In new TV ads, Mormons pitch message to Middle America

Liz Goodwin
The Upshot

The Mormon church recently launched a new ad campaign in nine U.S. cities that show regular people talking about their lives and hobbies before announcing near the end of the spots that they are Mormons.

The ads are part of a new campaign that encourages Mormons to make profiles and share stories about their faith at Minneapolis' WCCO-TV reports that the ads are airing in Baton Rouge, La.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Pittsburgh; Rochester, N.Y.; Oklahoma City; St. Louis; Tucson, Ariz.; and Minneapolis.

According to Joel Campbell, a Mormon journalism professor at Brigham Young University who is researching the ad campaign, the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a TV ad campaign three years ago that tried to explain Mormon beliefs. Research showed that the ads were too "sophisticated" and viewers weren't getting the message.

These new ads dodge religion almost altogether in favor of a simpler message: We're not weird. In the ad below, pro surfer Joy Monahan says, "I'm a surfer, a woman, and a woman's longboard champion. And I'm a Mormon." Watch:

So why the recent publicity push?

Several reporters speculated that church leaders are trying to get out in front of the widely anticipated push from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to rejoin the GOP political fray. Most political observers expect Romney, a lifelong Mormon, to make a run for president in 2012.

[Related: Young Americans more loyal to religion than Boomers]

So was Romney involved in getting the church to try giving the Mormon faith a more accessible and familiar face (and thereby allay some of the suspicions that swirled around the Mormon tradition during his 2008 presidential run)? Apparently not. A spokesman for the ad campaign, Ron Wilson, told WCCO-TV that the ads are "not connected to Mitt at all."

Campbell says the ads are a response to worsening public perception of Mormons over the past few years. Polygamists run wild on the popular HBO show "Big Love," and a new TLC reality show called "Sister Wives" will feature a polygamist marriage. Some non-Mormons don't understand that splinter groups that practice polygamy are excommunicated from the church, he said.

A 2007 Pew Center poll showed that 18 percent of Americans associate the religion with polygamy, even though the church has banned the practice since the late 19th century. Six percent said they associated Mormonism with terms like "weird" and "cult-like." The religion is one of the world's fastest-growing, with about 13 million members.

"The church's desire here is just to tell people who have no opinion or a negative opinion of Mormons to say, Look it, we're not a bunch of polygamists that wear weird clothes and have a compound in Texas. That's not us, we're just regular folks," Campbell said.

Mormon leaders were also very vocal in their support of California's Proposition 8, the gay marriage ban. Utahns sent $3.8 million to the state, most of it to supporters of the ban. Campbell says the media framed the controversy over the initiative (which a federal judge overturned last week) as "Mormons vs. gays." He said that the church "has a lot of work to do to improve that reputation."

LDS spokesman Scott Swofford said the church has run ad campaigns for 25 years and has found that the best way to dispel myths about the religion is to have Mormons speak for themselves. The aim of the new campaign is to give Americans "a virtual Mormon neighbor," he said.

(2006 photo of Salt Lake City LDS Temple: AP/Douglas C. Pizac)

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