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Mormons' Ad Campaign May Play Out on 2012 Campaign Trail

Laurie Goodstein|The New York Times
Friday, 18 Nov 2011 | 1:59 PM ET

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.”

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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.”

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.

“We’re not secretive,” Stephen B. Allen, managing director of the church’s missionary department, who is in charge of the campaign, said in an interview. “And we’re not scared of what people think of us. If you don’t recognize the problem, you can’t solve the problem. If nobody tells you you have spinach in your teeth, how would you know?”

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 perception 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. For all their success professionally and financially, Mormons still face a level of religious bigotry in the United States equal only to that faced by Muslims.

Mormons make up less than 2 percent of the American population; the church says it has six million members in this country out of 14 million worldwide. They believe in Jesus Christ, read the Bible and consider themselves Christian, but their theology differs significantly from traditional Christianity. They claim three additional books of scripture, including the Book of Mormon. They believe that the prophet Joseph Smith, who founded the church in 1830, restored Christianity to its true path.

Polls taken during the last presidential race showed that four in 10 Americans said they would not vote for a Mormon for president. While some more recent polls have shown a slight softening of attitudes, a Mormon candidate still has a huge hurdle to overcome. If the church’s upbeat advertising campaign succeeds in warming public perceptions of Mormons, then a campaign intended to sell the church could also help sell a president.

Jon Huntsman
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images
Jon Huntsman

The highly negative poll numbers that surfaced in the first Romney campaign were deeply disturbing to the church’s top leadership, according to people involved with the church’s advertising campaign who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize their jobs. Church leaders were also taken aback by the vitriol directed at Mormons after the church contributed money and volunteers to pass Proposition 8, the California measure in 2008 that banned same-sex marriage.

“You would think,” said one person involved with the advertising campaign, “that the higher Romney’s profile, the better it is for the church. It’s actually the opposite.

“The people who are very savvy within the church and understand media,” this person said, “know that if Romney gets the nomination, ultimately for the church it’s a problem. Politicians are polarizing figures, they’re not uniting figures. What it does is completely eliminate the option of Mormonism among a whole swath of people who will never ever consider it. They’ll say, I know one Mormon — our president — and I hate that guy.”

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.

The video featuring Erick Lund, an Army veteran, opens with him playfully spinning his cat on the slick wood floor of his home. It shows him reveling in his life with his wife and two children, studying to be a dentist, and only gradually, when he takes off his shoe, does the video reveal that he was seriously injured in Iraq.

“My faith is so intertwined with my life,” he said in a phone interview. “But nobody wants religion shoved at them. I don’t. I don’t think anybody does. What I like about this campaign is it’s a really nice way to start a conversation.”

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.

“What we found was that in order for people to have a desire to understand doctrinally what the church stands for, it was necessary for us to overcome the stigmas that existed,” said Mr. Burton in an interview. The biggest stigma, said those involved in the campaign, is the belief that Mormons are not Christians.

After the presentations in their churches, members in good standing were asked by their bishops to go to the Web site and post their own personal profiles and testimonies. Screeners reviewed the text before it was made public to make sure that nothing in it contradicted church theology, said Mr. Allen of the missionary department.

Is the campaign working? In the past 12 months, the Web site has had more than one million people initiate online chats with Mormons, he said, but it is too early to tell whether this is bringing in more converts.

Mia B. Love, the daughter of Haitian immigrants and mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, said she had received a letter from a man she didn’t know saying that her video had helped convince the man’s wife to join the church.

“The church has always been incredibly involved in missionary work, and the ads are an extension of that,” said Ms. Love. “They wanted to get the word out that we’re not a cult, we’re not sitting in the mountains here with five wives. They wanted to let people know that we’re normal.”

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