Ilana R. Borzak

Scientology as a Brand

You can learn a lot about a brand from its advertising. Here’s a good example:

(1)  Go to Google.com

(2)  Type “Scientology” into the search bar.

(3)  Look at the top paid result. What do you see?

I see an ad sponsored by the Church of Scientology. It reads, “Truth About Scientology  – You’ve heard the controversy.”

Regardless of whatever prior knowledge you might have about the religion, you can easily see that the Church of Scientology is using the ad to defend itself. The Church, like Mormonism, has never fared well in public perception polls, especially in the past couple of years. In response, the Church has turned to advertising, spending unprecedented amounts to combat the negativity and build a positive brand. Even though the Church’s campaigns are reactive, I believe that other religions can learn from Scientology’s attempt to strategically build its brand of religion.

The Church’s first large-scale campaign was in 2008 right after a video of high-profile actor Tom Cruise acting “manic” during a Church ceremony leaked.  Soon after, ad campaign “Get the Facts” launched. This campaign urged viewers to ignore any rumors and go to the Church’s website to learn ‘the truth.’ Subsequent campaigns also launched in the wake of PR crises but use an emotion-evoking strategy and attempt to position Scientology as the provider of meaning. Ads from these campaigns play inspirational music and speak about one’s existential quest for the truth.

In recent months, the media has increased its mostly negative coverage about the Church. In November of 2012, Vanity Fair published an article claiming that the Church controlled and destroyed Katie Holmes’ high-profile marriage to Tom Cruise. Three months later, Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright published his highly publicized investigative book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief. These, as well as other exposés, encouraged critical media coverage.

In November of 2012, just as this media hype was building, the Church of Scientology launched “Knowledge,” its newest ad campaign. While its underlying strategy isn’t novel, Knowledge’s media strategy represents many firsts for the Church and general religion. In November and December of 2012, the Church played a “Knowledge” commercial 16 times an hour in Times Square, including New Years Eve. In January, they sponsored an editorial-like article in The Atlantic and also aired the commercial during the high viewership AFC Championship and Super Bowl.  According to Karin Pouw, the Church’s spokeswoman, near future plans include airing the commercial on other prime time shows like Modern Family, Dancing with the Stars, Glee, and Vampire Diaries. The Church has never used such widespread and public media to spread its message.

Thanks to the Mormon Church’s “I’m a Mormon” campaign, Times Square billboards are no strangers to a religion’s ad campaign. But Knowledge’s other media platforms are and they represent Scientology’s departure from the spiritual realm where religions are supposed to live and its entrance into the commercial-marketing world. Although Scientology is often mocked, I believe other religions can learn from its use of advertising and modern branding. We live in a time when work is replacing religious institutions as the place for social connections (Einstein, 331) and religious membership is dwindling. In many regards, the current religion system is broken. Perhaps it’s time for religious leaders to take advantage of modernity’s offerings and learnings. Brands realized long ago that they need to attract and engage customers to survive. Religions are no different. They need members. Perhaps religions, not just ones like Mormonism and Scientology, should reconsider their marketing strategy.

 

 

 

 

SOURCES

Borzak, Ilana Rae. “Digital Divinity: The Mormon PR Crusade.” Web log post. Http://blog.laughlin.com/. Laughlin Constable, 3 Apr. 2013. Web. 04 Apr. 2013.

Borzak, Ilana Rae. “The Church of Marketing.” Web log post. Http://blog.laughlin.com/. Laughlin Constable, 17 Dec. 2012. Web. 04 Mar. 2013.

Cook, John. “Cult Friction.” Radar Online. American Media, 23 Mar. 2008. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.

Einstein, Mara. “The Evolution of Religious Branding.” Social Compass 58.3 (2011): 331-38. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.

Orth, Maureen. “What Katie Didn’t Know.” Vanity Fair Oct. 2012: n. pag. Condé Nast. Web. 04 Mar. 2013.

Poggi, Jeanine. “Are Scientology’s Ads Aimed at Recruitment or Retention?” Advertising Age. Crain Communications, n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2013.

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.