NEW YORK – Niche marketing is reaching heavenly new heights.
Chevrolet is sponsoring an evangelical concert tour in an effort to reach some Christians, a move criticized by some as crossing the line between business and religion.
The "Chevrolet Presents: Come Together and Worship" stage show begins Nov. 1 in Atlanta and ends at the Palace at Auburn Hills, Mich., on Nov. 23.
Steve Betz, the General Motors Corp. (GM) division's marketing manager for the southeastern United States, said he was confident the tour will send a positive message and give dealers a boost.
"It's important that we get the message out there with regards to Chevrolet and how we're so family oriented and have great values,'' Betz said.
But the justification for intermingling Jesus with the latest and greatest SUVs and pickup trucks makes some uneasy.
"This is surprising -- a real blurring of the lines between the commercial and the sacred," Phyllis Tickle, an expert on religious marketing for Publishers Weekly, told the Detroit Free Press. "We know that church and state are never supposed to meet, and I think it's also a bad idea for church and Wall Street to be meeting like this.''
The Chevrolet tour includes a multimedia worship service, with preaching by the Rev. Max Lucado, a Texas pastor and author, and a distribution of free evangelical literature. The headline musicians, Michael W. Smith and the rock band Third Day, are among popular acts in contemporary Christian music genre.
"I’m a little surprised at the response the Christian sponsorship has got," said Jack Feuer, media editor of AdWeek.
"How is it crossing the line?" he asked. "If it was nudity or profanity in a commercial I can see that, but trying to develop a bond with a group is just good business."
And the group Chevy hopes to bond with is indeed big. The shows are booked into venues averaging 14,000 seats, among them American Airlines Center in Dallas and Atlanta's Philips Arena.
"We consider this to be a breakthrough for our industry,'' said Frank Breeden, head of the Christian Music Trade Association in Nashville, Tenn. "A lot of corporations have had a long-standing hands-off policy on topics they consider controversial. And for a long time they've thought about religion as one of those topics.''
"They have the right to do it," Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League in New York, told the New York Times. "I'm a little uncomfortable with a major commercial venture going into propagating religion. Evangelical Christians believe they have the truth, so are they selling a product because it's God's product? I find it troubling."
But niche marketing is nothing new, said Feuer. Technology has developed "to provide ever more precise pictures of who likely buyers are. Target marketing is now vital … and when they find a niche they will devote resources," he said.
Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, Pfizer, Miller Brewing Company, United Airlines, Bank of America and Smirnoff sponsored gay pride celebrations in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, and Toronto in 2002, according to Motherjones.com.
Anheuser-Busch contributed $81,000 to the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender Pride Celebration committee and was the largest contributor to New York Heritage of Pride, the site reported.
"Several years ago, Subaru determined its cars are thought to be reliable and identified four groups by profession and lifestyle that need a car to get them through snow storms and uphill and one of the groups they targeted was nurses," said Feuer. "They advertised in nursing trade journals and even took exhibits in nursing conventions."
But all of the attempts to show spenders they care may be causing a backlash for some sponsors. "The new problem is overkill -- so much advertising and ad messages that sometimes sponsorship gets looked at cynically," Feuer said.
A group of gay rights activists protested at San Francisco's pride parade several years ago, chanting, "it's a movement, not a market." The protest's organizer said corporate sponsors are being allowed to cash in on the success of a rights movement despite never supporting that movement during its more difficult years, according to Motherjones.com.
Whether Chevy and other corporations’ claims of seeking closeness with clients are true, there’s no doubt wallets are what they hope to reach.
"We'll do a post-analysis of this when it's all said and done," Betz told the Detroit Free Press. "We think we've got a great venue here, but honestly, this is a business thing that we're trying to accomplish here. This is about selling cars."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.