Religion and video contests don’t mix

Thou shalt not film up in here

If you check the official rules of most video contests you’ll find a list of things that you’re prohibited from featuring in your entries. You can’t show smoking, you can’t show gambling, you can’t show drinking, you can’t use profanity, you can’t create entries that are obscene or racist or that advocate specific political views. But there’s one sensitive topic that never makes the “prohibited” list; Religion. Sometimes contest rules prohibit entries that defame other religions but general religious themes and scenarios are always allowed.

But just because you can feature a topic doesn’t mean you should.  Religion is like the poison puffer fish of advertising. The skilled hands of a team of professionals might be able to carve some humor out of religious scenarios. But when non-pros take a wack at religion they usually wind up with a big blob of poisonous mush. There is a fine line between clever and offensive and most non-pros don’t have the skills or the experience to recognize that line. Still, it seems like I’m always seeing tons of contest entries that touch on religion. I suspect that the reason is that many new filmmakers get their ideas from what locations they have access too. And for many Americans, a church is the most interesting place they can get permission to use.

Let me give you a few examples from the Crash the Super Bowl contest. Here are two entries that features Jesus turning water into Pepsi Max. (Link 1) (Link 2)  And here’s a very well done entry about an alter boy that uses Pepsi Max as holy water. (link)

But no matter how well done an entry is, if religion is part of the punchline it will never win a major commercial contest. My personal rule is that if I think my idea might offend anyone I don’t shoot it. And no matter how tame your idea might be, any depiction of religion will inevitably piss off somebody. Remember last year’s Crash the Super Bowl finalist, “Casket?” It featured a funeral in a nondescript Christian church. Now the video wasn’t about religion at all; it was about a funeral. But I remember a lot of Christian bloggers being disgusted by the ad. They felt that the pastor who produced the entry was exploiting his church for profit and that the filmmakers had “desecrated” a house of God with their shenanigans. Some people even complained because they thought the joke at the end of “casket” was supposed to be a reference to the resurrection of Jesus. (link)

So people FREAK OUT when you try and mix religion with advertising.  The last thing you want is for easily-offended strangers to see your entry and be so infuriated by its content that they e-mail or call the contest sponsor and complain. Or worse, they might even take to the web and start encouraging others to demand that your video NOT win the contest.

Think that could never happen?  Well, what I just described IS happening right now to a filmmaker from Pennsylvania named Dave W. Dave is a reader of VCN and he sent me links to his two Crash the Super Bowl entries to check out a few weeks ago. They both have similar plots but one was for Pepsi Max and one was for Doritos.  Click the images to view them:

Doritos entry: Feed your Flock by "Feedyourflock"

Pepsi Max entry: Pastor Solves his Problem by "Feedyourflock"

So those are two very well made entries.  But wow….the filmmakers are treading on some very sensitive ground.  The first few times that I watched this ads I incorrectly assumed that the priest was giving communion using Doritos instead of bread and Pepsi Max instead of wine.  Now at most I’m what you’d call a “lapse Catholic” but the videos did manage to bother me a bit.  After all, the bread and wine in communion are supposed to be the body and blood of Jesus Christ.  But Dave the director told me that the videos do NOT portray a Doritos and Pepsi Max communion.  He said the “Free Doritos and Pepsi Max Sunday” sign at the end of the videos mean that the pastor was simply giving out samples of the snacks.

I’m an open-minded, not very religious filmmaker who watched those entries several times and I still thought the ads were about a fritolay communion.  So can you guess how actual religious folks reacted when they saw these entries?  If you guessed, “they went totally ape shit” you are correct.  The director said that at first, the entries just got a few negative comments on the Crash the Super Bowl site.  Then he heard that some people who went to the church featured in the entries were not happy about the videos’ content and one of those unhappy people happened to have a blog.  That led to this post:

The post is short but here are some quotes:

Pepsi and Doritos are offering a 5 million dollar reward to the person who submits the winning commercial for the 2011 Super Bowl.  A terribly blasphemous commercial was submitted.  It blasphemes the Holy Eucharist in a similar way that the Hyundai ad did for the World Cup in soccer not too long ago.

