"I Created the World in Six Days and All I Got Was This Lousy Billboard — God"

The strange saga of a religious advertising campaign begins and ends in Fort Lauderdale.

"They said we violated our employment contracts, forgetting the fact that we didn't have any. Pretty hilarious. They sued, we countersued, it went away, and then they went out of business," tallies a slightly smug Robb. "And we didn't." According to court documents, the company folded in April of 2000, and the suit was dismissed in July of 2001.

Smith is more sanguine. "It was just one of those things. We just didn't agree, but it wasn't worth fighting for — it was better to say goodbye. But we didn't think we did anything wrong."

The Smith Agency was soon losing steam after firing its two original stars. "That's how we felt," Robb says. "In retrospect, it probably wasn't the smartest move on their part."

The Lord's pitchman: Charlie Robb wrote the best GodSpeaks zingers.
Colby Katz
The Lord's pitchman: Charlie Robb wrote the best GodSpeaks zingers.

Says Isaacs: "The company went under for whatever financial reasons that were not disclosed to me. There were problems, and they just went downhill."

Smith is still puzzled by the demise of the company he started. "I don't understand to this day why it had to end like that. It really bothered me at first that they were using my name. But it could have been anybody with the name Smith. Hey — it's water under the bridge."

Bawarsky, who runs a media company in Fort Lauderdale, says he doesn't remember what led to the problems with Smith and Robb. "It was so long ago, and I haven't spoken to them in ten years," he says.

After the GodSpeaks billboards went national (and even to England), a few copycats arose, usually in the South and sponsored by local churches. The originators were miffed but ignored them for the most part. The copycats ripped off the phrases but sometimes had trouble with punctuation ("C'ome on Over and Bring the Kids" read one on a rural North Carolina roadway).

Then they seemed to fade away, occasionally resurfacing somewhat ominously when hurricanes or tornadoes stripped away layers of vinyl billboards. In those cases, God got the last word.

In the fall of 2005, however, the DeMoss Group in Duluth, Georgia, re-started the campaign. Mark DeMoss, a former spokesman for Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority group, had crafted his PR firm with a decidedly evangelistic flavor. In turn, when the firm unveiled 400 billboards bearing new slogans, the tone turned downright preachy — and political.

"The Real Supreme Court Meets Up Here" and "One Nation Under Me" read a pair of God's new batch of quotes in the same black/white design.

John C. Green at the University of Akron, a prominent authority on the influence of religion on politics and culture, has studied the GodSpeaks billboards since the beginning.

"The original 1998 campaign had the flavor of contemporary evangelism that is fairly comfortable with contemporary culture, a bit on the hip side and nondenominational. The new campaign seems a bit more serious, with a tiny bit of a conservative edge" — he points out the "Supreme Court" billboard as an example — "and a little bit more religious.

"The first campaign seemed to fit the sensibility of the Clinton years like a glove; this one may fit the Bush years equally well."

According to the OAAA, whose public-service ad campaigns have included America's Most Wanted and Crime Stoppers, GodSpeaks is the most successful of all — though which yardstick is used isn't clear.

By now, the billboards have spread so far that DeMoss can't keep track. "We'll read articles about a billboard in a state that isn't even on our list," he says, "so that's how we'd know. Some billboard owners treat them as filler space rather than have an empty board."

And still, the advertising world operates as though the identity of the people funding the campaign is the most closely guarded secret in their industry.

Speculation about who was financing the billboards tended to focus on big local donors known for their Christian bent: H. Wayne Huizenga, Hamilton Foreman, Bob Coy, and James Kennedy, all with ties to evangelical groups. Yet none of them is the donor.

Green contends that "it's pretty common for wealthy, even anonymous donors to contribute to evangelism campaigns, even ones that appear fresh and 'outside the box. '"

"They want to be anonymous for a reason," Robb surmises. "The inference was that they didn't want their name known because it was an altruistic thing."

Smith sounds as if he's going to slip and reveal something, then catches himself: "It really isn't worth it," he says, shaking his head. "Not that anything would happen. I think everyone's pretty much put it behind them."

Shelly Isaacs gets a kick out of it. "I can't tell you," he laughs. "They'll come after me and kill me — send Satan after me."

Meredith Hurt, communications manager with the OAAA, explains that the GodSpeaks billboard project is the only anonymous campaign she knows of. "Usually, I at least know the foundation name," she says, "if not the individual behind it."

"I'd rather not comment," Bawarsky adds.

Says DeMoss: "I know about the contributors, but I've never confirmed or denied who they are. Though I've read some things." It doesn't matter, he insists, who is paying for the ads. "That's the important component of this campaign. You could have the exact same thing sponsored by the Southern Baptists and it wouldn't have had such an impact."

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