'Passion' campaign aims to overcome Christian rifts

LOS ANGELES: After earning more than $125 million in its first five days in theaters, The Passion of the Christ is being hailed as a marketing miracle that united a Christian audience despite deep divisions within that nebulous demographic.

LOS ANGELES: After earning more than $125 million in its first five days in theaters, The Passion of the Christ is being hailed as a marketing miracle that united a Christian audience despite deep divisions within that nebulous demographic.

Part of the campaign involved the hiring of numerous specialty PR and marketing agencies across the country, charged with outreach to Christian media and religious writers at mainstream publications. The campaign also focused on reaching influential people in church communities, which, experts say, was a key to creating a united demographic.

"It is not by any means a monolithic group," said A. Larry Ross, who runs an eponymous agency in Dallas that counts superstar evangelist Billy Graham among his clients, of Christian consumers.

Ross, who has worked on other religious-themed movies, such as DreamWorks' The Prince of Egypt and Artisan's Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie, was hired by Passion producer Icon Productions to handle outreach to religious media.

While Icon has asked Ross and others who worked on the film to refrain from discussing specifics of the marketing, Ross points out that the core message of both the film and the marketing, that "Christ died for our sins," is a "common denominator" and "something that all these groups can agree on," lending PR efforts a single message to deliver.

But despite receptiveness to a common message, Christian groups often rely heavily on receiving that missive from trusted sources inside their communities. Icon used at least a half-dozen specialty communications shops that targeted religious groups, such as evangelists or urban churches, though influential community figures, including pastors, entertainers, and sports figures. Those shops included New York-based Emerald Entertainment and Marketing, Shaddai Marketing of Pennsylvania, and Atlanta-based Guice Media Communications, all of which did urban outreach mainly to African-American churches. Those shops were subcontractors to Intellect Media Group, which was hired by Icon, said Shaddai principal Angela Pipersburgh. The other agencies involved included Dallas-based Angelcomm Media and California-based Outreach Inc.

Sabrina Guice of Guice Communications gives an example of the kind of community leader that was sought out. Her firm helped secure an endorsement from popular black minister T.D. Jakes, who then spoke about the movie on gospel radio. Pipersburgh said the campaign was especially well received by evangelical groups, who viewed the film as "the greatest evangelical outlet in the past 2000 years," she said.

Despite the film's success, the PR is far from over. With Easter looming, the film is being promoted as a spiritual tool for sermons throughout Lent.

"No doubt during holy week and leading up to Easter, when churches are focusing on this, the momentum will likely sustain," said Ross.

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