The commercial is booked under the title on Facebook as “Feed your flock.”

Please offer prayers and sacrifices in reparation for this horrific blasphemy.

And you can probably guess what that post led to….

Most of those posts are short and you should take a look at some of them.  But as you can probably guess just from the links, some Christians bloggers were encouraging their readers to contact Pepsi and complain or even boycott Pepsi products.  Right about now you’re probably thinking Beardy is going to go off on these people for complaining about a harmless video contest entry that hasn’t even won anything yet.  But I’m not.  Just last week I posted an entry on this blog that I thought plagiarized a popular Skittles commercial.  It offended me as a filmmaker and it bothered me so much I was compelled to make my feelings public.  I feel that if you see something that you believe is morally or ethically wrong, you have the right to do something about it.

So while I don’t think the Feed Your Flock ads are in any way sacrilegious, I can understand why these bloggers are mad.  BUT…what does bother me is that a lot of these people shot first and asked questions later.  A lot of them thought Feed Your Flock was PEPSI’S OFFICIAL 2011 SUPER BOWL COMMERCIAL.  (That says a lot about the production values in the ads)  So these folks and their readers started calling Pepsi saying their Super Bowl ad was offensive.  Check out what blogger from the Charlotte had to say:

When does the mockery stop?  Where do Christians draw the line?  I can see making a joke, using religious reference, and at times, it can be funny.  Pepsi’s new commercial, to air during the SuperBowl, is as tasteless as the product Pepsi and Doritos are selling….Let me look into my crystal ball…PepsiCo, I see a boycott coming on due to your offensive marketing plan!

To replace the body and blood of Jesus Christ with pepsi and Doritos… there nothing sacred any more? For Catholic Christians, this commercial is totally, unacceptable.  We have a stricter doctrine when it comes to the Eucharist.  This offensive ad is not going to be acceptable by Pope Benedict.

Pope Benedict?  WTF!?  Anyway, commentors eventually set most of these bloggers straight and pointed out that this was just an entry for a commercial contest.  And so the tactic changed.  The offended started calling Pepsi and demanding that Feed your Flock not win the Crash the Super Bowl contest.  That led to this shocking announcement from blogger Victoria Gisondi:

Great News! Thanks to all the phone calls, prayers and comments, Pepsi has informed a friend that the commercial didnt make the cut. I still need to verify this but it’s great news. Thanks for your help.

If you know how secretive Doritos/Pepsi are about the judging process of the Crash the Super Bowl contest you’ll understand why that comment is so hard to believe.  But…I believe it.  I think Pepsi wanted to nip this thing in the bud before it got any bigger and so they revealed the status of the Feed Your Flock entries.

I can’t help but feel bad for Dave and all the people who obviously put so much hard work into these videos.  But I also think they knew they were taking a gamble with their subject matter.  Here’s a blog post written by a friend of the director that takes his side.  In it, the blogger does say that the filmmakers knew what they were doing might be controversial:

Video contests are only getting bigger an bigger and the bigger they get, the more people will start to pay attention to the content that is being submitted to these contests.  So if you ever find yourself in the middle of writing a hilarious script that you can film in your church stop and ask yourself, is this idea really going to be worth the trouble it might cause?  I’m definitely not advocating that you censor yourself because people might be offended by your ideas.  But part of winning video contests is using good strategy.  And shooting an ad that might infuriate people and make them want to boycott the featured product just ain’t good strategy.

12/15 UPDATE: Dave, the director of the “Feed your flock” videos e-mailed the Crash the Super Bowl moderator and asked if his entries had been disqualified because of complaints from Christians.  Here’s the response he got:

We have had complaints about your video, however it follows all of the rules and will not be disqualified – no worries!

– Crash Moderator

So what exactly went down in this story is kind of a mystery.  I think that Doritos message to Dave is that his entry wasn’t “disqualified” because of complaints.  However I also believe they wanted to stop the complaints (and a potential boycott) so they revealed to the unhappy bloggers that the videos weren’t in the running to win.