Pastors have long competed with the NFL on Sundays, but this season a hipster megachurch is turning the tables with a 30-second ad that could muscle its way into that all holiest of sporting events: the Super Bowl.
Mosaic, a 3,000-member megachurch, is one of six finalists in the Doritos' "Crash the Super Bowl" challenge with a lighthearted spoof that plays off the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
If the church's ad, titled "Casket," is among the top three vote-getters in an online playoff, it will air on Feb. 7 during the Super Bowl. If the commercial ranks in the top three most-popular ads among viewers, it could win its creators either $400,000, $600,000 or $1 million.
For Erwin McManus, Mosaic's lead pastor, the ad competition represents a chance to make his faith relevant to one of the largest TV audiences in the nation when viewers least expect it — and are least likely to tune out.
Another more serious religious message planned during the game has caused a stir: A pro-life ad paid for by the conservative group Focus on the Family is expected to feature University of Florida football star Tim Tebow speaking about how his mother gave birth to him despite doctor's recommendations that she should have an abortion.
But the LA church, a congregation full of hip twenty-somethings who mostly work in the film industry and make short films for a hobby, is taking a different tack. They were careful to stick to the quirky, slapstick-style humor that's expected by Super Bowl fans.
"We're not trying to use Doritos to propagate a message, but I think we want people to know that we have a sense of humor, that it's OK to laugh," McManus said. "So much of what comes out of the faith community seems so dour and somber and we want to say, 'Hey, we're real people. You can be a person of faith and really enjoy life and laugh."
With its talent base in entertainment, the church is at the vanguard of a growing Christian movement focused on injecting faith-based themes into the plot lines of mainstream TV shows, Hollywood movies and video games that aren't explicitly Christian, or advertised as such.
Movies like "The Passion of the Christ" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" several years ago marked early successes, but the recent blockbuster "The Blind Side" — which wasn't perceived as an overtly Christian film — really made Hollywood take note, said Phil Cooke, a Christian producer, filmmaker and author.
The Doritos spot, while just 30 seconds, is part of that bigger push, Cooke said.
The tongue-in-cheek ad opens on a funeral scene and then cuts to a young man alive in a closed casket. His body is covered in Doritos and he is watching the Super Bowl on a tiny TV while chomping on chips as mourners sob outside. Two friends, who are in on the prank, snicker that by faking his death, their friend will get a week off work and an endless supply of his favorite snack.
But the man gets excited when his team makes a big play and jostles the casket, which tips over to reveal him inside with a pile of crushed chips.
After an awkward pause, his buddy jumps up and nervously exclaims to the shocked assemblage: "Aaaah! It's a miracle!"
If it wins, Mosaic's ad could do more for the church after Super Bowl Sunday than it does in the 30 seconds of air time. Fans remember and recount their favorite commercials long after the clock runs out and the buzz around Mosaic's ad could amp up because of its genesis, said Mark Labberton, a professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.
Super Bowl ad prices have dipped slightly this year, with CBS selling them for between $2.5 million and $2.8 million per 30-second unit this year, down from an average of $3 million last year on NBC, according to TNS Media Intelligence. The prices are so high because the game is the most-viewed show on television each year, with viewers tuning in to watch the commercials as much as the game itself. Last year, nearly 100 million people tuned in, according to Nielsen.
Mosaic is "saying we're actually going to enter the scene ourselves, we're going to become a player ourselves and we're going to contribute to the landscape of how people talk about the Super Bowl," Labberton, the professor, said. "It could well become one of the most talked about commercials of the year."
By Sunday afternoon, the ad had received almost 92,000 views. The finalists won't know if they've won until they watch the Super Bowl, said Chris Kuechenmeister, spokesman for Frito-Lay.
"Nobody's going to fall on their knees and accept Jesus as a result of this spot. But advertisers on Madison Avenue spend millions on a Super Bowl spot because they know it influences people," said Cooke, the producer. "It might not get someone converted, but I think it will get someone to say, 'Maybe there is something I ought to investigate."'