Thursday, July 14, 2011

What Utahns are saying about Mormons and the *I'm a Mormon* ad campaign

If you happened to do a double-take upon reading the title of this article, don't worry, I've forgiven you ahead of time. Let's start by acknowledging that LDS persons (also called Mormons) are a different demographic group than Utahns. These groups certainly overlap, but it's very important to recognize that not all Mormons are Utahns and not all Utahns are Mormons. In fact, these groups don't overlap as much as one would think. Only 12%  of the world's Mormons reside in Utah (2008), and only 60.4% of Utahs are Church-recorded members (2008). Only 41.6 % of Utahns are active members (2007), and only 58% of Utahns self-identify as Mormons (2009). I happen to be both a Utahn and a Mormon.

Just to make sure there's no confusion, by "Mormons," or "LDS," I am referring to members of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, not the former Reorganized LDS Church (now called, The Community of Christ) or the fundamentalist Mormon groups associated with polygamy.

I'm a Mormon ad campaign

Times Square, NYC
In the last few weeks, many media sources have published stories with titles like this: Hundreds of Mormon Ads Launched in New York City (The Huffington Post). Apparently, two 40-foot billboards display the Church's I'm a Mormon advertisements in Times Square to greet people on their way to the controversial Broadway Book of Mormon musical. The ads are also found on subway cars, taxi cabs, and television. Although I have not seen the musical myself, I've read several articles, heard a few of the songs, and have come to the understanding that it's main intent is to portray Mormons as nice, friendly people who believe in something completely ludicrous. No wonder the Church's response is to let Mormons tell a little about themselves; these individuals want to show that they are a diverse group, and not deranged or naive.

A few articles I've read about the campaign perpetuate ridiculous rumors, like that the black persons used in the campaign are not really Mormons, but actors hired to create a false display of racial diversity. Others develop conspiracy theories, such as the idea that the Church is secretly trying to promote Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman. But the Huffington Post article I mentioned above, and another one titled, Faith Ad Campaigns Chase After the Great 'I Am,' cite relevant sources to
  1. show that the ads are not so out of the ordinary. The Church has used television and billboard advertising for decades, and other religions have recently taken up an advertising approach similar to this campaign.
  2. explain the reasoning behind the campaign.
This ad: Deborah (center) who co-founded One Heart Bulgaria
"Our research showed us that many people know very little, if anything, about members of the church," Michael Purdy [LDS Church spokesperson] said. "By giving people a glimpse into the both ordinary and extraordinary aspects of the lives of our members, we hope they'll realize these are people with whom they have a lot in common."

During the last presidential election, in which Romney also ran, a Pew survey found that when asked to give a single-word to describe Mormonism, three of the top four words respondents gave were negative. "Polygamy" was No. 1, "cult" was No. 2 and "different" was No. 4. The No. 3 response was "family" (The Huffington Post).
Here's another article: 'I'm a Mormon' Campaign expands to N.Y. This title comes from The Deseret News, a Utah newspaper owned by the LDS Church, but commonly read by both Mormons and Non-Mormons alike.

What Utahns are saying

This blog post is a summary and analysis of the 68 comment conversation following this Deseret News article. It's not a perfect representation of what all Utahns are saying about Mormons and the ad campaign. But I believe it's a candid qualitative sample worth peering into.

Among the varying ideas were a few recurring themes.

Critique: These ads won't improve public opinion of Mormons
Critique: Religions shouldn't advertise at all
Critique: It's a conspiracy!
Are Mormons normal?
Positive response to the campaign
Discussion of the anti-Mormon movement
Insults and other conflicts

Critique: These ads won't improve public opinion of Mormons

While most commentors indicated a pro- or anti- Mormon position, this charming comment, one with an objective (or at least indifferent) attitude, had received the highest number of "recommendations."
Chris B | 5:24 p.m. June 14, 2011
Salt Lake City, UT
I don't care too much what the Mormons do or dont do, but it does seem like anything related to them gets the liberals bent out of shape - and to me thats funny. So keep up the good work Mormons. (Recommendations: 22)
Whether or not he intended to do so here, Chris B indirectly expressed the idea that the ads won't successfully improve public opinion of Mormons, at least among "liberals," or people who already find Mormons annoying. 6 more commentors (one of whom was a Mormon) said that the ads would have no effect on the public's negative perception of the Church and its members. Some, in effect, said that this was because Mormons aren't normal and that the public would see right through any attempt Mormons made to portray themselves as normal. (See my section entitled, "Are Mormons normal?")

