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A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar. . . Oh, never mind. Jokes about religious figures or God are no longer all that shocking. Besides, these days, the best jokes about church are told by the churches themselves -- with a little help from advertising creatives. The fire-and-brimstone advertising messages of yore are out, supplanted by the words of a kinder, hipper Jesus who's just as likely to perform a miracle with a loaf and a fish as he is to deliver a sidesplitting one-liner.

One of the most talked-about church ad efforts of late is the non-denominational "God" campaign, a series of billboards out of Ft. Lauderdale's little-known Smith Agency. The posters feature smart-alecky quotes attributed to the Supreme One, such as "Let's meet at my house Sunday before the game -- God," and "Don't make me come down there -- God." Even Rolling Stone did a write-up on the billboards in its August 19th "Hot Issue" (maybe they thought the ads refer to Clapton).

The campaign was born when a local man, who wishes to remain anonymous, walked into the agency and plunked down $150,000 to promote God locally "in a fun way." The result gained overnight attention and popularity, eventually prompting the Outdoor Advertising Association of America to donate $15 million in national billboard space. Charlie Robb, creative director and the voice of 'God' at The Smith Agency, says the strategy was to reach people who used to go to church, but don't anymore. Not everyone loves the message. Some consider the tone flip and disrespectful. And, says Robb, "We've had some complaints from atheists who want to know why we are promoting a mythical entity."

Those with long memories may realize it's is the second coming of irreverent church advertising. It all started in 1981 when Fallon McElligott helped improve the Episcopal Church's batting average, One ad featured a picture of the Ten Commandments with the line, "For fast, fast, fast relief take two tablets." Fred Senn, Fallon group director and one of the agency's founders, says, "The strategy was to get people to think about Christianity in contemporary daily-life situations -- to challenge people." Not only did the campaign challenge people, it helped put Fallon on the map, and into a slew of awards books.

But church work is not without its pitfalls. Jeff Hopfer, group head/AD at The Richards Group in Dallas, recalls the complaints he received about his agency's edgy 1998 campaign for the Episcopal New Church Center. A television spot featured a J.J. Sedelmaier-animated boy who'd rather be hit by a truck than go to church and sing "Kumbaya." The agency also produced some moody but irreverent print ads (including the one shown at right) . Says Hopfer, "The white-glove-wearing elders were sort of offended, but for every negative comment, we received about 20 positive ones." Besides, the elders weren't the intended audience; the ads were aimed at younger, non-religious types.

Another Christian group trying on a 'young' voice is The Billy Graham Associate Crusades, through Bozell Kamstra, Minneapolis. Tim O'Donnell, a writer on the outdoor campaign, believes that "the church is becoming more sophisticated. Like any other advertiser, they know what works and what draws people." And piousness, it seems, doesn't cut it. More missionary activity: A non-profit called Impact Productions, whose mission statement is "to reach a sight and sound audience with the word of Jesus," has been active with both traditional and MTV-generation ads. One spot, inspired by the "Got Milk?" campaign, shows a Gen Y guy bungee-jumping; as he falls, we see that the rope hasn't been tied. Right before impact, the VO asks, "Got Jesus?" Says Impact vice president of marketing (and former youth pastor) Shane Harwell of the glut of religious advertising, "As long as the message bears fruit toward a relationship with Jesus Christ, I'm in total approval."

There's another benefit; of his "God" campaign, the Smith Agency's Robb hopes that it "pretty much wipes the slate clean from when I used to do cigarette

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