About that new Mormon PR blitz…

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, either because you haven’t paid close attention or don’t live in one of the areas currently being bombarded with ads, but the Mormon church has launched a flashy new public relations campaign. The Mormon church running ads is not new, but an article by The New York Times’ Laurie Goodstein explains why this campaign is different:

Brandon Burton, president and general manager of Bonneville Communications, an advertising agency owned by the church, said that the church’s previous, long-running media campaign promoted the church’s doctrine, providing a toll-free number to call for a free Bible or Book of Mormon. However, this new campaign introduces doctrine only if a viewer seeks out the Web site mormon.org.

The Prop 8 battle has brought some more scrutiny on the church. This isn’t really a criticism, but Goodstein only touches on how the church’s advertising campaigns have evolved in various places. I would have enjoyed more background on the history here. Anyway, Goodstein explains why the church is taking a new tack:

After Sunday worship in recent months, Mormon bishops around the country gathered their congregations for an unusual PowerPoint presentation to unveil the church’s latest strategy for overcoming what it calls its “perception problem.”

Top Mormon leaders had hired two big-name advertising agencies in 2009, Ogilvy & Mather and Hall & Partners, to find out what Americans think of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Using focus groups and surveys, they found that Americans who had any opinion at all used adjectives that were downright negative: “secretive,” “cultish,” “sexist,” “controlling,” “pushy,” “anti-gay.”

She also explains what the new campaign looks like:

On seeing these results, some of those watching the presentation booed while others laughed, according to people at the meetings. But then they were told that the church was ready with a response: a multimillion-dollar television, billboard and Internet advertising campaign that uses the tagline, “I’m a Mormon.” The campaign, which began last year but was recently extended to 21 media markets, features the personal stories of members who defy stereotyping, including a Hawaiian longboard surfing champion, a fashion designer and single father in New York City and a Haitian-American woman who is mayor of a small Utah city.

One interesting detail that Goodstein doesn’t mention here is that maybe the most talked about aspect of the new campaign is the fact that the LDS church managed to snag Brandon Flowers, lead singer of rock band The Killers and Mormon, to do one of the ads. (We learn he’s even named one of his children Ammon.)  There’s no shortage of Mormon celebrities and artists, but the really high profile ones tend to be ex-Mormons or have a very complicated relationship with the church. (See Ryan Gosling, Eliza Dushku, Aaron Eckhart, Neil LaBute, Walter Kirn et al.) Flowers is a rare bird in that he’s a genuine celebrity publicly speaking out about his Mormonism. Anyway, the Flowers ad made something of a splash and I’m surprised it goes unmentioned — espeicially since The Grey Lady has reported on his religion in the past.

Speaking of well-known Mormons, Goodstein raises some interesting questions about how the two Mormon presidential candidates relate to the church’s new campaign:

Church leaders like Mr. Allen say that the timing and tenor of the campaign have nothing to do with the political campaigns of two Mormons running for president: Mitt Romney, the putative front-runner, and Jon M. Huntsman Jr., both former Republican governors. To avoid the percep-tion that it was trying to influence politics, the church is intentionally not airing the campaign in states that have early primaries, going so far as to cancel their advertising in Las Vegas when Nevada moved up its primary, said Mr. Allen.

And yet, the church’s campaign could prove to be a pivotal factor in the race for the presidency. The Mormon image problem is a problem not only for the church, but also for Mr. Romney.

That’s interesting. When I was working for National Review in 2007 the church requested an editorial meeting with the publication. I was there and met with some of the church’s General Authorities. They weren’t pushing a political agenda at all, so much as to say that the church was well aware that Romney’s candidacy had raised a lot of questions about the church and that they were happy to be of assistance answering questions. While the new ad campaign is decidedly non-political, it’s bizarre to say the timing of the campaign has nothing to do with the increased scrutiny brought on by the campaign or for representatives of the church to say they’re not sensitive about Mormonism intersects with politics. Indeed, she later quotes someone as saying: “You would think … that the higher Romney’s profile, the better it is for the church. It’s actually the opposite.”

Then there’s this passage:

In many ways, Mr. Romney and Mr. Huntsman embody the Mormon archetype: clean-cut, Republican American family men. The church’s campaign is designed to introduce a rainbow of Mormon faces who counter the stereotype. These Mormons are not only white, but also Asian, black and Hispanic, and from countries other than the United States. There are plenty of traditional two-parent families, but there are also single parents, working women and stay-at-home fathers, and even an interracial couple — all family arrangements rare among Mormons until recently.

It’s true that the LDS church’s has had serious issues race relations and the changes to the doctrine not allowing blacks to hold the priesthood in the church didn’t occur that long ago in historical terms. It’s also true to some extent that Mormon stereotypes exist for a reason, particularly if you spend some time in small town Idaho or Utah suburbs. But commenting on the evolution of stereotypes in vague temporal terms is something that I think journalists should do with more precision. It’s also a missed opportunity for discussing some of the church’s unique doctrinal beliefs — for instance, the church’s beliefs about marriage explain a lot about family arrangements in the church.

These (relatively) minor criticisms aside, on the whole it’s really well done as you would expect from Laurie Goodstein. Lots of great quotes and background, and the issue of of Mormon doctrinal differences is handled reasonably well. It’s well worth reading.

And speaking of Mormons and politics, also worth noting is this article from The Daily Caller – “What would the White House be like with a Mormon president? Pretty much the same“:

“There’d be a Book of Mormon, maybe, in the nightstand,” said Brooks, grasping at straws to come up with some things that would change. Of course, she pointed out, there’s already one in the nightstand in every Marriott hotel room in America.

