American Times: On the road to salvation - God sends a sign to the heathen in the Chevy

YOU ARE driving along in the relaxed American way, just getting from A to B and minding your own business, when your attention is grabbed by a gigantic black billboard. "That `Love Thy Neighbour' Thing," reads the neat, white text, "I meant it - God".

This particular hoarding, which thrust itself into my line of sight somewhere on Interstate 81 in southern Virginia at the weekend, is the latest in my growing collection of "God" adverts, a peculiarly American campaign that is attracting a cult-like following - if not for God, then for the advertising company that devised it, The Smith Agency, of Fort Lauderdale in Florida.

From Florida to California and across the South, God has been recruited to remind generally sympathetic, but time-pressured Americans that they still belong to a land of God, motherhood and apple pie - and they had better not neglect the first.

A main thoroughfare on the fringe of the old central area of Nashville, a city that is not just the capital of country music, but is also known as "the buckle in the Bible belt" for its concentration of Christian publishing houses, is dominated by a billboard that asks: "Will the road you're on get you to my place?" The recent heatwave has seen a proliferation of the same hoardings with the rhetorical question: "You think it's hot here?" And then: "Have you seen my No 1 best seller? There'll be a test".

Some have a quasi- intellectual appeal: "I don't question YOUR existence". Others strike a folksy tone: "C'mon over and bring the kids". One looming over a car breakers' yard in Baltimore commands perfunctorily: "We need to talk". All are printed in the simple white on black and signed "God".

What is now a 40-state phenomenon began when an unidentified Floridian walked into The Smith Agency last year and paid $150,000 (pounds 95,000) to commission a non-denominational campaign that would reach "people who used to go to church and for some reason don't go any more". Even in this country of churchgoers, as the company vice-president Charlie Robb commented, this is still a sizeable number.

The adverts went national earlier this year after they caught the eye of the Outdoor Advertising Association (OAA), which agreed to earmark a proportion of unused billboard space for them. In June, the "God Speaks" campaign won a national award, and the media coverage and public comments - overwhelmingly favourable, despite the OAA's initial qualms - have taken off.

It is hard to imagine the campaign igniting in Europe in the same way. God is a perpetual presence in the US, especially in the South, where churches of every denomination line the roads, their pews packed each weekend. Even in prosperous suburbs, there is a social stigma attached to not going to church: which church you attend is your business; not attending at all can become a community problem.

Americans moreover are accustomed (or inured) to the reality that churches and commerce jostle for space and attention. For "God Speaks" to work, there must be people to listen, and there are plenty. For those who lamented Bill Clinton's infidelity as evidence of the nation's moral decline and the shootings at Columbine High School as a "wake-up call" for a sick society, the time is ripe for some simple moralising. If it comes with the bantering touch of the adman, that is fine by them.

One place so far untouched by God Speaks, however, is Washington DC. The commercial boom has kept the paid advertising coming, and the capital's hoardings are all taken. Not that success can be assumed. Washington is frowned upon by outsiders as a shamefully secular city to the point where wags are speculating whether the US free market is so free that it could sustain a competing campaign - from the Devil.

I wouldn't bet on it. But I wouldn't absolutely rule out another possibility: that Bill Clinton sets off for a morning jog one day and see this message - tried and tested on highways throughout America - in his path: "What part of `Thou Shalt Not ...' didn't you understand? - God".

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
News
Justin Bieber performing in Paris earlier this year
people
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman and Lauren O'Neil in Jamie Lloyd's Richard III
theatreReview: The monarch's malign magnetism and diabolic effrontery aren’t felt
Arts and Entertainment
'Molecular Man +1+1+1' by Jonathan Borofsky at Yorkshire Sculpture park
tv
News
Glamour magazine hosts a yoga class with Yogalosophy author Mandy Ingber on June 10, 2013 in New York City.
newsFather Padraig O'Baoill said the exercise was 'unsavoury' in a weekly parish newsletter
Extras
indybest
News
people'She is unstoppable', says Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris show
Sport
Alexis Sanchez and apparently his barber Carlos Moles in Barcelona today
football
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips
video
Arts and Entertainment
In his own words: Oscar Wilde in 1882
theatreNew play by the Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials - and what they reveal about the man
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m
filmWith US films earning record-breaking amounts at the Chinese box office, Hollywood is more than happy to take its lead from its new-found Asian audience
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

HR Advisor - 6 months FTC Wimbledon, SW London

£35000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - 6 Months Fix...

IT Manager - Tolworth, Surrey - £40,000

£37000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Manager - Tolworth, Surrey - £40,...

Project Support Assistant - Hampshire - up to 40K

£25000 - £40000 per annum + 23 days holiday Pension Scheme: Deerfoot IT Resour...

Foundation / Year 1 Teacher - Long Term - Salford

£90 - £130 per day + competitive rates, pension scheme: Randstad Education Man...

Day In a Page

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil