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Words from on high: The Sportsbet balloon copy of Rio's Christ the Redeemer flies over Melbourne. Photo: AFP

Jesus can not only walk on water, he can float thousands of metres above the Earth and he barracks for the Socceroos, if you accept the gospel of online bookmaker Sportsbet.

A giant hot-air balloon resembling Brazil's Christ the Redeemer statue was launched last week as the face of the the bookie's World Cup marketing campaign, triggering complaints by religious groups and a rush of free PR for Sportsbet.

It is not the first time the online bookmaking company has courted controversy and scored publicity. It painted a giant image of a kangaroo forcing sex on a lion in a paddock near Melbourne airport last year, in the lead-up to the international rugby union series.

Sportsbet marketing director Barni Evans said the aim of the stunts was ''talkability'' - getting people to recognise the brand. If they happened to then have a punt as well, all the better, he said.

''We were pleased it wasn't just a flagrant stunt. It really hammered home the message of keeping the faith, and the offer,'' Mr Evans said.

The offer is a money-back option on Socceroos games at the World Cup, one of many such sweeteners used to lure punters by online bookmakers such as Sportsbet, Tom Waterhouse and Centrebet.

Publicity stunts are in Sportsbet's genes. Parent company Paddy Power has become notorious in Britain for stunts, including a ''money back if he walks'' offer for a market it is running on the Oscar Pistorius murder trial.

Mr Evans would not give the exact cost of the Jesus balloon but said it was in the six-figure range and took 18 months to execute.

Whatever Sportsbet spent on the balloon, it got plenty back in publicity. The balloon image went viral on social media and caused eruptions of outrage online and on radio and television.

Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne Philip Freier branded the balloon a ''blatant attempt to boost business'' that exploited a ''powerful'' Christian symbol.

Mr Evans denied the company directly courted outrage, but he did admit to intentionally pushing the social boundaries.

Despite the church's indignation, he said reaction to the balloon among its target audience had been mostly positive.

The key test was whether people found the stunt funny, he said, although the humour did not need to be universal.

''What we're trying to do is entertain people,'' he said. ''We live very serious lives. As part of the entertainment industry, it's our responsibility to have some fun.''