Marketer: Episcopal New Church Center
Agency: Richards Group, Dallas
Ad Review rating: 0 stars
And Jesus said, "Do you guys have, like, a screw loose, or what?"
Or maybe Jesus didn't say that. Frankly, the entire Ad Review staff is Jewish, and we don't exactly hang on His every word. But we're pretty confident that if He saw the spot for the Episcopal New Church Center of Walkersville, Md., from the Richards Group, Dallas, and J.J. Sedelmaier Productions, He'd be pretty surprised.
The spot is animated, in an intentionally cheesy way, in the style of those circa-1960 educational comic books. A dad is speaking to his young son about a Sunday surprise.
"Guess what, Timmy," the father says, enthusiastically. "Tomorrow your mother and I are going to take you to church!
"Not only will you get to learn about the wages of sin and eternal damnation, but you can play fun games, like Bible Sword Drill, and sing inspirational songs like `Kumbaya' and `I Got Joy Joy Joy Joy Down in My Heart.' "
Then Dad starts singing: "Down in my heart, down in my heart ..." whereupon Timmy walks into the middle of the street and stands in the path of an oncoming car.
Then the voice-over: "Got a problem with church?" and the end frame advertising the Episcopal New Church Center.
The spot is aimed at young parents who have bad memories of being dragged as kids to excruciatingly dull and stilted services, and who have no wish to inflict the same torture on their own children. The Episcopal New Church Center believes it has a more positive, relevant, loving style of worship.
What it does not have is a great deal of taste.
Sedelmaier and the agency were given wide berth to spread the good news in the most memorable way, and they have delivered. The spot wallows in the same over-the-top mentality that drives Sedelmaier's amusing but unnecessarily graphic "Saturday Night Live" cartoon feature "The Ambiguously Gay Duo," whose vulgar and blunt sodomy gags turn a clever idea into a gross-out.
Here, in the name of attracting disaffected worshippers, the spot feels free to ridicule the beliefs and cherished traditions of many others. The question isn't whether "the wages of sin" and threats of damnation are a proper interpretation of scripture. The question is whether it is proper to denigrate those beliefs in a TV commercial.
Here's the answer: No.
Then there's the question of whether the image of a little boy committing suicide is funny. Here's that answer, too: No.
Oh, sure, it's hyperbolic and it's black humor and it's a cartoon, and nobody will take it seriously--except every parent who has lost a child to suicide, or to being struck by a car. Or any parent who has fearfully imagined it.
Finally, there is the last image. Standing in the street, poised to be run over, the boy is standing with his arms extended, unmistakably mimicking Jesus Christ, sacrificing Himself for the stylistic sins of the churchgoing world.
That's not over the top. It's over the top, down the side and spilling into sacrilege.
It's almost as if the whole thing were a publicity stunt to generate controversy and draw attention to the church--but that can't be, can it, because trading offensiveness for media coverage would be so cynical, so manipulative.
Copyright August 1998, Crain Communications Inc.