The billboard stands near the JFK-UMass southbound exit on the Southeast Expressway, a spot that thousands of daily commuters can’t miss. It’s an advertisement for “The Chosen,” a popular TV series about the life of Jesus. But this particular billboard has been vandalized. Scrawled across its surface, there’s a spray-painted message — chosensux.com.
Why would someone climb 100 feet above a busy highway to deface an ad for a religious TV show? Sure enough, many puzzled travelers have been logging onto chosensux.com to find out.
They’ve been taken in by an edgy ad campaign aimed at attracting younger and not-especially-devout viewers to a show that debuted in 2019 and has become a major hit among Christians. Similar billboards with fake graffiti have been erected at 48 high-traffic locations throughout the United States. In addition to the expressway location, there are three other billboards for “The Chosen” in the city — on Kneeland Street near the Theater District, on L Street and East Broadway in South Boston, and along Route 1A in East Boston. (The Kneeland Street one does not have any unusual markings.)
The “defaced” billboards feature a variety of silly or vulgar insults. A sign that’s supposed to read “Binge Jesus,” is altered to read “Binge kale...eww.” On another is written, “Poopy butts.” Others feature clown makeup or mustaches drawn on the faces of the show’s actors. But all of them direct readers to the Chosensux website, where they’ll find comedic videos in which an actor portraying Satan plots to prevent people from watching the show. It’s light-hearted, goofy stuff. And it might be working.
According to Harmon Brothers, the ad agency that created the campaign, 5.8 million people have checked out the videos on Facebook, YouTube, and other social media sites. An additional 220,000 people have installed the Chosen smartphone app, where users can watch the series. The first season can also be watched on the streaming service Peacock.
But provocative ads can cut both ways. The campaign has spawned a backlash from fans of “The Chosen” who have denounced it as crude and offensive. “It was very visceral, up in arms,” said Shane Rickard, Harmon Brothers’ chief creative officer. “I want to defend my faith.”
Shortly after the ads were launched in mid-April, the show’s creator, Dallas Jenkins, posted an apology video on Facebook. Jenkins asked fans to forgive him, not for launching the campaign, but for not giving them a heads-up in advance.
“We should have told you from the beginning what we were planning to do,” he said. “This was solely directed toward a new audience, the audience that hadn’t seen the show yet. ... In the process, we overlooked you, our most important partner. And that was wrong.”
It could prove to be an especially costly blunder, because “The Chosen” is financed by donations from its fans. Angel Studios, the Utah company that produces it, has raised more than $20 million to shoot the first two seasons. The studio claims it’s the largest amount ever raised for a TV series through crowdfunding and that the show has been watched over 100 million times worldwide. But the money could stop flowing if the show’s fans come to believe that the people behind the series have compromised their values.
Tyrha Lindsey-Warren, an assistant professor of marketing at Baylor University, a Baptist-affiliated school in Waco, Texas, admires the ads. “It’s disruptive advertising at its finest,” she said. “It has people talking. It has people emotionally involved.”
But Lindsey-Warren said Angel Studios and its ad agency failed to consider that “20 percent of your customers can make up 80 percent of your revenue.” By alienating some of those fans, the ad campaign may have done serious damage to the brand.
But now that Angel Studios has put its cards on the table, it intends to go right on running what Harmon Brothers calls “the Screwtape ads,” in honor of the famous book by C. S. Lewis about a devil giving advice on how to lead people away from God.
Goofy ads for unusual clients are a Harmon Brothers specialty. It made a name for itself with ads for the toilet deodorizer Poo-Pourri and for Squatty Potty, a special stool designed to assist in healthy bowel movements. “It’s either taboo or it’s hard to talk about,” Rickard said. Just like religion.
Besides, two members of the Harmon family cofounded Angel Studios and are inactive partners in the ad agency.
Rickard said that criticism of the ads has begun to fade, as fans catch onto the joke. But the real test will come later this year when Season 3 of “The Chosen” is expected to debut.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.