- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2000

God can work in mysterious ways. Sometimes, though, He has some really snappy one-liners:
"Don't make me come down there."
"What part of 'thou shalt not' didn't you understand?"
"Let's meet at my house Sunday before the game."
"Need directions?"
The God who emerged on 10,000 stark, black-and-white billboards in 40 states last year was terse and clever indeed the star of "God Speaks," a nationwide outreach to lost sheep, lapsed Christians, prayer-phobes and, yes, sinners.
The $25 million, nondenominational campaign, originally funded by a donor who remains anonymous to this day, generated much media coverage, inspired sermons and jolted conversations and e-mail messages around the country.
In a few days, however, God will not only be clever, He will be hip.
A new billboard campaign aimed at teen-agers and their most hair-raising problems starts Monday. It is God Speaks, Part 2.
A double-decker bus, emblazoned with 18 new slogans, will arrive at a swank Manhattan hotel for a photo op, then take a month-long ramble around the city.
This time around, the campaign is called "Wuzup, God?"
Soon, thousands of new billboards in the abbreviated language of street and school hallways will appear in 17 states, posted on highways, in malls and at bus stops. There will be TV spots and a companion site on the Internet (www.wuzupgod.com), complete with message board.
The billboards are designed to look almost like graffiti. But the new messages remain fiercely under wraps. There are no leaks at God Speaks.
"We can't reveal a single message before Monday," said Steve Rice of the Smith Agency in Fort Lauderdale, which produced the billboards.
"But God is definitely speaking in hip acronyms here," Mr. Rice continued. "Kids will understand. Older people may not. Maybe they'll talk to each other, maybe they'll think. That's what we hope."
"These messages show God speaking with kids in their own language, not at them," added Shelly Isaacs, the agency's creative director.
The patron behind it all is still anonymous, although he or she released a statement through the ad agency yesterday, which read:
"Every day, we experience the heartbreak of seeing our children struck down and families destroyed. If people will talk to God, establish a relationship with God, and be guided by the rules He set forth for us, we will begin saving lives."
Last year's campaign was a remarkable success. Broadcast and cable news networks, major newspapers and religious magazines covered it. There are now "God Speaks" computer screen savers and a fan site on the Internet (www.godspeaks.net ).
There were no major protests against billboards, which were neither sanctimonious nor garish. One group of ministers called the campaign "the finest in drive-by evangelism."
The campaign, described as everything from "poignant" to "playful" by analysts, won the Smith Agency a first place in the OBIE advertising awards. The signs were embraced by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America and radio giant Chancellor Media, which both donated space on existing billboards.
But of course, religious billboards are nothing new.
Powerful spiritual messages have appeared on roadsides since the Depression era, lending considerable heft to the idea of the "American highway as narrative," according to one cultural writer.
But billboards and religion sometimes don't mix. During the pope's 1998 visit to Mexico, for example, Pepsi was accused of commercializing the visit after it sponsored billboards announcing the pontiff's arrival.
And the massive DDB-Needham advertising agency caught flack last year after using Leonardo Da Vinci's "Last Supper" and the words, "Let us rejoice as the new Golf is born," in a Volkswagen campaign in France.
Ten thousand billboards were taken down after Catholic groups protested, then sued the agency.
But the Smith Agency, along with the anonymous "client," has high hopes for the new "God Speaks" campaign.
In the next few weeks, billboards will start appearing in Alabama, California, Florida, Wyoming, Michigan and the District of Columbia, among other places.
"The slogans will deal with terrible problems kids have to face," said Mr. Rice of the Smith Agency. "And the real message is that God can be there for them."

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