I am an ad campaign

Have you seen those “I’m a Mormon” ads that are, well, everywhere I seem to go on the internet? They’re always the “recommended” YouTube video that pops up when I sign on to show my children pictures of cats or whatever.

Well, Peggy Fletcher Stack had a really interesting story about them — and religious advertising in general — in a recent Salt Lake Tribune. “Mormon, Muslim, Methodist … spreading the word online” looks at the Mormon campaign and why it was chosen.

Here’s the lede:

To many viewers, the LDS Church’s “I’m a Mormon” ad blitz seemed hip, refreshing and original.

The campaign, launched last year in nine U.S. cities, generated a lot of national buzz. Its short videos featured regular folks talking about their lives as doctors, skateboarders, tax attorneys, environmentalists, surfers or former felons before announcing that they are Mormons. Nary an Osmond to be seen.

It helped burst stereotypes of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by showing individual and diverse members expressing their spirituality.

Turns out, lots of other faiths take a similar tack.

So we’re reminded about the “Meet a Scientologist” campaign and the “I am Episcopalian” series. I wasn’t aware of the “Inspired by Muhammad” push by a Muslim agency. We’re also told about Catholic, Methodist and secular humanist campaigns. Some are about evangelism, others are about changing impressions:

As Americans became less religious, they began to look to consumer goods for their identities, explains Mara Einstein, a professor of media studies at Queens College in New York. They saw themselves as the person who used a “PC” or a “Mac,” drove a Volkswagen or a BMW, and sipped a Starbucks latte or wolfed down a Carl’s Jr. sloppy burger.

That personal approach eventually circled back to spirituality. Religious groups began trying to tell potential members that theirs was a faith for someone who looked and acted like themselves, Einstein says.

The message of these ads is not just that we — Mormons, Methodist, Muslims — are normal, says Einstein, who wrote Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. It’s that “we are you.”

The piece has much more history. Scientologists were the first to use this approach in the early 1990s and they claim that they did it for proselytizing purposes. I tend to dislike the use of that word but it was the one that the spokesman used. The Episcopal Church began its marketing campaign on Ash Wednesday 2000 because they wanted to seem more contemporary and relevant. We learn about the Methodist $20 million marketing push which emphasizes “nonchurch language” and “positive land mines” (issues like Darfur, ecology, helping out with homelessness).

The Muslim campaign is being run in London by the Exploring Islam Foundation where British values are compared with Muslim values and found to be the same. The Mormon campaign came about because the church wanted to correct false impressions about the church’s practices.

I’ve been involved in the planning of a religious advertising campaign, where we were encouraged to adopt a marketing approach that I didn’t really like. I won’t bore you with the details, except to say that my ideal campaign would have a more sacramental or liturgical emphasis. One of the things I began to wonder about such campaigns is their effectiveness. There is no data to support the claims of the people in the story that any of the previous campaigns have been effective. I’m not saying they haven’t been effective, but there’s no information to support the claim. I would absolutely love more information on that and how success is measured for church marketing.

I’m also curious about how much of these campaigns is about internal vs. external marketing. Do these ads really reach people outside a given church or do they bolster feelings of current adherents? That might be the mission of campaigns and I can certainly envision why it might be intentional. Religious adherents benefit from understanding their distinctiveness and they can better articulate their niche to others that way, too.

Finally, I’m curious about any possible criticism of church marketing. That wasn’t found in the story. I like some marketing campaigns more than others, but either way, what does it mean for a church body to enter the market in this manner? Does it reinforce the notion of religion as consumer good or identity? Is that good or bad for religious groups?

Print Friendly

  • Jerry

    Finally, I’m curious about any possible criticism of church marketing. That wasn’t found in the story. I like some marketing campaigns more than others, but either way, what does it mean for a church body to enter the market in this manner? Does it reinforce the notion of religion as consumer good or identity? Is that good or bad for religious groups?

    There can be many motives for such marketing so I would look at first the motive and then whether or not the advertising has the desired effect. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to use advertising to overcome ignorance and incorrect preconceptions. And I would assume evangelicals would use marketing of a tasteful sort to reach people.

    So “this is the kind of people we are” and “this is what we believe” are both fine with me. Of course, as usual, it’s possible to go offtrack.

