Mormon ads trying for a new brand

One of the Mormon ads features world champion surfer Joy Monahan.
One of the Mormon ads features world champion surfer Joy Monahan.

The message: They are regular folk and diverse. It counters a "goody-goody" or polygamous image.

Posted: August 26, 2010

The ads are catchy. Upbeat music plays as the surfer, the artist, or the skateboarder states his or her beliefs about life.

They all end with, "And I'm a Mormon."

On July 26, Pittsburgh became one of nine test markets for the advertising campaign that cheerfully counters stereotypes of Mormons as straight-laced, white, humorless, and sexist. The campaign from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints includes a revamped website at www.mormon.org.

The ads arrived on the heels of a backlash by gay-rights activists over Mormon support for the 2008 campaign in California for a ban on gay marriage. But the campaign's designers said it responds only to numerous survey findings that half of Americans don't know a Mormon.

"It's time to reintroduce ourselves," said Scott Swofford, the director of mormon.org. "We hope the spots portray Mormons as diverse people who are united in their belief in Jesus Christ. . . . We hope Americans see that Mormons are friendly, charitable, giving to others. We aren't perfect, but our behavior ought to reflect our beliefs."

With 6 million members in the United States, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the nation's fourth-largest religious body behind the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the United Methodist Church. Yet, outside of Utah and a few other places, Mormons are scarce. Stereotypes form when people don't know real Mormons, said Joanna Brooks of San Diego, Calif., a Mormon who blogs about her faith at www.religiondispatches.org.

"People picture either a polygamous wife in a prairie dress in dusty southern Utah, or the pair of young missionaries who come to the door in their white shirts, ties, and nameplates," she said.

The ads introduce world champion surfer Joy Monahan and Alex Boye, a black musician who has played with Mary J. Blige. Others include a Kansas woman who runs a free dental clinic in Honduras and a mother of three who says, "I believe a woman's place is actually not in the kitchen because, in this family, the dad is a far better cook."

Mormon.org features thousands of others. Visitors to the site can chat live with a missionary, find a congregation, or read what the church teaches.

After the ads began, "we had huge traffic jumps on Mormon.org," Swofford said.

Brennen Murphy is president of the church's Pittsburgh stake - equivalent to a diocesan bishop. Local missionaries report that the ads are raising a lot of interest among people in Western Pennsylvania, he said.

"They're getting quite a few inquiries, with people stopping them to ask questions," he said. "In a few cases, people who are members of our faith but didn't attend regularly had their interest piqued to where they decided to come back and worship."

Pittsburgh, which has a very low Mormon population, was chosen as a test site solely for its size, Swofford said. The TV market is small enough to be affordable but large enough for follow-up studies of the ads' effect, he said.

While the broadcast ads aren't overtly theological, the website politely engages a long-standing dispute over whether Mormons are Christians. The answer depends on how Christianity is defined.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that it is the true church, which God restored in the 19th century, long after other churches had lost the complete message of Jesus. The Book of Mormon, considered by the church to be an equal companion to the Bible, says that ancient Israelites came to the Americas about 600 B.C. and that the resurrected Jesus visited their descendants in America.

The Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches don't recognize the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as Christian because it rejects the doctrine of the Trinity. It teaches that God is the father of the spirits of all people born on the earth. Jesus is considered the first of God's spirit children and also God's physical son.

Marriage is central to Mormon understanding of human destiny. The church teaches that God meant marriages to be eternal, and that in the afterlife, faithful couples may produce spirit children, just as they believe God does. The Mormon belief that humans enter eternity as families consisting of fathers, mothers, and their children raises the church's level of opposition to gay marriage.

During the 2008 campaign to pass California's Proposition 8 ballot initiative to recognize marriages only between a man and a woman, "there was a distinctive theology that the church was trying to protect," said Brooks, a self-described liberal Mormon who supports the right for same-sex couples to have a civil marriage.

Mormons make up about 2 percent of California's population. But organizers for Proposition 8 said that Mormons formed most of the first 30,000 volunteers, and gave at least 40 percent of the $40 million campaign chest.

A backlash started shortly before the ban passed in November 2008. TV ads portrayed Mormon missionaries invading the home of a lesbian couple, stealing their wedding rings. Mormon temples were picketed. Ordinary Mormons saw their businesses boycotted.

"I knew Mormons who had voted no on 8 who were getting egged and having bleach thrown at them," Brooks said.

In her view, both church leaders and members were naive about the possible repercussions of such high-profile politicking. Her blog entry on the ads is called "Rebranding the Mormons."

"This is a way to portray to the outside the young, educated, urbane side of ourselves," she said.

She also believes the campaign provides a perspective different from that of Glenn Beck, a Mormon and influential political commentator.

"With the rise of Glenn Beck, Mormons have learned that unless we characterize the discourse for ourselves, it will be characterized for us," she said. "There are many Mormons who agree with Glenn Beck, but many more Mormons for whom his fairly vitriolic brand of political discourse doesn't match our sense of who we are."

She laughs at the idea, floated by some political analysts, that the ads are a stealth campaign for another presidential by Republican Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon. The ad campaign's creators said it was in the works before the Proposition 8 backlash, and that no public figure prompted it.

"It would be inaccurate to say that this was a response to any kind of political climate. This is really an effort to portray who we are," Swofford said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has worked to shape its image for 120 years, said Jan Shipps, professor emeritus at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, and the leading non-Mormon historian of the church. During Utah's battle for statehood, the church may have been the first to have a public-relations arm, said Shipps, who studied media images of Mormons from 1860 to 1960.

After the church was founded in 1830, its members were persecuted - largely due to its early leaders' polygamy. The church banned polygamy in 1890. But as Utah sought its first Senate seat, critics of the church launched a smear campaign, Shipps said.

"These were ministers who had been getting people to give money to fight the Mormons for years. When the Mormons gave up polygamy, then they had to say, 'Oh, but they didn't really give it up,' '' she said.

A big shift in public opinion came in the Great Depression, when national magazines covered the church's effective welfare program for members.

"They were admired for taking care of their own," she said.

That image of virtuous, self-reliant Mormons persisted into the 1950s, when a raid on a breakaway polygamist group revived negative stereotypes, she said. As the church sought to clear its image, it made TV public-service announcements.

Baby boomers grew up seeing vignettes about doing the right thing, with the tagline that the message was from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Later ads offered a free Book of Mormon.

At least until the recent uproar in California, the church's contemporary image was squeaky-clean, Shipps said. The image put forth in the new campaign "isn't as goody-goody," she said.

"For a long time their image was perfect, that they had all of the Boy Scout virtues and none of the American vices. I think maybe there's been a conscious decision that the goody-goody image was too goody-goody."

Brooks believes that Mormon.org may become the church's alternative to its traditional emissaries.

"Those missionaries who have gone door-to-door in white shirts and ties since the 1950s have been a remarkably effective way to brand ourselves. But we have outgrown that brand," she said.

"Social media has tremendous power. There is a natural desire to use it to reach out and promote a faith that means a lot to us."

Pittsburghers will soon see an increase in the Mormon ads. Initially the church sought to buy more time, but the slots weren't available.

"Your most intense days are yet to come," he said.


Contact Ann Rodgers at arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.

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