Mormons' Truth Restored campaign has understanding as goal

The Kansas City Star/October 12, 2007

Amiddle-age black woman looks directly into the camera. Her speech is earnest and unrehearsed.

She talks about the Mormon concept of the family being together beyond this life.

"To me that was absolutely beautiful and correct," she says, her voice slightly raspy and her features strong, compelling one's attention.

"My mother is always going to be my mother," she continues. "My father is always going to be my father. … And so when the missionaries came and I started to learn and my mind opened to the beauty of eternal relationships, it kind of softened my heart."

She finishes. The screen flashes, "Truth Restored. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

The Mormon church is running television spots like this one as part of a public relations campaign in three areas of the country, including Kansas City. The metropolitan area is home to about 40 LDS congregations and 21,000 Mormons.

The purpose of the PR effort is to help the public understand Mormon teachings. And it just happens to come at a time when eyes are focused on the church from several directions.

In recent months, especially with the presidential bid of Mitt Romney, a Mormon, the Salt Lake City-based church has found itself under increased scrutiny.

Contributing to this was a movie, "September Dawn," released this summer based on the Mountain Meadow Massacre, a tragic event in Mormon history.

In the making is a documentary, "A Mormon President," which looks at Mormon presidential candidates beginning with the first one, Joseph Smith, the church founder. These follow a four-hour PBS documentary, "The Mormons."

And talk about drawing attention, bare-chest Mormons are featured in a 2008 "Men on a Mission" calendar.

The calendar's producer, Chad Hardy, said in a Religion News Service article that the project was a way to encourage a discussion about Mormonism — "it's OK to be sexy and spiritual at the same time" — and also raise money for charity.

All of this attention comes at a time when most Americans say they know little about Mormonism.

A slim majority of people recently polled (53 percent) expressed a favorable view of Mormons, and an even slimmer majority (52 percent) said they are Christians. Less than half (49 percent) said they were familiar with the Mormon religion.

The survey was conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The timing of the current PR effort in the midst of the presidential primary race raises a chicken-or-egg question: Which came first — Romney's campaign or the PR campaign?

"We've been developing this campaign for 2 1/2 years, long before Romney's campaign," said Stephen B. Allen, managing director of the Missionary Department for the LDS Church. "This doesn't look like a coincidence, but it is. The church takes a neutral position politically."

What is called the "Truth Restored" campaign has been going on since May in test market cities in the East, the West and the Heartland: Albany and Syracuse in New York, Las Vegas and Reno in Nevada, Kansas City and Wichita/Hutchinson in Kansas.

"We were looking for mid-size to small markets to minimize the cost and markets that were representative of the U.S.," Allen said. "These markets collectively mirror the population."

Spots similar to those on television also are on radio and billboards and in magazines.

The first phase of the campaign showed interviews with men and women on the street, answering questions most people have about life and God. For example:

"Where did I come from?"

"Does God have a plan for my life?"

"Does God care about my suffering?"

Actors and actresses, not members of the church, were hired for this first phase but were not given a script, Allen said.

"We told them to give honest answers to the questions," he said. "We knew they had a camera presence and felt we were likely to get good sound bites."

The second phase, which is taking place now, features testimonies of people (not actors) who have joined the church and found answers. They, too, were not given a script.

"We sent teams to visit recent converts in a lot of different markets and selected some who were articulate or had a presence on camera or an interesting perspective," Allen said.

The LDS Church has engaged in mass advertising campaigns for many years.

For nearly 30 years it has done public service announcements on the importance of the family, Allen said. And for more than 15 years it has invited people to call for free offers of such items as videos and Bibles. After calling, they are asked if they want a church representative to deliver the free offer and teach Mormon beliefs.

The current campaign is reaching out to people who are looking for life's answers who don't want direct contact and probably would not call an 800 number, he said. But they may be more open to going to the Mormon Web site given in the ads and doing their own research.

Historically the LDS Church has been right up there with Hallmark in producing some of the most emotionally astute ads on television, said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.

Thompson, who has seen some of the current ads, said one thing that makes the Mormon ads so effective is their soft sell.

"In 30 seconds or 60 seconds, they really completely pull you in," he said.

They are technically well-done, using brilliant advertising savvy but not selling a commercial product, he said.

"They hit you with this incredibly intense emotional experience, and while you are still feeling it, you can go to the Web site," Thompson said. "This has become an effective one-two punch."

Despite past advertising, Allen concedes: "We have not done a very good job as members of the church in helping people who are not members understand who we are and what we believe.

"But there is so much to the church that it is not surprising that people don't have a good understanding of it. So this (PR campaign) is an effort to say who we are and what we believe. In order to understand us, you have to understand what we believe."

It also is an evangelistic outreach to share how to come to faith in Jesus Christ, he said.

Plans are for the advertisements to run through December in the test markets, and then church officials will decide whether to run them in other parts of the country, he said.

Results won't be disclosed until the end of the test run, but Allen said he believes the public is getting a better understanding of the Mormons.

"Visitors to the Web site have jumped dramatically in the test markets, but this has happened in other parts of the country, possibly because of the political campaign and general interest in better understanding the beliefs of Mormons," Allen said.

David Hepworth, president of the Lenexa Kansas Stake, said the PR campaign has brought about more dialogue between Mormons and other church groups.

Also, in the Kansas City-Wichita area, hits on the Web site are up close to 300 percent compared to a year ago, and more people are coming to services and asking for missionaries to visit, he said.

"We greatly welcome the campaign," he said. "We are not out to attack any group or faith.

"This is just us being proactive in trying to get out a message that we feel is of great value."

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