  • Matt

    I’m an elder in the United Methodist Church. I can’t stand our marketing stuff. I never use it and wouldn’t even consider it. We are a denomination that has been in decline since before I was born. The marketing campaign seems to be geared toward attracting people to one of our local churches which isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. However, our (alleged) mission statement is “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” – I’d rather see the money used for marketing be used to help equip people in our local churches to, you know, make disciples. The church I serve is seeing growth. We’re seeing people become disciples. Not one of them has denied self, taken up their cross, and followed Jesus because of reThink church.

  • Harris

    As to effectiveness, the ads for the 1979 Episcopal Ad project did produce results, measured in bodies in pews, and a decrease in the median age of the congregation. Those ads also won significant awards in the ad industry, and in doing so set a standard for other media advertising.

    At the end, all advertising depends on the product one finds, no amount of “good” advertising can make up for bad experience by the consumer.

    Extending the discussion into marketing, the congregations most used to marketing are likely to be the Evangelical. Historically, these strand has been the most open to media innovation.

  • http://catholicecology.blogspot.com/ Bill P.

    I chaired a 14-month initiative in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence to encourage the faithful to rediscover their missionary roots. We began with an 8-week run of the CatholicsComeHome.org commercials, but then things transitioned to diocesan and parish activities.

    Much took place locally—the most effective in my mind was the Legion of Mary’s door-to-door campaigns. But besides those, groups of parishes did things like run ads in papers. One parish rented a nearby billboard.

    One day, not long after a young man proposed to his girlfriend, the couple was driving, doing errands, and they came to a stop light by the billboard. The young woman—who had been away from the Church for years—had been praying at the moment for her future marriage. She knew she wanted her and her soon-to-be husband and their family to have faith in their lives. The billboard, with the welcoming icon of Jesus—arms wide open—was an answer to a very real plea. She made her fiancé drive to the parish and the priest just happened to be prepping for Mass, alone. They chatted. She cried. They now have a parish community.

    I fully understand the way some marketing—and that is what it is—can be tasteless and seem too “worldly.” But God comes into human history and says hello. For that young couple, a simple billboard was a life changer.

    We heard many stories like that, but most of these private epiphanies rightly go unspoken and unnoticed. It is proper that the media rarely finds out about them, and when they do, they may not care to report on them. Some things shouldn’t be news.

    And as for the people in the pews, most I spoke with were overjoyed to see activity and engagement with the “outside” world.

    So to your point—yes, sacramental and liturgical elements must be part of any program of evangelization. After all, God always begins the conversation. But we can not ignore the real world in which we and our neighbors live. We can not only turn inward to our liturgies. They must also thrust us outwards, into the Madison Ave.’s of the world. We must become flesh, and dwell where people are. Liturgy and prayer are not in opposition to reaching out to a starving world.

  • Jeremy

    I’m Mormon, and I think (and hope!) that the commercials influence Mormons’ perceptions of Mormons as much as others’ perceptions. I live in Utah, and Mormons here assume all Mormons are like them: white, boring, overwhelmingly Republican, suburban middle managers. I think the Church is concerned about about external perceptions but also prejudice and stifling homogeneity within the Church.

  • Jon in the Nati

    In that same vein, Jeremy, the LDS church has taken more than a little bit of flack from interested non-members, former members, and even some current members over the “I am a Mormon” campaign. The gist of the criticism is that the church selects people who are ‘outliers’ (i.e., who stand outside the church mainstream) and presents them as typical of the membership. Put another way, critics suggest that the majority of members are as you describe them, and the campaign is borderline-deceptive in suggesting otherwise.

    There may be some truth to this; I don’t know. The LDS that I know trend closer to those in the ads (that is, representing a pretty standard cross-section of the populace) than what Jeremy describes, but then again I’ve never been to Utah.

  • http://www.ericcshafer.blogspot.com Eric Shafer

    I was the ELCA’s communication director when we did a major advertising campaign in 1999 & 2000. It was a print, radio and television campaign and we invested a lot of time and $$$ in it. No one could use the materials without attending a day long training session, half of which was Bible study. Results were dramatic in some places – worship attendances increases and increased enthusiasm about working together with other area ELCA congregations. But, we did not have the $$$ to sustain the effort after this time period, so the results could not hold. Our learning – church advertising can work if it can be based in training and Bible study AND be sustained.

