"I Created the World in Six Days and All I Got Was This Lousy Billboard God"
Sensing that his message had been lost in the din of modernity, God decided it was time for a little self-promotion. Churches weren't full, the flock was straying, people were slacking, sin was spreading like Miracle Whip, and he needed something to stem the tide.
Something to get folks back into the pews again. Maybe some slick advertising, he thought, would help get the message out. His own ideas, his own words, straight from his own pen and ink. Yeah.
"TV commercials are so me-damned expensive," sighed God. "And everyone has TiVo now."
Peter suggested direct mailing.
"I don't know," said God, rolling his eyes. "I always throw that crap out."
Peter thought for a moment. "Satellite radio? Maybe your own show?"
God sighed. "Nah. My voice is so geriatric, I make Diane Rehm sound like a 16-year-old."
"Wait a minute," Peter said. "How about billboards?"
"Wall Drug?" said God, closing his TV Guide. "Or Burma Shave? I always liked those. Reminds me of Wyoming."
"Or how about those scrolling electronic billboards?" Peter asked excitedly. "We'll put them everywhere! They could display the temperature in hell! That'll get 'em!"
"No, no," God said. "No. Something motivating. Witty. Snappy. Something that'll get people thinking of me, without hitting 'em over the head with a Bible."
Peter thumbed through the Big Rolodex. "Who should we call?"
"Try South Florida. We need to keep things discreet."
"Discreet? South Florida?"
"Sure. No one there will believe it's me anyway."
Down on Earth, a Fort Lauderdale advertising agency received a visitor. A mysterious and anonymous stranger met with the company's president and namesake, Andy Smith, in June of 1998. So goes the story, anyway.
The stranger envisioned a series of billboards, signed by the Almighty himself, with short, pithy phrases meant to strike a chord with believer and heathen alike. The Smith Agency was a bit player in the billboard trade at the time. The idea of billboards bearing a message from the dude upstairs was an odd request, but Smith welcomed the challenge.
Neither Smith nor his right-hand man, creative director Charlie Robb, were church-going men. But the nondenominational slant intrigued them. By September, Robb's creations began appearing along South Florida roadways. "Let's Meet at My House Sunday Before the Game God" showed up on I-95. Broward County transit buses rolled through town with "Keep Using My Name in Vain and I'll Make Rush Hour Longer God. "
Massive success ensued. The campaign went national, popping up on 10,000 billboards along the country's highways. National media rushed to rejoice in the messages from God, and the Smith Agency's prospects soared. John Avila and the Today show visited the ad men, and Smith and Robb toured the globe accepting accolades. In just two years, more than 500 newspaper articles were written about the billboards.
It was good money and good times.
"This would have been just like any other campaign," Smith says, "but because it created so much excitement, it was more fun than anything we'd ever done. And we knew what we were doing every step of the way."
Smith grins as he remembers driving to the office one morning while local FM station Y-100 hosted a call-in for anyone who could identify the donor behind the billboards. He phoned up and played around for a while, never letting on who the mystery benefactor was.
"Everybody was trying to find out who was behind it," Smith says. "And to this day, we haven't told anybody."
But speaking for God had its consequences. Within a year, his agency had been bought by dot-commers who turned around and dumped the men who had created the wildly successful ad campaign. Subsequent versions of God's billboards turned amateurish and then strident. Today, they're nearly as ubiquitous, if more divisive.
God has turned ornery as new ad men have taken up his voice.
Meanwhile, ad execs still consider the first campaign, which came out of Fort Lauderdale, as the pinnacle of their craft. And they still talk about the mystery of who put up the money to make God speak from billboards. They insist that the secret is still the best-guarded one of their industry.
Even if it did leak out, to little fanfare, nearly four years ago.
After college in Ames, Iowa, Andy Smith started his own company in Boca Raton back in 1983, a small agency that expanded slowly over the years. Charlie Robb, a journalism major from Northwestern who had gravitated to advertising and firms in Chicago and Toronto, joined in 1990.
Before the GodSpeaks campaign, Robb had written ad copy for Kraft, Westinghouse, Nestle, Lucky Strike, and Molson Export.
Robb wrote all the copy for the first GodSpeaks billboards. "He could come up with four or five words that would just knock your socks off," Smith marvels. A cherubic man who's clearly happy to be out of the business (he now runs a center for children with learning disabilities and autism), Smith says that Robb was fully responsible for the GodSpeaks idea: "He's the one who made the Smith Agency what it became." The firm had clients like Holy Cross Medical and Bethesda Hospital but "nothing extraordinary until Charlie came along."
Robb's concept was simply about getting people to go back to church and embrace spiritual thinking. He calls himself "the intended target audience" the exact sort the campaign was trying to reach. "If I'd been a devout, church-going type of person, I'd have probably followed into the trap our client was falling into, which was making it too biblical. It would have been a failure."
Pitching his ideas to the client, he constantly fought the client's tendency to preach to the choir. "There was actually a fairly heavy battle getting the thing through. But we were successful, and it ran basically as I wrote it."
