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God and Cigarettes

March 14, 2002

Christendom is losing its grip on Germany, and the country's Protestant Church has decided that a professional advertising campaign is the way to turn the tide.

"You've come a long way, baby Jesus." The church's campaign is run by an agency that also promotes cigarettes, cola and beerImage: AP

In the soul of an advertising agent, God is like a cigarette – just another product to sell.

So it is that Melle Pufe, the Berlin-based advertising agency, has won the Protestant Church in Germany's contract to promote its Lutheran faith.

Melle Pufe is the same agency that in past years has brought to German consumers the messages that the nice people in the tobacco industry don’t want to poison you, that Afri-Cola cola is a cool drink and that Berliner Pilsner is the smoothest beer going.

Those campaigns succeeded. Why not trust Melle Pufe to present the church as an equally attractive brand as, say, Marlboro?

Bildgalerie Dresdner Frauenkirche
Reconstruction of the Frauenkirche in DresdenImage: AP

Persuaded by the proposed slogan "Protestants ask questions," this is just what the Protestant Church executive has decided to do, to the tune of €1,5 million ($1.3 million). It’s their first full-scale modern advertising blitz.

Imagine the Church as a corporation, individual parishes as outlet stores, clerics as clerks, the crucifix as company logo, and feast days like Christmas and Easter as holiday sales. Even with all that organisation, so says current marketing theory, a corporation still needs a coordinated marketing plan – a message, a brand.

That message used to be vast, encompassing the scriptures Protestants, Catholics and other Christians call holy, the collected wisdom of the Church, fellowship with believers and lives of prayer – all leading individuals to live "personal relationships" with God. The reformer Martin Luther, when in 1517 he published his "95 Theses" in protest to Catholic practices of the time, started off with a reminder that "the whole life of believers should be repentance."

That seems a bit much for many modern Germans, evidently. Life’s hectic.

Kölner Dom
The cathedral in CologneImage: Bilderbox

Indeed, with membership rolls shrinking – by 200,000 in 2001 – and baptism and christening volume also down, Christianity faces something of a crisis in Germany. Protestant and Catholic memberships combined add up to between 50 and 60 million in 2002, raising the prospect of a majority non-Christian country within a generation.

Melle Pufe’s creative director, Barbara Kotte, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine-Zeitung that part of the problem is that the Church is a "problematic brand" without a widely recognised figure to represent itself in advertising. (Traditionally the Church has thought Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, would do the trick.)

Meanwhile there are institutionalised incentives to leave the Church. Because Germany’s tax system automatically takes tithes, contributions to the Church, out of members’ income. For many largely non-participatory members this so-called "Church tax," in most other countries a voluntary contribution, seems a lose-lose proposition. Critical estimates put active churchgoers at less than 10 percent of members. More forgiving estimates say about a third.

So why "Protestants ask questions"?

The Evangelical Church’s executive director, Petra-Angela Ahrends, told the Frankfurt newspaper that a major goal of the Church in modern secularised society is to provoke spiritual thought. That’s why the ad campaign’s been launched in a media blitz that asks interesting but accessible questions:

"How do you win friends?"

"What is luck?"