Nestle's "Kit Kat Jesus" Hoax and Why It Would Never Have Flown in the U.S.

Last Updated Apr 27, 2010 1:09 PM EDT

Nestlé's "Kit Kat Jesus" video is one of the best examples of how free digital media will kill off traditional paid advertising, even at larger companies. Worryingly for the U.S., it's also an example of creative work that would never have emerged in America because clients here remain paralyzed with fear at the idea of offending anyone with their ads, particularly if the joke revolves around religion.

The company put up a video (see below) this March explaining how, a year ago, it Photoshopped the face of Jesus Christ onto the inner surface of a bitten-off Kit Kat bar (click to enlarge image). The company's ad agency, UbachsWisbrun/JWT of the Netherlands, then sent the photo in a hoax email to a Dutch news site. The Messiah's appearance in a snack was picked up in mainstream media around the world.

Nestlé (NESN.VX) claims 150,000 web sites now carry a photo or reference to Kit Kat Jesus, and although the original photo and email never contained the name of the product, showed the logo or mentioned the tagline, virtually all the sites that picked it up do. The cost of this effort: Almost zero dollars.

If this idea had been presented to an American chocolate company, it would have been killed at birth: Make fun of Jesus? In a hoax? On Good Friday? You're fired! And yet, a year later, Nestlé in Europe is still getting mileage out of Kit Kat Jesus with its mini-site, on which it has published an amusing video describing how the chocolatey savior was created and pushed out to an eager, gullible world. It's acceptable to make jokes about religion in Europe in a way that it just isn't in the U.S.

Kit Kat Jesus illustrates a crucial tension that will likely stunt good ideas born in the U.S.: For a video or site to go truly viral, the idea within it must be shocking, controversial, or silly enough to warrant everyone's attention. And that's the one thing U.S. clients are often afraid of.