Are the new Scientology ads persuasive?

Advertising deconstructed.
July 6 2009 1:16 PM

Are You There God? It's Me, Madison Avenue.

How to make an ad for a church.

The Spot:"You are not your name," says a voice-over announcer, as we see a series of different nametags. "You're not your job." We see people in the uniforms of different occupations. "You're not the clothes you wear or the neighborhood you live in." Images continue to illustrate the litany of things that you are not. "You are a spirit that will never die," the announcer concludes. "And no matter how beaten down, you will rise again." The tag line: "Scientology. Know yourself. Know life."

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Seems like it should be easy to make an advertisement for a religion. After all, you've got an incredibly appealing suite of products on offer: inner peace. Sense of community. Eternal salvation. Who wouldn't want to act now, before supplies run out?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been running ads for decades. I have clear memories of a spot from my youth in which Alfonso Ribeiro accidentally breaks a neighbor's window and—with operatic gusto—owns up to the crime. Nearly all the Mormons' ads (including more recent ones) are vignettes about doing the righteous thing. The protagonists tell the truth, spend quality time with their families, and help those in need. Afterward, they feel good about themselves for having behaved so admirably. These ads don't make an aggressive sales pitch but instead attempt to burnish the LDS brand by associating the church with positive moral values. You can expect to find upstanding citizens like these in the LDS fold, the ads suggest.

The New Life Christian Church, which operates from three Northern Virginia campuses, has been airing a string of low-key local spots full of banter about silly, decidedly nonspiritual topics. "What's the word for dried apples?" wonders a woman in one of the ads, noting that while dried plums are prunes and dried grapes are raisins, dried apples have no moniker of their own. "A place for random people," reads the tag line, as an on-screen URL directs us to the church's Web site. This slogan sort of undercuts the gravitas of the church. I'm finding it hard to imagine, for instance, a mosque or temple billing itself as a collection barrel for "random people," instead of a carefully considered choice with profound consequences for one's soul. (On the other hand, it seems like Unitarianism has been successfully pushing the "place for random people" angle for quite some time.) But the goal here is to imbue the church with a welcoming, nonthreatening personality. We're invited to identify with the ads' friendly characters and to imagine they're the type of fun folks we might meet were we to drop in on a Sunday service.

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The goofiest ad I've ever seen for a religious institution is without a doubt "SoulWow." Apparently produced by a consortium of Roman Catholic churches in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island, this ad is a play on the legendary ShamWow infomercial. Pitchman "Father Vic"—in priestly garb—notes the plethora of household cleaning products available in stores, and then urges us to instead clean ourselves "from the inside out" by partaking in the holy sacrament of confession. "This offer is free," says an announcer as the ad closes, "and all you need to bring is a contrite heart." The implicit message is that this church is hip enough to attempt a pop-culture parody. Perhaps if you go to confession, you'll find yourself in the booth with a hilarious priest like Father Vic.

By contrast, the three new spots from the Church of Scientology don't traffic in humor or upbeat mini-fables. Their mood is dark. Their tone is dramatic. Their scope is epic.

The Scientology ads employ a time-honored Madison Avenue tactic: Show the problem. In a classic show-the-problem ad, you might first zoom in on those grass stains that have been ground into little Billy's trousers. You'd then reveal, in a lingering product shot, the new and improved detergent that will save the day.

Here, the problem is slightly more abstract than ground-in grass stains. The problem is spiritual emptiness. "We're all looking for it," intones the announcer in one of the Scientology spots. "Some of us have been looking our whole lives. Some think they can buy it. … Some travel the world in search of it. Most don't even know what they're looking for. But we all feel it. That aching desire." The final reveal suggests that Scientology, much like a powerful laundry detergent, will provide a solution.

Focusing on the problem has long been Scientology's preferred marketing gambit. Back in the '80s, ads for the L. Ron Hubbard book Dianeticsidentified, in on-screen text, a series of familiar human problems. "Why are some people attracted to the wrong kind of partner?" the text asked. "How can you regain happiness after a loss?" The ads concluded by showing us the product that would solve these problems. Nominally, the product was the book (pictured hovering, in these ads, near an erupting volcano). But the book was an entry point into the religion.

A recent series in the St. Petersburg Times, in which former Scientology executives spill a few beans, suggests that church leader David Miscavige has been redoubling efforts to raise church funds. Perhaps this new campaign is part of Miscavige's revenue drive. Or perhaps it's an effort to counteract the negative press, the increasingly open ridicule, and the growing bands of protesters that have lately dogged the religion.