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THE SALVATION ARMY, with its Santa Clauses and kettles, owns Christmas. And the New York City Rescue Mission, and many of the other 264 gospel missions throughout the country, want to carve out Thanksgiving.

To put its brand on the holiday, the mission is out to stage a Great Thanksgiving Banquet for the homeless and less fortunate during Thanksgiving week in Bryant Park.

If things go the way the planners of the event envision, it could be the biggest meal served in New York under one roof (or tent).

The sort of event could be the next big trend in sponsorship opportunities. After all, just about everything else is taken, and supporting the poor and downtrodden will make us all feel warm and fuzzy about ourselves, and the products we buy.

That's probably what the city of Los Angeles was thinking when it announced a plan for marketers to put their names and logos on poor sections of towns. Many companies claim they are looking for ways to invest in the inner city," Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo told The Wall Street Journal. "Now we have a basket to catch them." The city has selected 15 sites for potential sponsorship.

If this inner city initiative catches on-and I heard an ad guy say that jails and police departments were also ripe for sponsorship-there will be precious few places we consumers can go without being assaulted by corporate branding efforts.

Ad people call this "experimental marketing" or "360 degree marketing." What it essentially means, however you slice it, is that you're surrounded by the brand "experience" wherever you turn. Ad guys rationalize this heavy dose of branding by saying stuff like: "Consumers want to feel revelation and discovery about their brands."

Get a life, marketers. People (they're not consumers all the time, you know) don't go around yearning for ways to interact with favorite brands. I, for instance, want to be left alone by my toothpaste until I decide the time is right to use it, once every few days (just kidding).

Now that I've gotten that little tirade out of my system, I can certainly support the idea of sponsors climbing on board the Great Thanksgiving Banquet.

My old friend Steve Gilkenson is director of ministries at the 127-year-old N.Y. Rescue Mission. "The special event idea," he told me, "is a twist on black-tie dinners benefiting worthy causes. The difference: hearts and hands of New Yorkers who will serve a sumptuous meal to those who have less."

Steve sees plenty of room for everybody to participate. "Volunteers from all walks of life could help in a multitude of ways. Yes, political candidates could be invited to put on aprons and serve turkey."

And yes, sponsors could and should play the key role. Steve says the event will need turkeys, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pies and beverages-all the fixings-but let's dare to think big thoughts here.

The mission concept itself is a big idea. The N.Y. Rescue Mission is the oldest, but there are 265 missions across the country and they serve close to 30 million free meals a year. Private donors (they don't receive government money) contributed $435 million to the missions last year, which if they were one entity would have made them the sixth-largest charity in the U.S.

Among the companies that might support the Thanksgiving banquet, not as a handout but a good marketing opportunity, are AT&T Corp. for its 1-800-Call-ATT collect calling program; McDonald's Corp. (who serves more inner city meals?); and maybe even The Gap, which would want to narrow the gap between the haves and the have-nots (am I reaching here?)

Steve would like to see the cast of "Touched by an Angel" serve the food. And perhaps the Food Channel would like to play a role. Since the good economy has made the poor an emerging market, how about a goody bag full of product samples to help them form brand preferences?

"We see the banquet as an opportunity for New Yorkers who have large hearts to demonstrate God's love to the less fortunate in a practical way," said James VanHagen, the mission's executive director. That's not such a bad marketing

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