Jesus is everywhere — except pages of Rolling Stone

Jann Wenner and his minions at Rolling Stone magazine can print — or not print — whatever their little hearts desire.

Therein lies the beauty and the blessing of a free press.

But while the powers that be at Mr. Wenner’s venerable rock ‘n’ roll pop culture publication were well within their rights (legal or otherwise) when they refused to run a half-page advertisement for a new translation of the Bible, they also were thoroughly shortsighted.

The offending advertisement was a high-concept number from Zondervan, the Christian publishing behemoth in Grand Rapids, Mich., that has a new translation of the Bible coming out next month called Today’s New International Version, or the TNIV. It’s a 21st-century tuneup of its 1978 New International Version, which is the best-selling English translation of the Bible in the world.
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At one end of the horizontal ad is the photo of a somber young man who looks a lot like Olympic gymnasts Paul and/or Morgan Hamm with longer hair and a 2-day-old beard. At the other end of the ad, in the corner, is part of the cover of a Bible. And in the middle of the ad is a slogan that reads: “Today it makes sense more than ever.”

Ad yanked

Without the text and the Bible, it could be an ad urging readers to get tested for AIDS or to not let friends drive drunk.

Below the benign slogan, there is a paragraph of smaller text that talks about navigating a world of “almost endless media noise and political spin” in search of the “real truth,” and suggests that the Bible, particularly the TNIV version, is a reliable source.

It doesn’t mention God. Or Jesus. Or the church.

All told, it’s pretty slick for a Bible advertisement.

Zondervan bought the space for the ad last July. It was supposed to run next month, but after Rolling Stone execs saw the ad copy last week, they yanked it.

The Bible publisher picked Rolling Stone as a target audience for its advert because its research showed the TNIV was most popular among adults age 18 to 34. While the publisher wouldn’t normally advertise in a magazine that is filled with full-page ads for cars, electronic gadgets, clothes, video games, cigarettes and, well, “personal lubricant,” as one giant purple ad put it, it was trying to reach a new audience.

“If we were going to effectively reach this age group, we couldn’t do it through our traditional advertising,” Doug Lockhart, senior vice president of marketing at Zondervan, was telling me the other day. In other words, placing a Bible ad in Christianity Today would be preaching to the choir.

Just doesn’t fit?

A spokeswoman for Rolling Stone told me they wouldn’t comment on the Bible brouhaha, but she stayed on the phone long enough to say that a USA Today article quoting Kent Brownridge, general manager of Wenner Media, which owns Rolling Stone, was accurate.

“It doesn’t quite feel right in the magazine,” Brownridge told USA Today. “We are not in the business of publishing advertising for religious messages.”

This from a magazine that famously and for years published notices for the Universal Life Church‘s mail-order ordination in its classified ads.

A colleague of mine who has had a subscription to Rolling Stone since 1974 says he understands how the magazine’s execs might have thought an ad — however stylized — for a Bible would be “jarring” for their readers.

That may be so, but isn’t rock ‘n’ roll supposed to be shocking?

Zondervan probably has risked alienating some of its own bread-and-butter customers by advertising in Rolling Stone, as well as in the Onion and on MTV’s Web site. (Both have accepted and are running the TNIV Bible ads.)

Lockhart says when the magazine rejected the ad last week, he, too, was told that it just didn’t fit “with the rest of the advertising.” But when Zondervan execs pushed for more of an explanation, they were told that Rolling Stone “didn’t accept ads for religious items.”

They asked for the magazine’s no-religious-advertising-only policy in writing. And they’re still waiting.

Maybe if the religious message is appropriately sarcastic or kitschy, it doesn’t count. This would explain the presence of a small ad for T-shirts emblazoned with a cartoon Jesus — crown of thorns, arms outstretched — and the words “Put down the drugs and come get a hug” on page 71 of Rolling Stone’s Jan. 26 issue.

Perhaps Rolling Stone honchos were worried that an ad for a Bible would somehow blow the cool.

Sadly, that ship has already sailed, having been launched (if it hadn’t been years earlier, as many argue) when “American Idol” star Clay Aiken graced its cover on July 10, 2003.

Even Pat Boone is cooler than that crooning neo-Opie.

In the struggle to stay hip, relevant and edgy, a half-page ad for a Bible may be the least of Rolling Stone’s worries.

Who are the readers?

I can’t help but wonder if rejecting the Zondervan ad was a commentary on who Rolling Stone execs believe their readers to be.

Might they think reading the Bible and reading Rolling Stone are mutually exclusive activities?

They’d be wrong.

A recent survey by Harris Interactive Poll (funded by Zondervan) found that 59 percent of adults age 18 to 34 said the Bible was “relevant to their lives.” At last count, Rolling Stone had about 16 million readers (if you count pass alongs; about 1.3 million if you only count subscribers), according to Martin Walker, a magazine industry consultant in New York.

The median age of a Rolling Stone reader is 28.5. Surely some of them might read the Bible or want to, and not just to be ironic.

Blender magazine, one of Rolling Stone’s younger competitors, seems to think so. According to Lockhart, a Blender rep phoned Zondervan earlier this week and offered to run the ad in its pages.

No word on whether Mr. Aiken will ever be a Blender cover boy, but the magazine did rank his song “Invisible” No. 11 on its “50 Worst Songs of All Time” list.

More Chicago Sun-Times columns on religion by Cathleen Falsani

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Chicago Sun-Times, USA
Jan. 21, 2005
Cathleen Falsani, Religion Writer

Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday January 23, 2005.
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