Published September 24, 2010
A cute, smiling, 20-something woman, riding the waves, gushes of her love of life and surfing ...
A black man, an entertainer and musician, raves about fatherhood and family ...
A scruffy skateboarder pontificates on the power and value of individuality ...
These soliloquies are presented in 30-second TV ads, the taglines of which all say ...
"… and I'm a Mormon."
The Mormon Church has launched a television ad campaign in nine test markets. The ads contain no Bible verses or doctrinal discussions ... just everyday folks talking about their everyday lives. And, oh, by the way ... they practice a faith that nearly half of Americans know little to nothing about.
"We thought it was a great way to introduce ourselves," says Scott Swofford, director of Mormon.org. "The most transparent and authentic way to do that is through the lives of our members."
The campaign also features an interactive website with a chat room where people can talk with Mormons and watch longer versions of the featured ads. Swofford hopes that they'll be able to present 90 different ads, so viewers will see a different person each time they air.
My first impression is that they're incredibly slick," says Ann Pellegrini, associate professor of religious studies and performance studies and New York University. She says the ads are very similar to those run by the American Ad Council soon after the September 11 attacks. Those spots featured people from various ethnic backgrounds telling of their lives, their hopes and aspirations ... and then the tagline: "And I'm an American."
Pellegrini says ads like these are "confronting a particular moment of fear of religious otherness…. These are the coming out of the religious closet as opposed to the sexual closet."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has been in a public relations tailspin in recent years, taking hits from both the left and the right.
In 2008 it became the whipping boy for those who opposed Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that banned gay marriage. Mormons were some of the greatest supporters – and funders -- of the initiative.
Mormon beliefs also became the subject of political angst, as many Evangelicals demonized the Mormon faith of then-Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Swofford denies suggestions that the new ads and the campaign are designed to lay the groundwork for a Romney campaign in 2012, or to battle moves to undo Proposition 8.
But it's obvious times are a changin' for the Mormon church.
In 1981, during his inaugural festivities, President Ronald Reagan stood on the platform with glistening eyes, listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and pronounced the 300-plus member ensemble "America's Choir." The choir is now celebrating 100 years of recording ... and still is considered one of the best on the globe.
"This choir belongs to the world," says Scott Barrick, the choir's general manager. "It's not just a musical experience, it's a patriotic experience."
The church has gone through its ups and downs in a rotation of love-hate relationships with the American public.
The Mormon faith was born in America. The church was persecuted and hounded in the 19th century, and members fled west and settled in Utah, where the church is now based. The choir over the years has been a public relations godsend. It's part and parcel of the LDS hierarchy staying ahead of the technology curve to get their message out.
Mormons are very good at marketing themselves," says Dr. Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University. Balmer says Mormons "... understand the principles behind marketing. They understand the principles behind public opinion and they are not adverse to try to use the media to advance themselves, whether it's the tabernacle choir or a series of advertisements on television."
The test markets for the ads are Minneapolis; Pittsburgh; Oklahoma City; St. Louis; Baton Rouge, La.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Tucson, Ariz.
The ads will run through the end of the year, at which point the church will assess the campaign's effectiveness and decide whether to launch the ads nationally.
So far, the campaign appears to be working. "Web traffic is up tremendously," Swofford says, "two to three hundred percent in some cases on Mormon.org, especially in the test market … so we're pleased with all those numbers."