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?

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