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Divine Intervention
‘God’ gets a hip voice in campaign’s second coming

He’s “everybody’s homey.” Make that Homey.

As many had hoped and some had predicted, God is returning to Earth this year. But the second coming isn’t what religious pundits or Y2Krazies expected. It’s phase two of the popular, award-winning “God Speaks” public service campaign, breaking this week in 40 U.S. cities, courtesy of SmithAgency.com, for its mysterious anonymous client.

Sixteen new outdoor executions are going up in an expanded effort, themed “God Speaks to Kids.” They will include bus exterior, interior and station kiosk ads, shopping-mall wall mountings and eight TV spots.

As in previous executions, pithy messages attributed to the Guy or Gal) upstairs appear on a stark black background. This time, instead of a bold white, the words glow a bright orange gold, as though spray painted—or “from the hand of God,” says Shelly Isaacs, creative director at the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., agency.

While last year’s effort targeted adults, featuring lines like “Let’s meet at my house Sunday before the game,” this year’s target is decidedly different. Lines like “hate is not my rap,” “Don’t dis the ones who love you” and “Let me be your ecstasy” reveal a more urban flavor, using “inner-city lingo [that] has become the way kids speak,” says Isaacs. “It’s their vernacular.”

Of course, the edgier language is further fuel for adults who considered the earlier executions presumptuous or offensive. Some teachers felt the new ads were condescending when the agency brought them to Florida schools for testing, Isaacs says.

But among 12- to 24-year-olds, they’re a hit. “We hear [complaints] down the line from adults,” says agency president Jim Lobel. “But when we run them past kids, they’re like, ‘That’s cool. That speaks to me.’”

“If a controversy opens [asking] did we target a certain ethnic segment of the audience, I think that’s OK, too,” he adds.

Lobel has no reason to shy away from controversies, as one actually helped put him in charge of the business. The account’s previous stewards, creative director Charlie Robb and agency president Andy Smith, were fired from the shop (then known as The Smith Agency) in November after planning a book based on the campaign, Lobel says. Unhappy that Robb and Smith were turning the work into a commercial endeavor, the client complained to agency parent QuikBiz Internet Group, which dismissed them, Lobel says. (The book, published by Random House, is set for an April release. Since then, Smith and Robb have opened an eponymous Fort Lauderdale agency a few miles from SmithAgency.com.)

Lobel and Isaacs, who had become part of The Smith Agency when QuikBiz acquired Lobel’s G&L Group in Fort Lauderdale last September, took over the $18 million agency and the account.

The division between old creatives and new was so severe, Lobel says, that he was unaware of just how successful the initial “God Speaks” campaign was. It cleaned up at the regional ShowSouth awards last year, winning Best of Show and three golds. It also garnered a World Silver Medal from the New York Festivals, two first-place Moebius awards and two merits from the Obies.

But if they’re fazed by the challenge of offering a worthy successor, Isaacs and Lobel aren’t letting on. Isaacs, who calls himself “God’s ventriloquist dummy,” is a native New Yorker and talks like one. After various stints at Grey Advertising and Foote, Cone & Belding, he spent 10 years at Lois USA in New York, where he worked on the HBO, ESPN and Monday Night Football accounts. Partnered with Steve Frankfurt, he also created campaigns for major Hollywood films, such as the first two Alien pictures, Superman and (presciently) Oh, God!

Isaacs says he’s confident his experience in marketing showbiz—the campaign even sounds like a movie, call it God Speaks 2: Kids-—will strike a chord with its audience.

“My entertainment experience helps in the area of crafting these messages and finding what compels a specific audience,” he says. “It breaks through in a way [kids] will be looking at favorably.”

Isaacs, who along with Lobel is Jewish, also defends the decision to include one overtly Christian ad, which uses the line “I know what you’re goin’ through…I have a son.” It’s an execution that moves the campaign away from its purely nondenominational strategy.

“Each message needs to be taken separately,” Isaacs says. “We don’t want to confine this to one view of God. Whether as a Jew or a non-Jew, we’re trying to come at people through the 10 Commandments. Some of these messages are totally neutral, other than they’re signed by God.”

Not everyone is that neutral. MTV rejected the TV spots, which show a black screen gradually spray painted with one of the eight messages, as techno music plays.

An MTV representative says the network turned down the spots because it could not clearly identify who was buying the time. Lobel, though, contends that a corporation named God Speaks, Inc. is the buyer. “It is clearly identified as [a corporation], and we told MTV that,” he says. “We also told them we were willing to sponsor it ourselves if that was necessary.”

BET accepted the spots, Lobel said, though the network had no comment.

The campaign is getting a boost from outdoor and mail advertising management companies, which are donating space. Gateway Outdoor Advertising, Pittsburgh, has set up a network with eight other media companies to put up billboards in 23 markets. Chattanooga, Tenn.-based mall advertising firm Foxmart has offered prominent back-lit signs that will roll out in the 40 malls it works with in the U.S. Both companies contacted the agency during phase one to offer their assistance.

“I wanted to take the message a little more than urban,” says John Crockett, Gateway’s national vp of sales. “That took them by surprise because they already had an urban slant planned for phase two.”

That slant, however, is making some people nervous. “When we first looked at these, we thought they were a little more edgy,” says Charlie Brock, Foxmart president, adding he still isn’t sure if Foxmart will run every execution. “But [the agency] assured us their tests show this is what kids will listen to. It would be the perfect fit with all the kids that are in malls today.”

All told, Crockett says the outdoor ads will generate an estimated 96 million impressions per month and have a combined value of $116,615 monthly. Brock put the mall ads’ value at $20,000 per month and said they would bring over 19 million impressions.

One key ally “God Speaks” does not have this time out is the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, which ran phase one last year. The QAAA has struck its own deal with Smith and Robb for an as-yet-unrevealed campaign that is slated to break in late summer or early fall. It will have a more secular bent, says the association’s communications director Sheila Hayes. “Charlie [Robb] is a great creative guy. The messages of the first campaign were so well done.” Hayes says.

Still, one key element remains unclear: the identity of the client. Lobel, Isaac, Smith and Robb all know who it is, but none will say for reasons including marketing and potential litigation concerns. Rumors continue to fly around Florida that QuikBiz is the client and is keeping things mysterious for the hype and buzz, a charge the company has repeatedly denied.

Last year, sources inside The Smith Agency intimated there is a wealthy and powerful man behind the scenes, one with a battalion of lawyers and connections to the evangelical community.

But the big man is only a distraction from the Big Man and His message, according to Lobel.

“Kids are the hope of the future, but we see them as a pretty disenfranchised group,” he says. “I don’t see anyone talking to kids in a language they understand. We want to deliver messages to them saying there can be a better future—in a way that they’ll hear.”


T.W. Siebert, March 13, 2000, Adweek

Copyright © 2000 Adweek and BPI Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.