Critique: Religions shouldn't advertise at all

Although only one commentor directly stated the opinion that religions shouldn't advertise, there were altogether 24 comments in this strain of the conversation. A Mormon commentor responded defensively to say that religions should advertise, and for the following reason:
cg1020cg | 4:27 p.m. June 15, 2011
Hmmm, to those on this blog that question why would the LDS church put up these advertisments or question the need for our church or any church to engage in advertisment. Well, how many times is Satan advertising on the tv or print for people to follow him? Case closed!!!
An insight into Mormon rhetoric, for those who aren't familiar: Mormons commonly speak of the vulgarity in popular media as Satan's means of leading us astray. Not long following cg1020cg's comment, there was a little debate (two more comments) regarding the existence of Satan.
Both Mormons and non-Mormons criticized the ad campaign for making religion commercial, flashy, popularity-based, or "cheesee" [sic]. Two commentors said they thought it was not spiritual enough, and was pandering to people's emotions. 
One commentor complained that in the ads a certain group was unrepresented:
Tom (above) has a PhD in Computational Biophysics
Mormoncowboy | 10:46 a.m. June 15, 2011
Provo, Ut
The campaign doesn't bother me much, I don't mind proselytizing. Still, the "And I'm a Mormon Campaign" should be rather discouraging to the lower-class Mormons (economically) who seem not to get fair representation from this campaign. The Church is sending out a subtle message here of who they prefer to represent them. Not the meek, humble, the poor, that Jesus mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount, but rather the successful and impressive!
A commentor responded to Mormoncowboy to say that in her search (I assume on she found quite a few people with I'm a Mormon profiles whom she believed had low economic status because of their type of employment. She also added,
nayajja` | 6:31 a.m. June 16, 2011
Ephraim, UT
If highly educated people show up on the profiles more than you would like, it is probably because those are the people more likely to read internet sites like this and to take the initiative to write a blurb about themselves. 
Both Mormoncowboy and nayajja are right, but they're talking about different parts of the campaign. While any member of the Church can post a written profile on with a picture, the Church-made video ads like the ones in Times Square are limited to individuals the Church selected.
Scott Swofford, director of media for the LDS Church's missionary department, said he participated in many intense brainstorming sessions, trying to figure out a way to select members, trying to decide what they were really looking for.

Jeff (above) is an antique bike sculptor for Harley Davidson
"We didn't want people that were famous or well-known, but we wanted them to be extraordinary in some way in life," he said.

They tossed around 60 names, which were narrowed down to 48, which were narrowed down to 30. The selected subjects are an eclectic mix of ethnicities, backgrounds, occupations, ages and talents. A mix of veteran commercial filmmakers and student filmmakers, headed by creative director Parry Merkley, joined the project. Swofford said their goal was to avoid a controlled, scripted feel.

"We went for YouTube quality," he said. "We had two-man crews going across the country gathering the pieces. No art director. No makeup person. We wanted it to be very raw and documentary-like."(Mormon Times)
Now, on to the question of money. Six Deseret News article commentors (Both Mormon and non-Mormon) opposed the expensive NYC ads, saying that that kind of money would have been better spent on "charity," "humanitarian initiatives," etc. A Mormon responded by explaining that Mormons believe that advertising is worth spending funds on, because they take literally the New Testament commandment to "proclaim the Gospel." She added to that examples of charitable programs the Church continually supports. Two other Mormons said they trust the Church leadership to make inspired choices about the use of funds.
There were two comments defending the idea of religious advertising by pointing out that it's no different from commercial advertising: annoying to many, but helpful to a few.

Critique: It's a Conspiracy!

Below I've pasted the branch of the conversation surrounding the idea of "ulterior motives."

xscribe | 9:01 p.m. June 14, 2011
Colorado Springs, CO
I just don't understand the need to advertise one's religion, unless there is some ulterior motive, such has voting a Mormon into office, for example.

Cats | 2:16 a.m. June 15, 2011
Somewhere In Time, UT
Dear xscribe: the "ulterior motive" is sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That's all.

LeDoc | 5:03 a.m. June 15, 2011
It's also possible that somew will construe this as a back door way to support a political candidate (I mean SERIOUSLY) who doesn't know Mitt's Mormon?) and get around having to report the $ spent as campaign contributions.

procuradorfiscal | 7:52 a.m. June 15, 2011
Tooele, UT
Re: "I just don't understand the need to advertise one's religion . . . ."
I've never understood the need to ridicule or demonize another's religion. Unless there is some ulterior motive. Such as defeating a Mormon running for office because you disagree with his positions, but recognize that a disingenuous attack on his religion is more likely, at least historically, to defeat him than an attack on his politics.

The idea that the LDS Church might be secretly supporting the Romney campaign struck me as odd. Although the Church recurringly emphasizes its neutrality when it comes to candidates and political parties, every once in a while, the Church does take a formal position on an issue. And it just so happens that on a couple of issues, Romney and the Church stand in conflicting positions.