Mormons obey the Word of Wisdom, a religious law that prohibits consumption of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea and illegal drugs. But does that mean that under a President Romney or Huntsman, the White House would go dry and sleep-deprived aides wouldn’t be permitted to refuel with coffee?

“I would absolutely predict and bet a thousand bucks that you would not have a dry White House,” Chuck Warren, a Republican strategist and a practicing Mormon, told The Daily Caller.

It’s probably not too revelatory an article for GetReligions’ savvy consumers of religion news, but I bet the Daily Caller article will answer a lot of questions for a lot of people.


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  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    A new record! 100% of the comments on this post had to be deleted for being completely off topic!

  • Will

    Dear Madam: I object to people taking up space with comments about the number of off-topic comments. It is time something was done about this.
    [16 ton weight falls, obliterating poster.]

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    I liked the Daily Caller article. I had wondered about a Mormon president and temple worship too. Fortunately, I’ll bet it’s easier to arrange security for a facility that’s already closed to the public.

    I’d love to see some coverage of this stuff from papers in Idaho or Arizona: areas that aren’t as LDSaturated as Utah but which have enough Mormon residents that they’re not looked at like zoo animals.

  • fred barrett

    There are certain factions of society that have kept up the campaign to keep the rest of our society looking at the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as animals in a zoo.

    The intent of my post is not to insult or offend anyone, but it is clear to me that President Roosevelt was not accurate when he said, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that “all we have to fear is fear itself.” I believe that all we have to fear is ignorance that is not knowing what the beliefs of the church are and doing noting to correct that problem by informing themselves by asking latter-day saints who can supply all who are interested in finding out what the church membership believes. Most of the individuals who write these article’s don’t even inform themselves and often include misinformation.

  • Jettboy

    Mollie, my guess is that there was at the start 100 percent not on topic because its vague what the topic is supposed to be. Is it about how great the article is? Is it about some mistakes or missing information? Is it about how the paper doesn’t understand the political and religious intersection? Its really hard to tell.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    …correct that problem by informing themselves by asking latter-day saints who can supply all who are interested in finding out what the church membership believes.

    Fred, I actually did do that, but it was made much easier by having close friends who were LDS, which was in turn facilitated by living in a place with a lot of them. (Central Washington state, that is.) Not everybody has that opportunity, especially east of the Rockies.

    By the same token, I’ve met three Jews in my whole life, which would seem incomprehensible to folks on the east coast. If, as you suggest, fear is the problem, then lack of contact is the root of that problem. That’s an issue that this blog addresses regularly: the lack of familiarity between reporters and the religions adhered to by so much of America. If my paper tried to cover a Jewish candidate without seeking background from anywhere else, I shudder to think of the tone-deafness it’d probably display in its coverage.

    That’s why I’d like to see perspectives from papers like the Idaho Statesman in Boise. And why I think papers like the NYT and the WaPo would benefit from some guidance from smaller papers who actually know what Mormonism looks like.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The said Hatian-American woman defies more stereotypes than the article suggests. Mia Love has a white husband. In fact the add features a picture of her, her husband and three kids.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The claim that inter-racial couples are rare in the Church is just off base. I have known many black-white couples. If we expand the stucture, the first black man sealed in the temple (in 1978) was sealed to a Hawaiian woman. Many Spanish-speaking LDS units in the US have many people with Anglo-last names because families tend to go to church based on the wife’s language preferences.

    There are many LDS congregations in the US that are overwhelmingly not white. Some in Detroit are virtually all black. There are also as many Spanish-speaking as English-speaking LDS congregations in the Bronx, and many LDS in the English-speaking congregations are Latino.

    In my ward two of the three members of the bishopric are of at least partial Asian descent.

    There are five LDS stakes in the US that are all made up of Tongans. Utah has the highest percentage of Polynesians of any of the 48 continental United States, and a very high percentage of these are Latter-day Saints. This is also true of many polynesians in Texas, Missouri, Oregon, Washington and California.

  • Trevor

    I think the reporter did a good job of covering this interesting development in the LDS church’s long-standing publicity and advertising efforts. The LDS church has been at the cutting edge, at least for a religious community, for quite some time in advertising itself. The uplifting family-focused television commercials of the 70s, 80s and 90s come to mind. This campaign demonstrates that the LDS church is willing to continue to embrace new technologies and strategies in their advertising campaigns.

    For journalists who report on the LDS church, however, this campaign seems to muddle how best to describe the church and its members. The LDS church in this campaign has clearly embraced the term ‘Mormon’, which is a name that the LDS church dissuades reporters from using.

    From their online press guide:
    “While the term ‘Mormon Church’ has long been publicly applied to the Church as a nickname, it is not an authorized title, and the Church discourages its use.”

    The press guide also instructs reporters that “when referring to Church members, the term ‘Latter-day Saints” is preferred, though ‘Mormons’ is acceptable.”

    Perhaps the LDS church in its latest publicity campaign has taken the approach that the people they are trying to reach know them as Mormons, so it is a nickname they are increasingly willing to embrace.

  • Chemcat

    Awesome piece, thanks for staying fair:) I’m a Jewish convert to LDS( daughter of Rabbi from NY) LDS is anything but vanilla. I love the doctrine, which is we are literally all brothers and sisters of a loving Heavenly Father, who wants nothing but our happiness. We have always crossed barriers and broken down walls. I find this religion refreshing, honest and progressive. Check out amazing site from Church on Mormons and Gays. The Gospel states it boils do to Love. Being kind and considerate. No one is perfect.

  • Darren Blair

    FYI – Bonneville Communications is actually a media conglomerate, not an advertising agency. It owns KSL-TV in Salt Lake City and an assortment of radio stations across the nation in addition to its advertising services.