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".

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