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United Methodist Times Square ad offers Thanksgiving hope

11/13/2003 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

By Linda Green*

The people moving through New York's Times Square during the Thanksgiving season will now be able to see the United Methodist Church's message of welcome and reconciliation on an electronic billboard.

Beginning Nov. 17, the denomination's television advertisement, "The Gift," is scheduled to run 10 times daily on the 7,000 square foot central billboard of the Reuters and Instinet building. The ad will continue through Nov. 30.

The Rev. Larry Hollon, top executive with the denomination's communications agency announced that after all of the controversy surrounding religious advertising on the Reuters' electronic bulletin board, the message of hope, faith and reconciliation is back on its original schedule.

After United Methodist Communications signed a Sept. 23 contract to display the $30,000 commercial, Reuters rejected the message because they said it violated its policy against advertising that is predominantly religious or political. The agreement was made between UMCom and a Toronto-based outdoor advertising company.

Once the policy was made public, United Methodist officials expressed concern about not being given the same access and equitable treatment as a company that serves alcohol or other products. Other religious groups issued statements supporting the right of religious organizations to speak in the public marketplace.

Reuters' London-based chief executive Thomas H. Glocer then reversed the company's policy. "Your proposed advertisement and the evolution of our business has given us cause to reconsider our position," Glocer wrote to Hollon.

The international media giant will now allow faith-based advertising as long as the commercial include a prominently placed disclaimer showing that it is "paid advertising."

Hollon is pleased that "The Gift" will be on the billboard during this season of gift-giving and at a time of high traffic in the Times Square area. But, he also expressed disappointment in Reuters' disclaimer requirement of "paid commercial advertisement, which is unlike any of the other advertisers on the board, signaling out our ad for distinction."

The disclaimer placed on church advertising shows that faith-related commercials are still treated differently from the other forms of commercial speech that Reuters accepts, he said.

"People who see a beer advertisement and are sophisticated enough to know that it is not endorsed by Reuters would be sophisticated enough to understand that Reuters is not endorsing a religious message as well," Hollon added.

Still, he considers the Reuters' policy reversal a victory for the church and believes the action indicates "our argument that we ought to at least be allowed to advertise is reasonable."

Diversity is important, Hollon said, and "as we protect the diversity of opinions in the society, a victory like this is really a victory for democratic free speech in the commercial marketplace."

UMCom officials believe that the message of the church should be in a public venue such as Times Square to provide an alternative to commercialism and point out that life is about the caring for others and giving of ourselves.

"Life is not simply about getting and spending," Hollon said. "Life can be measured by how we care for each other and how we nurture each other. That is why it is important that this message be in this place at this time."

The church's message of hope, faith and reconciliation is one that will respond to the hunger that people are facing and their need for a connection with others. "People are searching for a way to fill the hole in their soul that is not being filled by material goods. This message speaks to that need," Hollon said.

The United Methodist television commercials appeared on 17 national cable and broadcast networks earlier this fall. The advertisements are a major component of Igniting Ministry, the denomination's four-year $20 million U.S. media campaign. The denomination has 10 million members worldwide.

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*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer in Nashville, Tenn. UMNS, the news agency of the United Methodist Church, is a unit of United Methodist Communications.

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