The creators of technology firm Mophie’s ‘All-Powerless’ advertisement say the ad worked because it is more about how people feel when their phones die, as if the world is ending, than it is about theology. Picture: SUPPLIED
The creators of technology firm Mophie’s ‘All-Powerless’ advertisement say the ad worked because it is more about how people feel when their phones die, as if the world is ending, than it is about theology. Picture: SUPPLIED

LIKE a polite guest at a dinner party, the advertising industry typically avoids bringing up religion. But there are some US advertisers — including Ram Trucks and the smartphone accessories company Mophie — that have made God or prayer a part of their campaigns, albeit very carefully.

It is a high-risk, high-reward strategy, says John Hegarty, a founder of the Bartle Bogle Hegarty advertising agency in London. If done right, it can inspire religious or spiritually minded consumers to act, but if done wrong, it can alienate an audience, he says.

McDonald’s combined messages such as "God protect the USA" and "God gave us a miracle" with those such as "We remember 9/11" in a 60-second television commercial early last year. During the Super Bowl in 2013, Ram Trucks connected religion to pickup trucks in a spot that used the slogan "So God made a farmer".

With a voice-over by Paul Harvey, the two-minute Ram Trucks commercial by the Richards Group, an advertising agency based in Dallas, was viewed 18-million times in 10 days.

The best part was the "outpouring of heartfelt thanks and appreciation" from real farmers and their families, says Marissa Hunter, head of Ram advertising at Chrysler. "To hear people say we did an honest and pure job of capturing the essence of who they are is a very high compliment," says Hunter.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota is appearing in ads for Saint Thomas Health, a chain of Catholic hospitals in Tennessee. In one spot, Mariota taps his heart three times — for his mother, father and brother — then points to the heavens to give thanks. The tagline, "Nothing shall be impossible", is a quotation from the Gospel of Luke.

A small number of consumers were offended by the overt Christian symbolism, says Shari Day, CEO of Bohan Advertising, which created the spot, but they were outnumbered by consumers who praised the faith-based ads. A member of the team working on the campaign came up with the tagline after hearing a sermon in church, Day says. Some campaigns are much more subtle. Hegarty and Bartle Bogle Hegarty collaborated with the director Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually) on an animated ad for Project Everyone — an effort to fight poverty, inequality and climate change — that aired in cinemas across the world.

Actor Liam Neeson provides a voice-over in the commercial, and though external communications about the ad refer to Neeson as the "voice of God", there is no reference to that or religion in the spot.

"He has a lovely tone of voice that carries authority," Hegarty says of Neeson. "It’s a weird thing that some people have. It’s godlike in its execution and deliverance."

What is a riskier creative strategy? Trying to use God for laughs. Mophie aired its apocalyptic but humorous "All-Powerless" advertisement during NBC’s broadcast of the Super Bowl last year. The Mophie spot, by the ad agency Deutsch, shows snowstorms in Africa, burning bushes and dogs walking humans. The reason for the chaos is that God’s smartphone battery has run out of power.

"Gosh darn it," says the actor who represents God. The tagline: "When your phone dies, God knows what can happen."

Deutsch North America CEO Mike Sheldon says the spot works because it is more about how people feel when their phones die, as if the world is ending, than it is about theology. Mophie’s Super Bowl spot was shared, liked or mentioned 41-million times across social media. The commercial has been viewed more than 5.7-million times on YouTube.

"He’s the only endorser you can find with 100% awareness — and no cost for the talent," Sheldon says of God. "There’s no clearance, no network issues. You just have to believe that God, like the rest of us, uses a smartphone to run his life."

But commercials perceived as blasphemous can face a fierce reaction. Energy drink maker Red Bull was forced to stop running an animated commercial in 2012 after heavy criticism. The ad, which aired in SA, portrayed Jesus explaining that there was nothing miraculous about him walking on water; he was stepping across hidden stones. But then he trips and gets wet. "Oh, Jesus," he says. Authorities in Brazil threatened to ban the ad.

"We did not set out to offend anyone," says Patrice Radden, a Red Bull spokeswoman. "However, having heard the response to it, we quickly accepted that this was the unintended consequence, apologised and immediately replaced it."

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who identified as atheist or agnostic rose to 23% in 2014 from 16% in 2007.

Still, some marketers such as Day, of Bohan, say they think many people still yearn for some sort of spiritual connection. But whether they want that connection to come from an advertisement is another question entirely. "There are moments in time when brands need to stand back and be very careful about how they’re trying to impose themselves or get in on a conversation," Hegarty says.

New York Times