There's nothing remarkable about a cardboard sign announcing the end of the world in crazy cursive. Every urban dweller has seen a fair share of them, often in the hands of bearded men with megaphones.
Family Radio's massive, highly organized billboard campaign is different. It's revolutionary in its normalcy: The font is so dull and the images so corporate that the billboards' declaration of "Judgment Day May 21" is entirely unexpected. These signs seem to have been designed by unadventurous marketing executives, and yet the message is that the world is going to end this weekend. This strange contrast between form and content makes the billboards as eye-catching and effective as a naughty Calvin Klein ad.
At familyradio.com and the other websites promoted on the billboards, readers learn that on May 21, earthquakes will devastate the planet and only true believers will be carried to Heaven. Evangelical broadcaster Harold Camping says he made the prediction based on careful reading of the Bible and a timeline of ancient events. (Click here for more on how he decided the world is ending Saturday.)
Michael Garcia, special projects coordinator for Family Radio, is an organizing force behind many of the billboards promoting Camping's belief. He estimates that the group has placed about 1,200 billboards across the United States and 2,000 overseas. These are numbers more typical for big brands like McDonald's or Coke than a religious group, according to Stephan Freitas, chief marketing officer of the Outdoor Advertising Association.
It's difficult to put a price tag on such a campaign: Neither Family Radio nor CBS Outdoor, which sold a large number of the billboards, would comment on cost, but the number could easily be in the millions.
"Every soul is worth every penny. We want to reach everyone," Garcia said over the phone. The friendly former truck driver says that it's his duty to use his talents to warn as many people as possible.
"When you have information—let's say you have some information about me and my wife and we were going to be in danger and you withheld that information, I don't see how you could sleep. We have some information that has been checked out in the Bible."
Garcia and others affiliated with Camping have made great efforts to warn people in every part of the world. Iraq, Russia, Dubai, Lebanon, New York City, and rural Nebraska. Although in some cases billboard owners asked them to remove the actual date of the apocalypse—May 21—Garcia said that eventually most came around and helped him get his word out. He sees this as a sign from God. Only in Dubai did government officials intervene and remove the sign within two days, amid large public uproar.