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we," the ad says.
In the process of developing the UCC ads, a large New York advertising agency, Gotham Inc., conducted focus groups in three cities and test marketing in six. Gotham also devised what it considers a "brand personality" emphasizing that the UCC -- formed by a 1957 merger of the Congregational and Christian churches with the Evangelical and Reformed Church -- is a "cutting edge" denomination that was the first to ordain a woman, in 1853, and an openly gay man, in 1972.
Not all UCC members are happy with this message. The Rev. Richard A. Weisenbach, pastor of the First Parish Congregational Church in Wakefield, Mass., said he fears the UCC "is committing suicide" by promoting itself as a church without fixed principles. "You don't grow a church by telling people you're going to do whatever they want you to do," he said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company