Superman as Jesus

June 18th, 2013

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Churches have long been an excellent place to market the latest release from Hollywood.

More recently, The Passion of the Christ was successfully marketed using pastors as pitchmen. I explain the extensive marketing campaign in Brands of Faith:

…it was the marketing that most people did not see that drove the ultimate success of The Passion. Grassroots marketing, led by [Mel] Gibson himself, was developed in conjunction with local churches throughout the country. Evangelicals, charismatics, and Roman Catholics were the target market for this film. Thirty invitation-only screenings were held for high-level church leaders and the heads of prominent evangelical organizations. The first of these occurred in Colorado Springs, Colorado, home of many of these institutions, not least of them ultra-conservative Focus on the Family run by James C. Dobson. The leaders of these organizations, and many others, were encouraged to purchase blocks of tickets for their institutions and to suggest that the local churches do the same. More than $3 million in advanced tickets sales were generated through this campaign.

After these private screenings, marketing materials were presented to churches through Outreach, Inc., a California-based organization that specializes in Christian marketing. Audience members were offered “door hangers, invitation cards, church bulletin inserts, Bible excerpts and study guides. In addition, in keeping with the latest trends in technology, over 250,000 DVD’s about the film were mailed to minister’s nationwide” (Caldwell, 2004 quoted in Maresco 2004). There were also millions of witness cards promoting the film on one side and providing an evangelical message on the other that were distributed and used by thousands of churches and religious organizations (Howard, 2004).

These church promotions began in December 2003 – a full two months before the movie opened. The “Pastors’ Action Kit” provided churches with information via the internet ( on how to tie into The Passion. This included showing trailers of the film at church, putting up banners, inviting parishioners to attend a screening, and, of course, buying out an entire theater screening and taking the congregation. Sermon suggestions were promoted to correspond with the Christian calendar, and information about what aspects of the movie to discuss in relationship to these sermons was provided. There were also special materials targeted to the teen audience via church youth groups; Teen Mania sponsored a site which provided a DVD set to aid youth workers in running “a four-week curriculum leading up to the movie, a guide to the outreach itself, and a two-week post-outreach curriculum” (Sheahen, 2004).

Churches were also given commercials that they could customize to tie the movie into their local church. Specifically what this meant was that a commercial was created with the first 20 seconds being footage from the movie while the last 10 seconds were left blank to be used to promote the local church. Someone seeing the commercial on television would see 20 seconds of trailer for The Passion, and be pulled in thinking they are watching a commercial for the movie and in the last 10 seconds they get presented with information about attending the local church. From a marketing perspective, it was a win-win – more exposure for the movie (paid for by the local church), and the local church gets to be connected with a major Hollywood hit.


Taking a page from The Passion, the folks at Warner Brothers have created a resource website for pastors, and provide free screenings for pastors. For more information on the site, go to CNN’s story, “Superman, Flying to a Church Near You.”

Promoting movies through churches is commonplace. In fact, showing clips from movies as part of the weekly sermon is common.

Media and religion are intertwined to day in a way they have never been before. However, I’m just not sure “The Man of Steel” is the right metaphor. “Passion of the Christ” and churches, I get. This one, not so much.

The New Pope and Social Media

March 28th, 2013

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I recently wrote a piece for Advertising Age called “What the Catholic Church Can Learn From Social Media.” In it, I said in part:

In a simple cartoon circulated online, Jesus looks at Peter and says, “No, I’m not talking about Twitter. I literally want you to follow me.” This is an apt depiction of the competitive relationship that has existed between media and religion, summed up as: “I’m God. Turn off the media and listen to me.” If modern technologies were used to further the faith — be it an advertising campaign or a televised sermon — religious institutions possessed a stranglehold on the content using a top-down, paternalistic approach to communication.

Forcing followers into submission no longer works — this is as true for the Catholic Church as it is for consumer-packaged goods.

Evidently the Pope and social media is a very hot topic because once the new pope was selected, I was asked to talk about it on Bloomberg West which you can watch here.

I will be curious to see how much the Catholic Church takes this issue to heart. It might simply be of more interest to us than it is to those in a position to set the church’s agenda.

Religion in Public Schools

May 23rd, 2012

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Katherine Stewart’s book, The Good News Club, is the kind of smart, in-depth reporting that makes you want to scream at the text while you are reading it–not because it’s bad, but because you can’t believe you haven’t heard about the issue before now.


