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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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