Ilana R. Borzak

Digital Divinity: The Mormon PR Crusade

“What’s your favorite advertisement?”

I hear this question a lot. From friends, family, and people like Mike, the guy who sat next to me on my last flight. At this point, my response is instinctual. [Pause]. Then respond, “the ‘I’m a Mormon’ ad campaign.”

“I’m a Mormon” isn’t known for its success. It never won any prominent awards nor is it particularly successful in transforming the public’s general perception of the Mormon religion. In fact, most of the buzz the campaign generated criticized both the campaign and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the “LDS Church” and “Mormon Church”). Despite these opinions, I admire the campaign because it not only provides clear insight into both a religion’s perception of itself and its desired positioning, but it also challenges our general understanding of how a religion functions.

The “I’m a Mormon” campaign launched in 2009 when the Church’s longstanding tensions with the American public were amplified. During this time, the Church and its members were taking an active role in the political sphere (ex: Proposition 8 and Jon Hunstman Jr.) while shows negatively depicting the religion, such as Big Love and Book of Mormon, were hurting the religion’s reputation. The media did not respond favorably and the Church turned to global agencies to help them with their image problem. The resulting campaign’s strategy is clear: depict the Mormons as an open and all-accepting religion. Members who defy the ‘Mormon stereotype’ (not just Republican, white, and well-educated) weave their personal stories and beliefs into compelling video clips. These were posted in taxis and on billboards (including two 40-foot billboards in Times Square), phone booths, and YouTube. Every ad directs the viewer to a then-newly revamped website — Mormon.org — where pictures of smiling Mormons from all ethnicities welcome the visitor. The site also provides a forum to chat with a Mormon hand-selected based on information one shares with the site. On every page, the visitor is urged to learn more about the religion. Regardless of whether the Church’s base intentions are retention or recruitment, the Church uses this digital-heavy advertising campaign to extend a friendly hand to the secular community of today.

The Mormon Church’s use of a multi-million dollar campaign shifted the religion from our American understanding of the Sacred to the Profane.  American culture and its understanding of social categories are influenced by its Puritan-Protestant beginnings which distinguishes between a physical and spiritual world. Grounded in these beliefs, American culture understands that spiritual institutions, or in this case religious ones, do not employ commercial tactics.[1] To some, the LDS Church’s use of an ad campaign transformed Mormonism from a consecrated American religion into a commercialized brand, like Gap or Dollywood (for which the LDS Church’s agency is also an Agency of Record).  For others, it eroded the distinction between the religious and commercial world. The advertising forced people to accommodate their schematic understanding of the relationship between advertising and religion, Mormonism, or both.[2]

I believe that the Mormon Church was fully aware that the “I’m a Mormon” campaign communicates more than its basic strategy. The Mormon Church’s public embrace of modern forms of communication that major brands of today’s world freely employ separate it from other more ‘traditional’ religions. Time will tell but I believe that while the “I’m a Mormon” campaign might not have accomplished its perception changing goals, it does mark the beginning steps in revolutionizing how we understand advertising and religion, or at least how a religion uses media.

And that is why “I’m a Mormon” is my favorite advertisement.

 


[1] In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber speaks about this phenomenon in his native North Europe where Protestantism is common. He argues this point when describing the rise of capitalism in this area.

[2] Peter Berger’s Sacred Canopy goes into great detail about how a nation’s worldview is shaped by a certain set of common assumptions.

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