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NEWS STORY: For Marketers, `WWJD’ Message Spells Profit

c. 2000 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Given the level of God-talk in the current presidential campaign, perhaps it was inevitable that someone would turn “WWJD,” that ubiquitous Christian acronym and marketing tool, into a political slogan. And sure enough, it came to pass when Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee and born-again Baptist, started telling […]

c. 2000 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Given the level of God-talk in the current presidential campaign, perhaps it was inevitable that someone would turn “WWJD,” that ubiquitous Christian acronym and marketing tool, into a political slogan.

And sure enough, it came to pass when Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee and born-again Baptist, started telling interviewers that before making important decisions he always asks himself, “What Would Jesus Do?” _ WWJD, in the popular shorthand.

The sentiment is no doubt a noble one. But at this point in the WWJD craze, the more appropriate question might be, “What Would Janie Do?”

Janie, in this case, being Janie Tinklenberg, the youth pastor who a decade ago started the WWJD phenomenon _ and, unwittingly, a national fashion trend _ when she came up with colorful “WWJD” woven bracelets for the teens in her church group in Holland, Mich.

The wristlets were inspired by Tinklenberg’s rediscovery of a century-old Christian novel, “In His Steps,” about a pastor who shakes up his congregation by pledging to ask himself, “What would Jesus do?” in weighing any action, large or small.

The idea behind the wristlets was to give the teens a physical reminder to view all their actions in the light of their faith. But it was also purposefully cryptic to encourage others to ask about what it meant without making the Christian teens feel preachy.

Most of all, the wrist bands looked really cool.

So cool, in fact, that the WWJD logo swept the country and spawned a mega-bucks industry with apparel spinoffs that include baseball caps and glittery jewelry, as well as books, CDs, calendars, T-shirts and a WWJD “adorable collector teddy bear” ($8.95 plus shipping and handling).

There’s even a WWJD board game ($24.95) that the manufacturer says “encourages group discussion by providing questions and answers to 600 moral and ethical dilemmas. Be the first to collect W, W, J and D and you win the game!”

Today, WWJD is as much icon as mantra. Athletes wear it and claim a divine assist to their game. Golfer Payne Stewart, who was killed last year in a plane crash, is memorialized on the cover of a new book wearing his WWJD wristlet.

But most of all, WWJD is a money machine, one that has reaped untold millions in profits for various entrepreneurs, many of them professed Christians.

“A lot of people made a ton of money,” Tinklenberg said.

And Janie Tinklenberg?

“Not a dime,” said the pastor, who is now at a Lutheran church in Ohio, in the small town of Gahanna (yes, it is from the Hebrew word for hell). “It all went to distributors and marketers.”

Part of the reason for that is that Tinklenberg practiced what she preached. She did what she thought Jesus would do when she was faced with dozens of businesses that aggressively challenged her trademark application six years ago: She let them fight it out while she sat on the sidelines.

“My whole issue was one of integrity,” she said. The only way to enforce her claim, she said, would have been to spend “hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers and litigating. That wasn’t me.”

This summer, Tinklenberg won a victory of sorts when the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office awarded her the trademark to WWJD. But financially it was a hollow victory because the government also ruled that the logo has been so popular for so long that it constitutes part of the “public domain,” meaning that anyone who wants to market WWJD products can do so without paying her royalties.

By the same token, Tinklenberg could also market WWJD stuff, but she would have to set up a business and compete in an already overcrowded marketplace.

Thus, the marketing rush will continue, and Tinklenberg will remain a youth pastor.

Perhaps more unsettling, Tinklenberg said, are the irreligious riffs on her idea, such as the snide take-off popular among Southern California adolescents, “We Want Jack Daniels.” Or the profane, “What Would Judas Do?” Or the parody, an advice column called “What Would Journey Do?” featuring answers based on lyrics of the ’80s rock group.

Not surprisingly, others marketers _ and religions _ have also taken notice.

There is the “WWBD” book, for “What Would Buddha Do? 101 Answers to Life’s Daily Problems.” (It comes with a maroon or saffron wristlet.) And some supporters of Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, have been spotted wearing WWJD buttons _ for “What Would Joe Do?” (Whether the motive is religious or political is open to interpretation.)

Tinklenberg does admit to being a bit discomfited by all the rip-offs.

“It’s not just a big smiley face,” she said of the WWJD message. “It’s more than winning votes or winning games. It’s a serious thing.”

She adds: “I think if you’re going to put it out there, you better be serious about it. I don’t care if you are an athlete, a businessman or a politician. … People will be watching you.”

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A final irony in this story is that Tinklenberg has suffered the same fate as her predecessor in the WWJD phenomenon, Charles M. Sheldon.

It was Sheldon who in 1896 wrote “In His Steps,” about the fictional pastor who popularizes the “What would Jesus do?” message. Sheldon couldn’t find a publisher, so he wound up convincing a local newspaper to serialize the novel. That meant that the text was automatically in the public domain.

Hence, there is no copyright, and Sheldon’s heirs haven’t earned any money from it, even as publishing houses are today cranking out new editions of Sheldon’s newly popular book. “His grandson told me the bracelets and the book took the same path,” Tinklenberg said with a laugh.

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Tinklenberg voices no rancor over how things turned out, and said she harbors no resentment toward the WWJD industry.

Part of her equanimity, she said, derives from her belief that the true WWJD spirit will win out.

“It will stay in the church and leave the marketplace,” she said. The reason: “It is only in the context of ministry that it has meaning.

“The only thing that makes WWJD have any integrity is that you have to be a student of Scripture if you want to know what Jesus would do. For me the proof is in the pudding, in the actual living.”

KRE END GIBSON