What Robb so masterfully accomplished was giving God an unmistakable voice of cool. Like your hip uncle with facial hair, who probably listened to the Dead back in the day, he's nonthreatening, funny, and perceptive. He came off more like a guy who'd have fun building a campfire on a fishing trip than sending someone to roast eternally in hell. God ended up an understanding soundingboard, capable of giving sage advice without being too judgmental.
However, from the beginning, the billboards had detractors, from factions on both left and right. "This merger of the Ten Commandments and Madison Avenue is particularly objectionable," raged the Orlando Sentinel a year after the billboards started. "When the ravages of sin is, well, a traffic jam, haven't we lowered the stakes just a tad below fire and brimstone?"
"These billboards are arrogance in a most undiluted form," read a peeved Duke University editorial a few years later. "They are imagination presented as quotation. They are interpretation stated as fact."
In the meantime, the humble company Andy Smith had started was the most talked-about ad agency in the country. The Outdoor Advertising Association of America picked up the campaign and ran it in 40 states, and Smith and Robb won the OAAA's 1999 OBIE award as best public service campaign.
That same year, Smith sold the firm to a pair of Broward-based dot-com investors, David Bawarsky and Jim Lobel, and their Quikbiz Internet Group.
More evidence that things were going well: Kate Medina, a Random House editor who'd worked with James Michener and Tom Brokaw, contacted Robb and said she was a big fan of the billboards.
"We think there's a book in there," she told him on the phone, and they began plans to publish one.
But the news that Robb had parlayed the campaign into a book angered Quikbiz as well as the anonymous client. The latter's concerns were quelled, but the atmosphere in the office became uncomfortable, with tension between the campaign's originators and the new owners.
"I was caught way off-guard with what they ended up doing to Charlie and me," Smith complains. "Some things you just don't forget."
As the agency was mired in disagreement, a local attorney offered a free mediation session. During the meeting with Bawarsky, Robb received a phone call from a colleague back at the Smith Agency, who informed him that the locks were being changed. "And that was pretty much it for us," he says.
The book sold 50,000 hardcover copies and was even published in Italian but that success was overshadowed by the untimely dismissal of Smith and Robb.
With the two of them out of the picture, the agency began phase two of GodSpeaks, this time with ad man Shelly Isaacs at the helm. "It was left to me to figure out the next step," he says. "I took it to another dimension by developing different language," he says. "I said, 'Let's talk to kids in that graffiti way, in the way of the street.' It turned out very well."
Isaacs used a hip-hop font that evoked a graffiti style. "[They were] modern-day homilies for kids. To me, the best one was 'Chill, Don't Kill. '"
But the new urban-tinged campaign, dubbed WuzupGod, didn't come close to matching the success of its predecessor. "It didn't run very long," Robb recalls, "and it got really preachy." Invariably, middle-aged ad men attempting to co-opt hipness especially the phraseology of the street ended up making themselves look like schmucks.
"Think I Planted Stuff Down Here for You to Smoke?" was one unfortunate example, particularly in tobacco country. And clunkers like "Bro, Save Me a Seat!" and "You Can Run But You Can't Hide From Me" were so wrong-headed, they threatened to ruin the reputation established by the earlier campaign.
In 2000, MTV refused to run TV spots with the messages (because the actual client was still anonymous, Isaacs says), and the resultant publicity bought another couple of seconds of interest.
"I got a lot of heat because I said MTV probably would have rejected the Ten Commandments," Isaacs recalls.
The press backlash intensified, with editorialists taking potshots at those who'd presume to speak for God. "I'd say, how else would we talk to God? It's human!" exclaims Isaacs, who admitted that some educators found the messages condescending. "It's a polarizing campaign. And I wanted to create controversy."
Smith and Robb started their own shop after their dismissal, but a lawsuit filed by Bawarsky and Lobel alleging intellectual property theft and breach of contract dogged them.
"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."
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."
The thing is, although ad execs still pretend it's a secret, the identity of the donor was actually revealed by a North Carolina newspaper four years ago.
In 2002, the Winston-Salem Journal pored through tax records and traced the GodSpeaks campaign to a Fort Lauderdale family in charge of a local foundation started by an Ohio-born oil magnate, a man named Festus Stacy.
A millionaire at just 29, Stacy gave away much of his money in his old age, bestowing huge gifts on Pine Crest School and Holy Cross Hospital. He died in 1995 at age 92, and his wife died in 2002.
The Festus and Helen Stacy Foundation keeps a low profile. Its board members today are the progeny of the Stacys son Douglas, daughter Virlee, grandsons Brett and Sean Stepelton whose names ring few bells in Fort Lauderdale but are well-known in philanthropic Christian circles.
IRS documents reveal that in 1998, the foundation paid $151,709 for "billboards." At the time, the Smith Agency said the cost of the campaign was under $200,000. The next year's return shows that the foundation paid more to the Smith Agency, nearly $600,000, than to any other benefactor.
