NEW YORK – When pastor Freddy T. Wyatt arrives at his New York City church plant and sits down in his office every day, he looks out the window. There, on the side of the Broadway Plaza Hotel, is a four-story billboard that is home to ads for products like Coca-Cola and VITAMINWATER®. The Gallery Church has been at the corner of 27th and Broadway for nearly three years and, every few weeks when the advertisement changes, members of the congregation can’t help but notice.
When Wyatt sat down at his desk and let his eyes drift to the billboard in early April, he was shocked at what he saw – a new ad for VITAMINWATER®, a brand of Coca-Cola, featuring a half-naked woman with the phrase “xxx you’re up” covering her chest, promoting a flavor of the drink called XXX.
“The billboard took the breath out of me, not in a good way,” Wyatt recounted. “I had begun to look forward to the different ads each month, but this one stopped me in my tracks. It broke my heart.”
Wyatt thought of the men and women in Gallery Church who would see this ad every Sunday as they returned home. “How can they stay focused on the truth just presented to them in church when they walk outside to face a four-story distraction?”
Photo by Peter Field Peck
Freddy T. Wyatt, center, is pastor of the Gallery Church, a six-year-old church plant serving the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City.
He thought of his children, two young sons and a daughter. What message was this going to send them?
“I was brokenhearted that my daughter, after hearing the message that she is loved and valued by God will walk out the doors of her church only to receive another message by the four-story billboard. It’s telling her, ‘If you look like this or take your shirt off or tease men, then you’ll be valued.’ I’m sure this isn’t the goal of the company – to degrade women and tempt men to do the same – but this is exactly what the billboard does.”
With this in mind, Wyatt took to Twitter.
He reached out to both Coca-Cola and VITAMINWATER® with his thoughts about the billboard, calling on them to take action and remove it. His messages simply read:
“@cocacola @vitaminwater I’m a pastor in NYC & u just put this larger than life garbage across from @GalleryChurch.”
“@cocacola @vitaminwater On behalf of the families in NYC that are seeking to raise respectable & wholesome families, take it down.”
“I didn’t mince words,” Wyatt said. “I was angry and brokenhearted and I wanted them to know what message they were sending in using such a disrespectful, sex-sells strategy for their ads.”
To Wyatt’s surprise, less than 24 hours later, on April 4, a rep from VITAMINWATER® tweeted him back.
“We’d love to discuss your concerns, Freddy,” the rep’s Tweet said. “Can we call you @GalleryChurch or can you send us your contact information?”
Impressed by the prompt and courteous response, Wyatt attempted to get in touch with the rep. They spent the day playing phone tag, unfortunately missing one another and never getting the chance to talk.
The next day, Wyatt arrived at the Gallery Church, sat down in his office and looked out the window. There, where the explicit ad had stood four stories high, was an empty billboard. After four tweets and a couple of voicemails, VITAMINWATER® had removed the ad.
“I am so thankful and impressed by such an active response from VITAMINWATER®,” Wyatt said. “It shows great respect for their customers and is really an honorable and classy decision on their part.”
A rep for VITAMINWATER® declined to comment for this story, but Wyatt said when he finally did get on the phone with someone from the company, she was both “understanding and respectful” of his concerns.
Though Wyatt and his team are gratified by the removal of the billboard, they recognize that this is just one small victory in the battle to reclaim culture with the truth of Christ.
“If you walk just four blocks south past the Gallery Church, that same image from the billboard is posted much smaller on the outside of a bus stop shelter. But our hope is that this billboard incident will spur a conversation at places like VITAMINWATER® that will ultimately result in the removal of images that disrespect and degrade men and women from advertising.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Sara Shelton is a writer for the North American Mission Board.)