Ms. Stewart uncovers a virus that is invading the public school systems. No, not MRSA or chicken pox. It is the Religious Right, a group which is becoming increasingly entwined with America’s public schools–notably our elementary schools where children 10 and younger are unable to distinguish between curricula sponsored by the state and that promoted by a group with a religious evangelical agenda.

A group with the unassuming name, The Good News Club, comes to schools offering to teach religion as nondenominational. Given this spin, school boards and parents accept the entree of these groups into their school believing it is an opportunity to expose children to religion as an anthropological, sociological or historical area of study. But, this is not the case. In fact, The Good News Club is part of an evangelical mission that stoops to “faith-based bullying”, leading to angry splits among what had been harmonious communities.

So how do these openly faith-based groups invade the very secular institution of the public elementary school? Stewart pegs this to a Supreme Court case Good News Club v Milford Central School, which equated religion with free speech. In so doing, a loop hole was created whereby if a school opens its doors to any outside organization, it must also allow religious organizations the same access.

Stewart cites a number of issues as it relates to this situation, which are too numerous to outline here. However–and this is the most compelling take-away–the entree of religious teaching in public schools hits at the core of the First Amendment. We do not have a state sanctioned religion, and we do not want one in the future. Unfortunately, if groups like this go unchecked, Stewart believes that may very well be where we are heading.

New Scientology Ads

January 19th, 2012

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Well the Scientologists are back again.

Over the last several days, new commercials for Scientology are appearing on the major broadcast networks. That “the church” is advertising is not new. They ran a series of ads two years ago. I’ve written about them here and in Social Compass in an article called “The Evolution of Religious Branding.”

What is new is that they are airing on some of the most popular–and most expensive–programming on network television. Not least of which was last night’s premiere of American Idol. Not only that, the commercials are not being distributed on the Internet. In fact, the old advertising no longer exists on the Scientology web site.

So why now?


A number of reasons: 1) Janet Reitman’s book Inside Scientology, an in-depth history of the church appeared on a number of best book lists of 2011. I’m about half way through the book and for those who know Scientology it is a bit long winded for my taste. For anyone who is interested in thorough histories, it will be a good read. 2) A new very high profile defection has occurred in the church. A few years ago it was Oscar-winning writer-director, Paul Haggis. Now it is Debbie Cook, who was an enforcer for the organization but is now a whistle blower, according to the Village Voice. Below is a story about her on Good Morning America.

Having only seen the commercial fleetingly, I can say this much about it. From a communications standpoint, Scientology is trying to communicate they are big. The copy in the spot was all about how the church is big and growing–obviously meant to combat the notion that people are fleeing a sinking ship. That idea is further communicated by the media placement. You simply don’t get much bigger than American Idol–TV’s highest rated show.

Final Testament on The Revealer

May 1st, 2011

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As I mentioned last time, James Frey has a new book out called the Final Testament of the Holy Bible. He’s going to be on Oprah to promote it so set your DVRs–the date’s not set but there are only a handful of shows left.

My commentary on the book and its marketing are on The Revealer.

Tis the season

April 24th, 2011

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On this Easter morning and when it is still Passover, I thought I’d put down my thoughts about something Christian and something Jewish.


First, the Passover story. The Jewish Daily Forward last week wrote a story suggesting that four characters from Glee represent the Four Sons of the Passover story–the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and one who does not know to ask. Rachel (the loud Barbra Streisand singing soloist of the choir) is the wise son; “Puck” (the high school “bad boy”) is the wicked son; wheelchair-bound Artie is the simple son because he simplest–that is rather uncommitted–about his Jewishness; Tina Cohen-Chang’s Jewishness is invisible in the show save for her name. Coming from an interfaith marriage, the assumption is that she does not know to ask because in most homes of this sort children are not raised to be Jewish-identified.

What I find most interesting about this (and Jay Michaelson does a wonderful analysis in this piece) is that Glee more than any other show on television is unafraid to show Jewishness. Most often on primetime television, Jewish characters appear on individual episodes and are integral to a single plot line (the exception being Cuddy and James E. Wilson (J.E.W.) on House). Here, though, Jewish characters are shown across a spectrum of different personality types. Moreover, and true to how faith is lived particularly for this generation, Jewish identity is a part of who they are–no more or less than being goth or wearing a Mohawk. It might change as these charcters age, but this is up to our fantasies to divine because in TV Land they can never get out of the Glee Club.

For Easter, I must mention James Frey’s new book The Final Testament of the Holy Bible.