In addition, a QuikBiz quarterly report from 1998 reveals that Douglas Stepelton was made an executive for a Nevada venture called Capital Network of America with David Bawarsky as a witness.
Sean Stepelton, one of the foundation's directors, denied any connection to GodSpeaks. "There's people speculating all over the place," he says. "You hear these names all over."
"Whoever it is will never tell," Isaacs says. "They don't want anyone to know."
The Festus and Helen Stacy Foundation controls about $100 million, doling out the profits from its investments to ministries, schools, and charities.
Today, Brett and Sean Stepelton oversee the financial/investment aspect of the foundation. Among the top ten nonprofit philanthropic organizations in the nation, the Festus and Helen Stacy Foundation donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to Christian groups nationwide, including local fixtures Calvary Chapel, Coral Ridge Presbyterian, and Shepherd's Way. Its most recent tax return, from 2002, documents $2,687,580 in charitable gifts, including $250,000 to the Salvation Army, $100,000 to SAT-7 (a TV station spreading Christianity in the Muslim world), $221,400 to Orlando's Campus Crusade for Christ, and $447,500 to the Christian Community Fund in Kansas City.
For some organizations, the Stacy family money represents a true godsend. In 2001, for example, one-third of the total annual donations made to Gateway Community Outreach in Deerfield Beach came from the foundation.
But the foundation's desire for secrecy is suspicious to some. The Journal article concluded with a quote from an angry reader: "The first thing I thought when I saw those billboards was 'Where's the fine print telling me who financed this crap? If I put up a billboard saying 'God's a Big Fat Lie: Live Right for Yourself, Today' I'm not sure the Witness Protection Program could keep my identity secret."
DeMoss reveals that the billboards may come back yet again. "I don't think we're done," he hints. "We may look at another phase, see how it goes."
Andy Smith and Charlie Robb say they wouldn't have changed a thing and consider the GodSpeaks experience the best in their careers. To this day, Smith says, he hasn't missed the ad biz for five minutes since he left.
But by 2002, Smith explains, "Charlie was so good at it he wanted to take the clientele and run with it. But I burned out and wanted to go in a different direction."
The challenges at Center for Precious Minds, where Smith is business director, are more rewarding. "Advertising was fun but a thankless business, frankly. I guess with the God billboards, that's the exception."
"We got tons of letters," Robb recalls. "Which was a first. Me and Andy told each other that if we got even one person to change, to start going to church, then the campaign is a success."
In 1999, a Fort Lauderdale nurse sent Robb a letter, telling a story about her niece, whose husband wouldn't attend church with her. "He saw the billboard that said: 'You Invited Me to Your Wedding, Now Invite Me to Your Marriage,'" she wrote. "He went to church the next Sunday, and his attendance at church services has now become a regular thing."
Unfortunately, that intercession was overshadowed by later events. New Times contacted the woman who wrote the letter, who said that the man she wrote about later committed suicide.
Even so, Smith says: "God, we had fun! The most fun I had in 20 years of advertising was with Charlie." But when Smith called it quits in 2003, he reveals: "I'd had enough. I was burned out. What are you really accomplishing marketing oil companies?"
The God billboards redeemed Robb who now runs his own ad firm in Port St. Lucie as well. "Oh yeah. No question. That made up for all the work I did for Lucky Strike and Molson."
"There's very little self-satisfaction in it," Smith adds. "Sure, you make a lot of money, and you get a lot of people to buy products, but there's more to life than just advertising."
Do you have any idea
where you're going?
Have you read my #1 best seller?
There will be a test.
Need a marriage counselor?
Tell the kids I love them.
You think it's hot here?
My way is the highway.
Big Bang Theory?
You've got to be kidding.
Will the road you're on
get you to my place?
I love you... I love you... I love you.
That 'love your neighbor' thing...
I meant It.
Loved the wedding,
invite me to the marriage.
Keep using my name in vain and
I'll make rush hour longer.
We need to talk.
What part of 'Thou shalt not...'
didn't you understand?
Let's meet at my house
before the game.
Come over and bring the kids.
Don't make me come down there.
I'm everybody's homey.
Chill... don't kill.
Searchin' for the ultimate high?
I'm up here.
Lookin' for a phat place to hang?
Try my crib.
Hate is not my rap.
Think I planted stuff
down here for you to smoke?
Yo, casual sex is on
my list of deadly sins.
Feeling yanked in the wrong direction?
Parents split? I'll keep you together.
You can run but you
can't hide from me.
I know what you're going through.
I have a son.
I'm an awesome dad.
Let me be your ecstasy.
Don't dis the ones who love you.
There's no sub for my teachin'.
Bro, save me a seat!
My book is your map.
The real Supreme Court meets up here.
Life is short. Eternity isn't.
It's a small world. I know... I made It.
If you must curse, use your own name.
All I know... is everything.
One nation under me.
As my apprentice, you're never fired.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.