Sun, Dec 28, 2003 - Page 12 News List

The great Christian cash-in

Characters such as Jay Jay the Jet Plane are being packaged for both mainstream audiences and Christian youngsters, a lucrative strategy that is being repeated elsewhere

By Julie Salamon  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Christian marketers peddling television programming, books and other forms of entertainment have adopted a strategy of designing separate pitches and packaging to sell the same products to religious and secular customers -- two groups who are often wary of each other, if not openly hostile. Jay Jay the Jet Plane has separate children's products for the general and Christian markets

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

When David Michel quit his job nine years ago, he wanted to do something to influence young children like his own. That was the genesis of Jay Jay the Jet Plane, the perky character he created and named for his 2-year-old son and who now appears on 258 stations on PBS's coveted children's programming schedule. Jay Jay's adventures carry messages meant to teach children gentleness, patience and friendship.

But Michel, who holds a master of divinity degree from Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, also wanted his animated airplane to spread the word of God.

"It's very tricky because the markets are very separate markets," Michel said. "And each market is substantial."

So he used a marketing approach that others are now trying -- designing separate pitches and packaging to sell the same products to religious and secular customers. So Jay Jay presents himself in two versions, one secular and one Christian.

Evangelical Christian marketers often don't want their products tainted by association with a secular culture that many in their audience regard as hedonistic, vulgar or even demonic.

"What is really unique about a Christian record or book isn't the label but the message," said Bill Anderson, president of the CBA, formerly known as the Christian Booksellers Association. "The question is: Does the message of this book or CD align with Scripture?"

Similarly, mainstream consumers are generally wary of religious products, particularly those associated with evangelical Christianity, a label that today often has a political connotation as well. The rock band Creed, for example, whose lyrics often deal with spiritual matters, states on its Web site that it is not a Christian band.

So Jay Jay gets marketed very differently to each group.

Columbia TriStar sells Jay Jay videos like Something Special for Everyone and Good Friends Forever, linked to the PBS shows.

But Tommy Nelson, as the children's division of the Christian publisher and distributor Thomas Nelson is called, has its own Jay Jay line earmarked for Christian families. These videos, with titles like Fantastic Faith and God's Awesome Design, are geared to refer to specific Bible verses. The same division between secular and religious is also the rule with Jay Jay books and toys.

The strategy meets Michel's two goals.

"For me," he said, "Jay Jay is both a television show and a mission."

For established mainstream publishers and distributors, the Christian market has become too big -- and too lucrative -- to ignore. Last year an estimated US$4.2 billion in Christian-oriented books, music and other forms of entertainment were sold, often in Christian superstores, according to the CBA.

Publishers Weekly, the book industry's trade journal, reported last year that religious titles were at the top of its annual lists of both best-selling fiction and nonfiction for 2001, the first time that had had happened.

This growth has led to a sometimes uncomfortable marriage of the sacred and the secular. Contemporary Christian music companies, once independent, have been bought by huge music conglomerates like BMG. Time Warner (owner of HBO, the television home of the gleefully vulgar Sopranos, Sex in the City and G-String Divas) has an evangelical division for books, based in Nashville, Tennessee, that includes the Warner Faith imprint, specifically for Christian audiences, and Walk Worthy, for Christian African-American audiences. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. owns Zondervan, a Christian publisher. Ruder Finn, the public-relations firm, promotes religious titles through a specialized division.

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