World: Stuart Elliott in America

Decades ago, Bruce Barton - the second "B" in BBDO - wrote a book, The Man Nobody Knows, that portrayed Jesus as a consummate marketing expert.

Now, a film about Jesus is offering Madison Avenue some lessons in return.

The film is, of course, The Passion of the Christ, directed by Mel Gibson, which generated some of the most contentious coverage ever accorded an American movie. In retrospect, the months of controversy about the film, especially whether Gibson's approach was too violent and slanted against Jews, proved to be more effective in selling tickets than the cleverest ad campaign devised by the likes of a movie maven such as Harvey Weinstein.

The brouhaha over the perspective of Passion, described in a review by Jami Bernard, a film critic for the Daily News in New York, as "the most virulently anti-Semitic movie made since the German propaganda films of World War II", helped to turn it into what her news-paper soon was calling "the most unlikely blockbuster in Hollywood history". The belief that the bitter debate wound up fuelling the movie's marketing contradicts the conventional wisdom that polarising the public guarantees box-office obliteration. But it may reflect the new American landscape of a nation deeply divided politically, forcing each party to rouse its core supporters to turn out instead of wooing the uncommitteds.

Imagine if consumer-product marketers took the same tack: ads for Coke not only would praise its own customers, they also would demonise Pepsi drinkers. (Maybe Mother's singer would hand out bombs not bottles.) And a certain hamburger chain could rename itself the Burger Kingdom of Heaven and condemn customers of McDonald's to eternal flame-broiling in hell.

The proof of the passion for Passion went beyond the initial box office results, which at $135.3 million in less than a week - far beyond the most optimistic pre-opening estimates - set records for an independent film, a subtitled film and a film released in February. It extended to myriad marketing ploys, some sanctioned by Gibson, others simply examples of good old-fashioned American capitalistic opportunism. Gibson approved the sale of licensed tie-in merchandise, including T-shirts, coffee mugs, key chains, books and even Crucifixion-nail pendants inscribed "Isaiah 53:5". The items are for sale on a special website,

Gibson also agreed to the distribution of "fan kits" and "witness tools" with materials such as posters, lapel pins and postcards; allowed the movie's logo to be painted on the bonnet of an entry in the Daytona 500 stock-car race and hired Christian marketing companies to generate word-of-mouth among potential moviegoers.

On the unofficial side, entrepreneurs are selling Passion-related items on eBay. opened its Easter online store early, USA Today reported, selling films such as The Greatest Story Ever Told. A church in Houston, Texas, ran an ad with a picture of Jesus under the headline: "Don't wait to learn about Him from a Mel Gibson movie." Reader's Digest ran full-page newspaper ads touting a "talk-provoking" interview with Gibson in its March issue. And a video company rush-released DVDs and tapes of an interview Gibson gave ABC-TV News, which at $14.98 cost more than a ticket to the movie.

Whatever happened to chasing the money-lenders from the temple?

- Stuart Elliott is the advertising columnist at The New York Times.

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