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Angela King, Independent filmmaker/actress and former colleague on the business news desk at The Detroit News

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Pitching Used Cars On Church Fans Isn’t Holy Inappropriate

Once the Advertising Realm Of Mortuaries, Devices Get a Much Livelier Look

By Angelo B. Henderson
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

1,236 words, 22 May 1996, The Wall Street Journal, English
(Copyright (c) 1996, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

First the pearly gates.

Now, the golden arches.

This has O'Neil Swanson Sr. worried. Mr. Swanson is prominent in the Detroit mortuary business. For decades he and other funeral-home operators had an exclusive if arcane advertising window to the faithful: the church fan.

Those printed cardboard-on-a-stick devices that kept congregations cool in thousands of American churches had, until recently, remained unchanged for decades. They typically featured a picture of Jesus on one side and an understated ad for the local mortuary on the other.

But not long ago Mr. Swanson was shocked to find competitors: Car dealers, loan companies, colleges, hair-care concerns—even McDonald's Corp., the burger chain—had all invaded his turf. Now, he is thinking about scaling back on the 100,000 fans his three funeral homes distribute annually to hundreds of local churches. The competition is "diminishing the fans' effectiveness for us," he complains.

The low-tech, hand-held fan is being born again as a kind of generic billboard for all sorts of products. Advertisers see it as a way to target audiences that have typically eluded them; churches, many of them trying to modernize their images, now feel it is entirely appropriate to allow ads from companies that provide pivotal community goods and services. Churches don't make money on this; they simply get an unending supply of fans for their congregants to use.

The fans, mainstays in most churches until the advent of air conditioning, all but disappeared from white congregations in the 1950s. But they continue to be a fixture of African-American churches; the vast majority of those are air-conditioned as well, but the fans are deeply rooted in black history and culture. This means, conservatively, that fan advertising reaches as many as 16 million blacks—by percentage, the most church-going group in America—each Sunday.

So deep is this connection that fans have even begun to spill over into pop culture. Recently, during the nationally televised "Image Awards" sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, songstress Whitney Houston proclaimed, "We can't say good-bye without a little church." The crowd of hundreds pulled out church fans as a gospel group closed the show.

Local advertisers in particular love the fans. Churches provide "a captive audience" and the fans have real staying power, since they can remain in church pews for months, says James Windsor, salesman for a black-owned Oakland, Calif., auto-dealer which recently distributed 5,000 fans to 15 Oakland-area churches.

The Rev. Grady Harris, pastor of the 275-member Greater Miracle Temple Pentecostal Church in Oakland, is typical of the new thinking. His church, which formerly got its fans from funeral homes, recently accepted a batch from Mr. Windsor's concern, known as Quality Quest Auto Sales. The need is clear: Miracle Temple isn't air-conditioned. But Mr. Harris also thought "it was appropriate to help and promote this business—these are young black men trying to make it."

For Quality Quest, church fans are something of an advertising miracle. "Advertising on a church fan is like using neon green vs. regular green," says Mr. Windsor, a salesman at the dealership, which is owned by his brother. He offers another benefit: "Churches tend to draw people who are decent and honest."

Indeed, church-fan ads underscore the role of the black church as more than a place of worship. During the week, they often serve as multipurpose community centers. Recently, some black churches have even started turning themselves into urban economic powers, developing million-dollar shopping centers, senior-citizen complexes and in-house credit unions.

This new ad realm takes a bit of getting used to, however. Quality Quest is typical of the new-breed advertisers; gray and funereal its messages aren't. One of its fans features a portrait of an angelic African-American child at prayer; on the flip side, the fan screams: "Need A Car! Bad Credit? Need Financing! Your search has ended here! Quality Quest Auto Sales."

On a recent Sunday in Detroit's Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, John Scott, after singing along to an energetic rendition of a traditional hymn, reaches for a fan. The church, though air-conditioned, is packed with as many as 2,000 worshipers. On one side of the fan is a portrait of a young, immaculately dressed African-American family holding an open Bible. On the other side is a pitch for Pro-Line Corp., a Dallas maker of hair-care products.

Still, Mr. Scott, a Comerica Bank Inc. vice president, isn't offended. "The funeral homes can be kind of depressing at times," he observes. "Black audiences have long been ignored, and it's time major advertisers take a look."

Erin C. Smith, another Hartford Memorial congregant, agrees. Mr. Smith, a probation officer with the Michigan Department of Corrections, thinks it is fine that churches are letting new advertisers in, but he worries about the taste issue.

He cites a McDonald's church fan at Hartford as an example of one that he thinks works. It shows a silhouette of a black pianist and gives a written tribute to the late gospel-singing great James Cleveland. On the back, the company uses a tiny golden arch logo, while promoting its "Gospelfest" concert series. "That's better than big golden arches," Mr. Smith said. "If you are advertising a car and on the front you show an African-American family driving to church, that's fine. But I don't want to see a big car logo."

The route from a cooling device to a hot advertising medium has been a long one. The hand-held fan dates back to ancient African rituals, says Robert Farris Thompson, a professor of African and African-American art history at Yale University. The fan was an emblem of power in Yoruba, the former West African nation, now part of Nigeria, which was home to one of the largest ethnic groups of Africans who were shipped to America for slavery. The Yoruba goddess of the ocean was depicted holding a fan which "embodied the coolness and the command of the spirits of the water."

Fans had spiritual power, Prof. Thompson adds. "When you fan someone, you throw a blessing. . . . And like in the black church, fans had a message and were used to communicate as well as ventilate. They were used not to just cool you off, but to cool the spirit that you are worshipping."

At the recent service at Detroit's Hartford Memorial, in fact, the fans seem to provide a spirit all their own. As the Rev. Charles G. Adams hits a stride in his sermon, he proclaims, "It's not the size of your wallet, it's the strength of your witness." Hundreds of fans keep pace with his rising enthusiasm, fluttering faster and faster. "It's not the bigness of your bank account, it's the brilliance of your brain," he says. "It's not the design of your clothes, it's the decency of your character," he adds.

In a moment, a thousand people are on their feet, fans waving above their heads.