1. Immigration. Romney has for some time stood in favor of strict enforcement of immigration law. He opposes driver's licenses and in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. He has also proposed immigration reform that would end the policy that gives immigration application preference to those with citizen family members. The LDS Church, on the other hand, by stating support for the Utah Compact, recently formalized a public position in favor of legislation that allows undocumented immigrants to apply for residence without requiring them to go back to their native counties. They emphasize a stance firmly against breaking up families.

2. Abortion. The LDS Church has not made formal statements recommending political action on this issue, but has held a specific standard for its members. It has decried abortion for "personal or social convenience," but condones it in trying circumstances, "such as when pregnancy is the result of incest or rape, when the life or health of the mother is judged by competent medical authority to be in serious jeopardy, or when the fetus is known by competent medical authority to have severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth." Mitt Romney, in contrast, has had a strictly conservative position on abortion, promising to overturn Roe v. Wade, and suggesting that if things went his way, abortions would never take place, regardless of circumstance.

Although I think it unreasonable that the Church leadership would be particularly interested in supporting Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, I find the concern understandable. It makes sense for the public to worry whenever there's a political candidate associated with a large powerful organization or business. But even if the Church were interested in Romney, consider this: If the NAACP had spent money on advertising that promoted a positive portrayal of blacks in 2008, would that have been an unethical monetary support of President Obama's campaign? If the National Women's League had put up women's rights billboards in Times Square during Hilary Clinton's campaign, would that have made the race unfair? No. Such efforts would have been respected as unaffiliated with the candidate. When a person from a minority group runs for office, they enter the game with an unfair disadvantage. And there's nothing wrong with minority groups taking an opportunity to express who they really are when an opportunity arises.

Meanwhile, the LDS Church has been obsessed with advertising itself for 181 years. The idea that the Church is launching this particular campaign to take advantage of the timely attention it's getting (from the Book of Mormon musical and the Romney and Huntsman campaigns) seems much more reasonable than the idea that the Church is trying to secretly promote a political candidate or that the Romney campaign is conspiring with the Church to "get around having to report the $ spent as campaign contributions." 

Are Mormons Normal?

There were three comments (one made by a Mormon) stating that this huge effort to make themselves appear normal actually makes Mormons look desperate. Two commentors said they thought the ads paint a picture of normalcy that is false, reasoning that Mormons aren't as normal as they'd like to think they are. One of these explained that his assertion was based on his dislike of the Mormons he met when he first moved to Utah; He came to believe the whole group to be "insincere" and "ingenuine." To one commentor, the campaign seemed irrelevant; he said that the public is concerned more with the strangeness of LDS doctrine than with Mormon lifestyle.

As you can see, the use of the term, "normal," or the idea of it expressed in other words, was frequent. The nature of the campaign, itself, suggests the idea of normalcy. According to Emily Schmuhl, Mormon Times journalist, that was the intent.

Put simply, the campaign has cast its real life subjects as diverse, secure in their faith and … ordinary. Normal. Fun. Creative. Friendly. Happy.

Another commentor stated that while Mormons may think the ads are great, non-Mormons still think Mormons are "weird." He added to that an interesting assertion, offensive to Mormons and others:

Ernest T. Bass | 8:34 a.m. June 16, 2011, Bountiful, UT
Take away Central American and Africa, and [Mormon] convert baptisms are down and when there are converts they aren't exactly educated types who are getting baptized.

These two stereotypes

1. That converts to the Church are unintelligent or uneducated, and
2. That the Church's successful missionary conversion efforts are limited to underdeveloped countries/communities

Scene from The Book of Mormon musical.
are among some of the ideas perpetuated by the Book of Mormon musical that the I'm a Mormon ad campaign seems specifically designed to overturn. However, while there are no studies done assessing whether or not converts to the Church are stupid (which is Ernest T. Bass's implication), there is evidence that Mormon converts actually do constitute a less-educated population than born-in-the-faith Mormons.

The 26% of Mormons who are converts to the faith differ markedly from lifelong Mormons in several ways. First, converts tend to be older than lifelong Mormons. Nearly half of converts (48%) are over age 50, compared with about three-in-ten lifelong members (29%). Converts also tend to be less educated than nonconverts (16% did not graduate from high school, compared with just 6% of lifelong members) and they earn decidedly lower incomes (40% make less than $30,000 a year, compared with 21% among nonconverts). (Pew Research Center)

Aside: It would be remiss to finish my commentary on Ernest T. Bass's statement without wagging a finger at his offensive generalization that the people of Central America and Africa are uneducated.

