Sony (NYSE:SNE), what were you thinking?

Do you not read newspapers? Do you not watch the news broadcast on your own "Bravia" brand LCD televisions? If you had, you might have learned the lesson Urban Outfitters (NASDAQ:URBN) learned last year, when it adopted the ill-advised strategy of "religion baiting" in marketing a "Jesus Dress Up" refrigerator magnet. That prompted the very same kind of firestorm you're now dealing with in response to your Italian PlayStation marketing campaign.

Over in Italy, heartland of the Catholic faith, Sony "celebrated" the 10th anniversary of its PlayStation game console by running a series of ads in newspapers and magazines. The tagline: "Ten years of passion," featuring a grinning gamer wearing a crown of "thorns" woven from the PlayStation's geometric-figures logo.

The pope was not amused.

Just as with the Urban Outfitters scandal last year, commentators leapt to point out that had Sony chosen to hang its advertising campaign upon a tenet of the Islamic faith, "there would have been a really strong reaction." (I nominate that quote, from Italy's Corriere della Sera, for understatement of the year.)

Attempting frantically to spin the story, Sony replied to critics by "regretting ... the reactions to the advertisement" -- rather than regretting running the ad in the first place. It proceeded to blame its critics for "misunderstanding" the spirit (pun presumably unintended) of its "message." That bungled bit of PR hackery should ensure only another round of criticism for Sony.

Moving from the theological to the practical implications of Sony's snafu, the company couldn't have picked a worse time to offend its customers. Sony has already conceded a six-month head start to competitor Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) in the upcoming market-share battle for the next generation of game consoles. Microsoft's Xbox 360 is expected to debut this fall; Sony's PlayStation 3 will not arrive until the spring of 2006.

A Fool has to wonder how many gamers of the Catholic faith will wait around to buy a PlayStation after being dissed by Sony, when Microsoft is offering its new console six months sooner. This gaffe could cost Sony dearly. The Catholic faith counts 1.2 billion members worldwide. More broadly, Christians of other denominations can also be expected to take offense at the ad -- so bump that number up to 2.1 billion potential customers, or roughly one out of every three people on the planet, that Sony has needlessly offended.

Right about now, I'll bet Sony is wishing its marketing department came with a reset button.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares in any company mentioned above.