  • Bill H

    Any member of the LDS faith is invited to participate in the “I am a Mormon” campaign, and post at Mormon.org. In that regard, the publicizing/marketing is egalitarian, and less manipulative.
    While I believe congregations ultimately flourish through love and fellowship, I also welcome this coordinated way for mormons to define ourselves, rather than allowing other denominations or political-interest groups to define us. By it’s very nature, this publicity campaign is positive.

    Wouldn’t it be fun and enlightening to see “I am Catholic/Jew/Evangelical/Hindu”, and see what we might learn about our neighbors and friends?

  • BJ Mora

    Of course, advertising is meant to “sell,” which is why some of us are leery of portraying the church as just another consumerist choice.

    And what one advertises may not be the truth – including personal experience – else everything we were sold would be “new and improved” (smile).

  • Jon in the Nati

    Any member of the LDS faith is invited to participate in the “I am a Mormon” campaign, and post at Mormon.org. In that regard, the publicizing/marketing is egalitarian, and less manipulative.

    Quite so. However, critics allege that, even when one creates a profile at mormon.org, it is closely controlled by whoever is running the campaign, so that only profiles which fit well into the campaign ever see the proverbial light of day.

    Again, I don’t have the personal knowledge to speak to whether the criticisms are true, but they are most certainly out there.

  • Doug in AZ

    “Jon in the Nati” – I don’t get it. You make a derogatory statement, attribute it to “critics” and then admit you have know knowledge of whether it’s true or not? Isn’t that bearing false witness? “Critics allege” reminds me of the Toby Keith song titled, The Critic. Check out the lyrics and you’ll see. Using the word allege in your criticism just means you don’t have to take responsibility for your statements.

  • Jon in the Nati

    The question, “Doug in AZ”, was about church marketing campaigns and potential criticisms of them. I noted criticism of the LDS campaign. Whether those criticisms are true or not, I cannot say, but they have been made. If you are so concerned about it, do Google search. It is pretty easy; just as easy as looking up the lyrics to country music songs.

    Surely you can understand that one can note the existence of a statement without suggesting that it is true or false? Perhaps you can find something from the philosopher Keith to help you out with that?

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Jon, the church has taken FLAK over a campaign being run by FLACKS.

    That is another cupertino I get tired of.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Saying that the Mormon campaign came about to “correct false conceptions” may be what Stack says, but it is misleading at best. The LDS Church has always been very big on missionary work (Evangelising or proselytising). At least 10 years ago if not sooner the Church was running ads inviting people to order free books or videos by calling a 1-800 number. I remember seeing LDS Church sponsored ads, I believe “Home front” adds about 1990 on TV, and that was in Michigan (I remember them because I am a Mormon, but seeing them was not a function).

    Actually if there is a difference in the current campaign it is the open embrace of the term “Mormon”. I had a fellow missionary who had a story about how when he was about 12 he ordered something from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and also briefly met with the Mormon missionaries, but it was not until several years later he realized that thse were connected.

    To act as if the current media blitz by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is built only on the precedents of the actions of other faiths and to ignore its Mormon precedents is just not an accurate reflection of fact.

  • Kevin Black

    “Join in the Nati” — the Mormon.org site screens all submissions and I’m sure if there are messages critical of the church they are not posted, at least not without some suggested editing. But a quick perusal of 5 or so randomly chosen posts convinced me that otherwise there is no heavy editing going on: (a) there is demographic diversity to a degree that fits my own experience with Latter-day saints, (b) there is diversity of opinion and focus that is wider than expected, and (c) there is no editing for spelling or grammar.

  • Kevin Black

    oops, make that “Jon” not “Join”. Sorry for the typo.

  • http://followingyeshua.wordpress.com/ Marco

    yeah I’ve noticed the Mormon Ads!! I wrote a blog about it before I read this one; My question is why aren’t church’s putting down money to have their own ads. so as not to give the Mormons a monopoly, and is it even right that Google allows conflicting religions to appear on websites? http://followingyeshua.wordpress.com/2011/02/24/mormon-ads-invasion/