James Frey, as you likely know, is the author who famous lied in his memoir and was publicly shamed by Oprah for having done so. Since then, the author moved on to market himself as the Bad Boy (the Wicked Son?) of publishing. Thus on Good Friday, he released his new work which is described in the following way on the product’s website:

What if the Messiah were alive today? Living in New York. Sleeping with men. Impregnating young women. Euthanizing the dying, and healing the sick. Defying the government, and condemning the holy.

If you met him, and he changed your life, would you believe?

The book is not available in stores, but through an upscale art gallery at art gallery prices, or you can download it at a typical price point.

Since this only came out two days ago, I’m still reading it and examining the marketing. Once done, my thoughts and analysis will appear in a piece I’ll be writing about this for The Revealer. In the meantime, if anyone has thoughts on this book, Frey or the marketing thereof, I’d love to see your postings.

Happy holidays.

On a lighter note

January 4th, 2011

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The new book is done and off to the press and I have some catching up to do here. Several new advertising campaigns to talk about and I’m working on a piece about GodTube (yes, it is GodTube again, after a much misdirected foray as

But I thought I’d start the New Year off on a lighter note. If you haven’t seen this piece from Colbert, do enjoy and Happy New Year.

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Jesus Is a Liberal Democrat
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog</a> March to Keep Fear Alive

Yoga for Hindus? For Christians?

November 28th, 2010

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The New York Times has two stories about yoga that confront the same issue. While it appears they are debating if yoga belongs to Hindus, the real issue seems to be can you repackage, that is market, aspects of one faith and use them in another?

On the front page of the paper, there was a story about Hindus fighting to keep yoga associated with their faith. “Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul” states

The campaign, labeled “Take Back Yoga,” does not ask yoga devotees to become Hindu, or instructors to teach more about Hinduism. The small but increasingly influential group behind it, the Hindu American Foundation, suggests only that people become more aware of yoga’s debt to the faith’s ancient traditions.


In, I believe, today’s style section there was story called Stretch/Bending with a Holy Twist. This article was all about practicing yoga but replacing the obligatory “om” with the words of St. Francis of Assisi.

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith.”


The article then goes on to discuss if it is right and appropriate to mix Christianity with yoga.

In both articles, a quote appeared to the affect that yoga is not itself a religion. And, this is of course true. More at issue, however, is a statement from the cover article quoting Dr. Aseem Shukla, a Hindu American Foundation co-founder, “our issue is that yoga has thrived, but Hinduism has lost control of the brand.” Is that a concern because Hinduism is in declining? Otherwise, why would they care? (I don’t know the answer to this so please feel free to educate me on this matter.)

At any rate, this would certainly not be the first time that a western faith has stolen something from the east…rosary beads, anyone?

“Eat, Pray, Love” Movie–All about the Peripherals

October 7th, 2010

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While a blockbuster book, the movie Eat, Pray, Love was a bit of a snore at the box office.

It could be that the producers didn’t really care about the box office as much as they did about the ancillary merchandise (movies make more money from DVDs and PPV anyway, but here we’re talking about real tchotchkes). According to an article in The Hollywood Reporter (subscription needed) called “Eat, Pray, Shop!” Sony got women to shell out $4.99 for prayer beads, $72 for “I Deserve Something Beautiful” necklaces and $49 for organic t-shirts. “The film might be a call to action for women to live their lives passionately, but it’s also a call for them to purchase the tastes, smells and luxuries that Julia Roberts enjoys onscreen through her travels.” It’s sort of “Eat, Pray, Love” meets “Sex and the City,” especially when “being spiritual” entails a mirror sequined tote bag for $1399.90.

Sister Wives is not very good TV, though it’s interesting faith

October 1st, 2010

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I decided I should watch Sister Wives, a new reality series on TLC–in part because of the topic and in part because the negative press surrounding the show.


The topic of the show is the life of a polygamist family. The negative press relates to the husband being brought up on felony bigamy charges. In truth you can’t help but think this was a publicity stunt given the timing and the inevitablity of the charges.

If people tune in expecting anything salacious, they will be decidedly disappointed. Rather this is all quite boring, particularly from a reality TV lens. The questions I wanted answered (which weren’t in the first episode and might be later) is why did they agree to do this? The man of the house says that he is concerned for his career. Well, obviously not that much. So, then, how much were they paid to be “outed” so to speak? Enough to never work again with 21 kids in the house and a fourth wife on the way?

Someone else out there will have to tell me what transpires. It just wasn’t compelling enough for me to tune in again.

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