|Stills from the 'Steeples" commercial, which originally aired over a four-day period in 2004. Randy Varcho graphic|
"Keep the ads coming."
That's the message that the Rev. Felix Carrion has heard loud and clear over the past seven months since he became national coordinator of the UCC's Stillspeaking Ministry.
The latest occurrence happened on June 29, when Carrion was worshipping at Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas.
"During the passing of the peace of Christ, this young man turned around and greeted me. He concluded our brief conversation by saying, 'Keep the ads coming,'" Carrion recalls. "For me, that sentiment struck a deep chord, because the message of our TV commercials resonates with people. Our people identify, personally, with the message of extravagant welcome and they want to be identified — as a church and as a denomination — with that message." Carrion has learned about the impact of the UCC's TV advertising firsthand, because he's been conducting "still listening" conversations in local churches as a way to gather feedback from UCC members about the successes and growing edges of the "God is Still Speaking" campaign.
He acknowledges that when he began with the Stillspeaking Ministry in January, he wasn't convinced that national TV advertising was still do-able, given the significant price tag associated with it. But as he has traveled the church and heard the testimonies of how churches have been energized by the commercials, he became a convert.
"We keep hearing from local churches that the TV advertising was very helpful to their outreach efforts," Carrion says. "They help our people feel good about the UCC, to identify with the UCC and to tell the story of the UCC to their friends and neighbors."
On July 10, the Stillspeaking Ministry, with the support of the UCC's five-person Collegium of Officers, announced a plan to return to the airwaves in September — this time with the heartwarming "Steeples" ad — if church members will rally and raise the necessary funds.
The 30-second "Steeples" ad begins with a young girl reciting the children's poem, "Here's the church, here's the steeple," with hand motions. At "open the door and see all the people," the camera segues across a diverse group of people who echo the refrain, "all the people."
Airing ads depends on fundraising
The pay-as-you-go plan calls for every dollar donated to be used to buy air time on prominent cable networks.
Unlike past ad buys, the UCC's national setting is not in a position to draw sizeable amounts from its cash reserves to cover the bulk of the cost. So, this time around, the scope and size of the ad buy will depend wholly on contributions gathered from across the denomination.
The UCC's advertising agency — Gotham, Inc. — will tailor the UCC's ad buy to the amount raised. In short, a $50,000 fundraising response will net a $50,000 ad buy, while a million-dollar response will produce a million-dollar campaign.
Church leaders — encouraged by the overwhelming response from church members earlier this year to purchase full-page ads in The New York Times and USA Today — tested the "raise-it-to-do-it" fundraising format at several Conference meetings this summer. The response was enthusiastic, with many saying the "Steeples" ad is the perfect message to counter the distortions that the UCC has endured by the media in recent months.
"We've been through some pretty intense controversies during the past few months which have posed some challenges for us and for our identity," Carrion says. "Our people feel like there is much more to the story of the UCC than the one the media has portrayed. This is a way for us to take charge of our communication, of our message, and to say that the UCC is about all the people, all the time."
"Steeples," beloved by many UCC members, has received little national air time. It ran for only four days in December 2004, but was replaced by the edgier "Bouncer" ad, which ran more extensively in 2004 and 2005. In 2006, the humorous, but equally edgy, "Ejector" ad debuted on more than 20 networks.
Both "Bouncer" and "Ejector" were banned by the major broadcast networks (such as CBS and NBC), as well as the network-owned cable channels. However, "Steeples" was deemed acceptable.
The goal is to raise at least $350,000 — but hopefully more — to air "Steeples." The plan calls for a two-to-three-week run, but the saturation of spots will hinge on fundraising response.
'Steeples' has arrived
Gwen Thomas, Stillspeaking's assistant coordinator, believes that the moment has arrived for "Steeples."
"It's an ad that never got its due," she says. "In the wave of the 'Bouncer' controversy, it never took center stage — and understandably so. But it's the right ad for us at this moment because it demonstrates that we are both-and, not either-or. We are both pastoral and prophetic."
Thomas, who leads Stillspeaking's merchandising efforts, says "Steeples" resonates strongly with UCC members.
"For years now, churches have been running this ad locally, but it has never gotten the national exposure that many of our people would have preferred," she said. "Several years ago, we needed to define ourselves to the wider world in ways that would distinguish us. Now that more people understand us — or think they do — it's important that we broaden that representation beyond the limited and often distorted portrayals we've witnessed in recent months."
It's also important to underscore the importance of energizing our own members, Thomas says, because when our membership is proud of their church affiliation, they reach out to others in bolder, more-convincing ways.
"Yes, this is about reaching out to others, but it's also about reaching out to our own people, so that they can affirm to their friends and neighbors who we are and what their church stands for," Thomas says.
Thomas says it's significant that "Steeples" will air right in the middle of a national presidential election, and that the timing is a plus. Often, she says, political campaigns take on a negative, ugly discourse. "We can offer another way," she says.
"This is a time of national discernment, and people are anxious," Thomas says. "Pollsters are telling us that people are very depressed about the economy, about the war, about the foreclosure crisis. And in the midst of this, we can give people a sense of hope."
Eight things to do in preparation for the 'Steeples' ad run:
HEADS UP. Is your congregation in the know? Promote the "Steeples to the Peoples" campaign. Show the ad to church members and enlist their support for the ad buy. View the ad online at ucc.org/allthepeople.
ANTE UP. Put your money where your enthusiasm is. It's going to take thousands of contributors to get the ad on the air this fall.
STEP UP. Take your church's Stillspeaking commitment to new heights with your church's own fundraising webpage, which can be created quickly and easily at <ucc.org/allthepeople>. Playfully compete with other churches and groups to see who can raise the most money to make the ad buy a reality.
BANNER UP. Is your church's Stillspeaking identity still visible? Maybe it's time for a messaging makeover with a new, improved banner. By Aug. 15, new vertical and horizontal varieties will be available at stillspeakingstore.com or by calling 800/537-3394.
BRUSH UP on your hospitality skills. Are you prepared to capitalize on the TV ads and warmly receive visitors? Are the greeters and ushers up to the task? Is your website current? Are your information packets updated? Vitality resources are available at <stillspeaking.com>.
DRESS UP. Two new Stillspeaking t-shirts and two new "comma" necklaces, along with other wardrobe options, are available at <stillspeakingstore.com> or by calling 800/537-3394.
DREAM UP creative ways to make the most of this Stillspeaking moment. Promote an "All the People" sermon series. Create an "All the People" mural. Place the commercial on your church's website. Run print ads in your local newspaper. How about utilizing the playful "Here's the church, here's the steeple" poem and motions on Sunday mornings?
BUTTER UP your local media. Your hometown press needs to understand the connection between the UCC church on the airwaves and your UCC church on the corner. A customizable press release is available at stillspeaking.com.