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Roadside religion goes nationwide

Usually when people look for signs from God, they expect subtle, quiet messages.

But not these signs.

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Last fall in south Florida, billboards throughout the region suddenly began offering public-service announcements - signed "God."

"Let's meet at my house Sunday before the game" proclaimed one billboard with black background and white lettering.

Another said: "What part of 'Thou Shalt Not...' didn't you understand?"

One issued a warning: "Keep using my name in vain, I'll make rush hour longer."

The roadside announcements were actually the work of Andy Smith and Charlie Robb of The Smith Agency in Fort Lauderdale. The advertising firm was hired last summer by a person requesting anonymity. Their instructions: Create and execute a marketing campaign from September to November that would get people thinking about God.

It couldn't have come at a better time for the United States, with nightly news programs saturated with stories of crime and details about presidential infidelity and all the minutiae of sex, lies, and audiotapes in Washington.

For this south Florida community, it was the equivalent of a wake-up call - from God.

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The results were immediate and impressive. Area pastors praised the idea of the billboards. Drivers found them thought-provoking. And some folks actually took the hint and went to church.

But perhaps the most amazing aspect of the campaign is what happened when it was about to end. The staff at The Smith Agency sat down at a meeting to assess the campaign. Everyone agreed that it had been a success and the question arose what, if anything, should be done next.

The answer came within two days in a telephone call from the Outdoor Advertising Association of America in Washington. The group wanted to launch "Messages from God" as a nationwide public-service campaign.

In effect, they were asking whether The Smith Agency would allow its messages to be spread to 10,000 billboards and bus stops in 200 US cities.

"The most beautiful thing about this is that it is being done gratis. There is no charge for this billboard space," says Andy Smith. The original investment by the anonymous donor was between $100,000 and $200,000. In contrast, the estimated value of the nationwide campaign - all of it donated by the OAAA and its 800 member companies - is approaching $13 million.

The campaign kicked off March 16 and will continue indefinitely, says Sheila Hayes, OAAA communications director.

She says "Messages from God" is the most effective billboard public-service campaign the organization has ever seen. It has already displaced Smokey the Bear and the crash-test dummies as the most popular campaign.

"My boss has been in the industry for 20-something years and she doesn't recall anything like this," says Ms. Hayes. "It's fun to be working on something that makes people laugh and talk."

For outdoor advertisers, the campaign is not only a public service, but also a demonstration of the power of billboards to deliver a meaningful message. The key is relevance. The messages were written by Mr. Robb, who wanted to make the missives hit home in a 1990s kind of way.

"We knew that putting Scripture on a billboard or preaching to people was not going to reach the audience that we were interested in reaching," says Smith, "those who had once been to church but no longer attended."

The messages deal with a range of issues, including children, career, and relationships. One message says: "That 'Love Thy Neighbor' thing... I meant that." Another says: "Tell the kids I love them." Still another: "I Love You...I Love You...I Love You." They are all signed simply, "God."

Smith says the campaign has changed his life. "It was a business thing at first," he says. "But it certainly has had a profound effect on me and my thinking."

For starters, he's had to sort through hundreds of letters and e-mail messages from inspired billboard viewers. And the responses keep coming.

One of his favorite letters is from a Fort Lauderdale woman who said her nephew stopped attending church. Then he saw a billboard that said: "Loved the wedding, invite me to the marriage." He returned that day to church and has been regularly attending services ever since.

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