Billy Club

A simple, happy message helped him become the nation's favorite preacher. Thanks to a Popsicle-slick PR machine and a talent for dodging tough questions, we've forgotten what Billy Graham is really all about.

That part, Graham leaves to the individual churches. "He's restricted his job to breaking the ice," notes Shea, "and you don't break ice with subtlety. He stays simple; he stays very close to the formula; he shuns difficult questions. But all itinerant preachers are simple: They have only a shot or two, and then they move."

Slick Billy

In his advance publicity in San Francisco, Graham issued an open invitation to homosexuals (reserving his speech about heterosexual marriage for the sermon) and targeted sports ads to youngish males ("It won't be the first time you've gone to the Coliseum expecting a miracle.") In Ottawa, Graham appealed to the cynical secular types with slick slogans from advertising superpower Chiat/Day ("In a town where it's left versus right, let's talk up versus down"; "He's in town to address the real deficit"). In churchgoing Tampa, where most everybody has a pool, Crusade ads showed a guy walking on the water of his pool. Publicists deep-sixed the pictures of Billy in a suit; too stuffy for a shirt-sleeves community.

A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s
A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s
A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s
Archive Photos
A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s

Graham's organization has demographic research down to a science. But to understand their strategy, we have to spin backward in time to the Third Great Awakening, the religious revival at the start of this century. The icon of that awakening was evangelist Dwight L. Moody, and it was he who began the saturation publicity; paid ads; cooperation across denominations; volunteer ushers, choirs and counselors; public auditing and disclosure of all numbers. Graham learned from his predecessor, just as he learned from evangelist Billy Sunday's prayer groups, work committees, businessmen's lunches, team associates, stagecraft, celebrities and reservations for prepackaged delegations to ensure a full house.

What was different about Graham, practically speaking, was the way he devoutly exploited technology — satellite dishes to broadcast to Korea; Web pages and banner ads on the Internet. What was different about Graham ideologically was his openness to culture. In the 1940s, starting with a famous meeting here in St. Louis, conservative Protestants from many different denominations formed the National Association of Evangelicals. Leading fundamentalists had reached the unsettling conclusion that fundamentalism, as it was being practiced, was an intellectual dead end, too isolated to make any difference. They'd decided to try engaging with culture. And just as that backdrop shifted, Billy Graham came onstage.

He placed billboards of his own face alongside the neon nightclub marquees of Las Vegas. He hired searchlights to crisscross the sky for the premiere of Mr. Texas, a film about the conversion of a rodeo rider. In the early '90s, when crowds stopped responding to simple posters of Graham's visage, BGEA started hiring such top creative talent as New York's Bozell Worldwide and Saatchi & Saatchi. Recent ad campaigns have bought space next to sex-shop ads to promise, "Jesus will love you for free." They've bought air time during The Simpsons and Melrose Place. They've run ads in the obituaries that read, "Is it the End? Or Just the Beginning?" In the Bay area, they borrowed from a Microsoft campaign and, finger pointing to the sky, asked, "Where do you want to go tomorrow?" Answer: "Billy Graham." (Microsoft was not amused. But suing Billy Graham was not an option.)

The ad strategy is twofold: Use the culture that's out there, and make 'em smile. Evangelism lite, designed not to deliver the real Message but to create a three-beer buzz they call "water-cooler conversation." In Toronto, ads billed "the world's largest lost and found." In the Bay area, it was, "50,000 sinners in one place, and you don't think you'll have fun?" "Holy Cow," for San Francisco's Cow Palace. A bungee-jumper in a free fall: "Why do so many Californians wait until the last minute to talk to God?" And in the New York subway, "Is the whole world going to Hell? Or is it just you?"

What about us, here in the wholesome heartland? Sorry, St. Louis. No new creative's been created, and the only "target marketing" is a push for African-Americans. Apparently we're a no-brainer: Midwestern, already pretty conservative, fond of church and family. BGEA is simply recycling their Indianapolis stuff, inserting the image of the Arch in the predesigned bumper sticker, dubbing "St. Louis" and "Trans World Dome" into the TV commercial. (They even used the same form letter to the media, forgetting to change "Indianapolis" in the body.)

After all, we only became a destination after Sterling Huston, director of North American ministries for BGEA, attended a prayer gathering here nearly three years ago. Impressed by St. Louis' spirit and the Trans World Dome's cavernous capacity, Huston asked a St. Louisan, the Rev. Harold Hendrick, whether he would ask local pastors to invite Graham.

They eventually did, and BGEA employees started moving here last January to train local church leaders and their flocks; canvass for a volunteer corps designed to reach 25,000; arrange simultaneous interpretation of Graham's sermons in Bosnian, Cantonese, Creole, Korean, Mandarin, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese; and rent high-tech media equipment (including the "image amplification" that helps make Billy Graham larger than life).

BGEA set the $2.6 million budget, but the local churches are raising the money, paying the florists, distributing the posters, etc., and a local agency, Hughes Advertising, is handling the media. "It wasn't a creative pitch where we had to battle it out with anybody," explains account executive Steve Hughes. He catches sight of his father in the hall of the ad agency. "Dad, do you have a second?" he calls. "How did we get the Billy Graham account?" Hughes comes back: "Through Larry Collett, who's chairing the St. Louis Crusade committee. He and my dad are friends."

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