Signs from God -- more or less

On the road of life, some billboards speak for the almighty dollar. Others seem to speak for the Almighty himself.

May 02, 1999|By Young Chang | Young Chang,contributing writer

While longtime billboard stars Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man may be exiting the streetside advertising scene these days, someone much bigger is making his presence known.

God.

Look up almost anywhere around the country these days, and you'll find God. God saying, "I love you ... I love you ... I love you." God saying, "Don't make me come down there," or "Keep using my name in vain and I'll make rush hour longer."

God apparently does not think he needs to make a big production. His billboards are pretty basic: short messages in white lettering on a stark black background and signed simply: "God."

There are about 20 such signs posted around Baltimore these days. Tim Collington, a minister at the Destiny Center, a church on Penrose Avenue, believes their appearance was "preordained."

Perhaps. But if so, God is not working alone. His messages -- there are 21 different ones so far -- started going up last spring thanks to an anonymous Florida resident who began funding the billboard ads. Since then, the idea has spread to Texas, Georgia, even California, involving more than 10,000 billboards.

"To this day, he's remaining anonymous," says Andy Smith, president of the Smith Agency, a Florida-based advertising firm that pioneered the project -- and wrote most of the messages. "He's not interested in the fanfare at all. ... His objective was to get people to focus on the messages."

As that first campaign caught on, other national media firms, including the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, which represents about 800 advertising agencies, joined. Its member firms have donated space, materials and other production costs, says Sheila Hayes, the association's communications director. The total cost of producing and placing the messages so far is estimated at $15 million, she says.

Eller Media, which has overseen erection of the billboards in Baltimore, has taken the "God speaking" campaign as its national public service project for the year.

"They're nondenominational, they appeal to everyone, everyone can take something away from it," says Hayes. "It was to get people talking and thinking about God -- whoever their God may be."

That works for Alvin Barksdale, a courier service employee encountered studying one of the signs posted at Baltimore and High streets.

"Look at it," Barksdale says. "It's black and white. It's so simple, it means divinity. It ain't saying Jesus or Buddha -- just God."

He says people ought to think of the signs as direct messages from God. Messages that are meant to get us thinking. Salvation is free, Barksdale says, but people need to understand who their deliverer is.

Collington says he thinks the signs are designed to at least slow people down -- literally.

"When you think about it, the core of people they're trying to reach are the ones who get angry during rush hour," the minister says. A harried driver, cursing while caught in an evening traffic jam, might look up and unexpectedly find a message from God -- and a moment of reflection.

Among the messages: "We need to talk." "Follow me." "Will the road you're on get you to my place?" And "Let's meet at my house Sunday before the game."

Charlie Robb, vice president and creative director for the Smith Agency, doesn't claim the messages were divinely inspired. And he should know. He wrote most of the 18 messages from the first campaign. A few were written by the client himself, who also approved the others.

For the national campaign (in which the original client has not played a part), Robb wrote a few more, including: "Don't make me come down there," "I don't question your existence," and "I can think of 10 things that are carved in stone."

In advertising, Andy Smith says, a message has to be short and to the point or people won't remember it -- even if it's God doing the talking. So the billboards are meant to be read in a quick, two-second glance by those passing by.

"In advertising, which this is, [the client] has got a very short period of time to capture people's attention, so that's why we had to take this approach," he says.

And though the messages are colloquial in tone, more street talk rather than biblical quotation, reactions even from the ardently religious have been mostly supportive, Smith says. Ninety-eight percent of the 50 or so e-mails a day his agency receives about the signs are positive, he estimates.

Rod Robinson, owner of A Taste of Heaven, a Christian-run soul-food restaurant at 25th and Greenmount, is positive as he talks about a billboard across the street. It fits right in with the restaurant's aim of offering its customers a "spiritual feeding" along with their lunch.

"It's a good thing," he says. Maybe, he adds, "It will begin to give [people] the understanding of who God is."

Pub Date: 05/02/99

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