The World’s Last Great Marketing Campaign?

One way or another, Harold Camping’s world is about to come to an end. Whether we’re talking about his literal or figurative “world” remains to be seen.

Camping, for those that haven’t gotten caught up in Rapture-mania, is one of the co-founders of Family Radio (a network of donor supported Christian radio stations operating as the University of Phoenix of Christian Fundamentalism) and the man behind the campaign to spread the word that “We Can Know” when Judgment Day will occur. By the way, in case you haven’t heard, it starts tomorrow

A wrapped van spreads the word of impending doom - one of many tactics used in the world's last great marketing campaign

– right around 6 P.M. local time.

Using a combination of complex mathematical calculations and Biblical context clues, Camping believes he has uncovered the exact time of the Apocalypse. If he’s right, he’ll go down in history as one of the greatest minds in the history of mankind (posthumously, of course). While the title of “genius” is yet to be earned, his ability to create a grassroots movement and subsequent marketing and public relations campaign that has moved the narrative well beyond “random nutjobs in vans” to full-force cultural phenomenon has been a sight to behold.

The problem is Camping has been down this road before. He similarly predicted the end of the world would occur back in September 1994. He received some national attention at the time, appearing most notably on Larry King Live, but in the days before the internet went mainstream (and long before “going viral” had a positive connotation attached to it) he was able to explain away the lack of any rapture-like activities by blaming it on computational errors. Family Radio lived on, and very few people noticed.

Things are much, much different this time around. In early march, I happened to see one of Camping’s followers driving down the Pennsylvania Turnpike with a mini-van clad in May 21, 2011 bumper stickers. I’d never heard of Family Radio or the predicted apocalypse at that time, but soon his message was everywhere. News stories, billboards, Facebook…suddenly May 21 was the new 2012. As a marketer and PR guy, I couldn’t help but be impressed with how far and wide Camping’s message had spread. Not everyone is buying it obviously, but his exposure is off the charts.

Camping is either so confident that he is correct that he is not concerned about the severe repercussions to the brand he has built if he is wrong again or he severely misjudged how much the communications landscape has changed since the early 1990’s and never really expected to get the attention he is now receiving. Perhaps this was just intended to be a nice little fundraiser, get on a few more people’s radars only to discover more computational errors and delay the apocalypse yet again.

Unfortunately for Camping, his success is sure to be short lived. Either the end of the world is actually upon us, in which case none of us are going to be around to long to laud him (5 months at the most, for those not planning to be raptured), or he is going to become a victim of his own successful marketing and see his professional world go up in flames on Sunday if it appears doom and gloom has been delayed once more?

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