Six Mormon commentors said they felt it was necessary for Mormons to portray themselves as normal. Another Mormon commentor questioned the idea of "normal." Here's that section of the conversation:
Independent | 11:15 a.m. June 15, 2011
Henderson, NV
I think this advertising campaign is very appropriate. I also think it is a bit inaccurate to say that the aim of the campaign is to show that Mormons are normal. Of course we're not normal. Look around you. Normal is broken. Who in their right mind would want to be normal? What I think the campaign is trying to show is that although we are different, we still put our pants on one leg at a time. We're different for sure, but you don't have to join a convent or give up electricity to be a Mormon.

Mom of 2 | 12:23 p.m. June 16, 2011
Eagle Mountain, UT
The best kind of "advertising" anyone can do, on a church or individual level, is to live a good life. The LDS church does this already, but I think it would be better PR for them to donate the money to a good cause instead of putting up ads telling everybody how normal they are. Don't force everybody to look at you and see how mainstream you are; just go about your life quietly and do the best you can, and people will notice on their own.

Independent | 5:00 p.m. June 16, 2011
Henderson, NV
Mom of 2, the problem is that no matter how much good we do, the best people say of us is "Those Mormons are nice people, but boy are they nuts." We're not comfortable with that characterization, because some of our "nutty" beliefs are actually quite important to a full understanding of the purpose of life in our view.
From the full conversation, I have gleaned differing definitions of "normal." Below, I discuss in what ways Mormons are or are not "normal."

Proposed Definitions of Normal

Fun. Creative. Friendly. Happy.
Most of these are personality traits, and I would never suggest that all persons of a group fit these descriptions. We'd have to do years of sociological work before we begin to know, until then, it's fair to suppose that Mormons are as likely as anyone else to have these characteristics. We do know a few details about how U.S. Mormons compare to the American population in education. While only 23% of the general population have "some college education," 32% of Mormons fit the category. But as far as how many graduate from college, Mormons (18%) are similar to the general population (16%).
not nuts
educated, intelligent
sincere, genuine
not naive
Yes, They're Normal
I have frequently become acquainted with the Anti-Mormon sentiment that Mormons are manipulated into blindly pledging allegiance to Church leaders. People who accuse Mormons of this are concerned about the LDS belief that the leaders of the Church are prophets, to whom God speaks to guide the Church. As in any religion, there may be persons who believe without critical thinking. However, I have always known the Church to discourage it. One of the essential LDS doctrines is "agency," which Mormons are taught is the right and obligation to make one's own individual choices. Mormons are also taught to follow the example of Joseph Smith (the church's founder) who questioned the religious views he was taught, and found answers through prayer.
not in a cult
not desperate to prove something
No, not normal.
Mormons are desperate to prove something. Although many stereotyped minority groups are interested in portraying accurate depictions of themselves, Mormons have an additional reason for doing so; they take very literally the Christian imperative to proclaim their gospel message.
Yes and No
Diversity can mean any number of things. For brevity, I refer specifically to diversity of race, ethnicity, geographic residence, and political affiliation. Undoubtedly, members of the world-wide LDS Church are a diverse group. However, in the U.S., Mormons lack diversity in several areas. 76% of Mormons in the U.S. reside in the Western states (35% live in Utah.) While the general U.S. population is 71% white, 86% of Mormons in the U.S. are white. Only 3% of U.S. Mormons are African-American and only 7% are Latino (2009). 65% of Mormons say they identify with or lean toward the Republican party, only one other religious group has more partisan consensus (77% of historically black Protestant church members are Democrat). (Pew Research Center)
no "nutty" beliefs
Yes and No
It seems to me that all religions have nutty beliefs. All religions espouse beliefs in supernatural phenomena, miracles, omniscient God or gods, afterlife. I think the reason LDS doctrine is singled out as nutty, is because it claims to be a form of Christianity, and yet, it differs in a couple areas of doctrine that other mainstream Christian groups share in common. For example, Protestants and Catholics are unified by the doctrine of the Trinity (one God who takes three different forms: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), which was formalized as part of the Nicean Creed. Mormons, in contrast, believe that the developers of the Trinity doctrine were uninspired, and that the Bible's original doctrine was that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are individual beings, though unified in purpose.
puts pants on one leg at a time
Yes and No
This expression is an idiom about life-style. LDS culture and practices make Mormons unique. Their religion affects the way they dress, eat, date, spend their money, etc. However, Mormons are not as far from the mainstream as stereotypes suggest.

Positive Response to the Campaign

Of the 68 comments in the conversation, 15 were made in support of the I'm a Mormon campaign. 12 of these commentors indicated that they were Mormon, one indicated that he was not, and two didn't say. Four said that the ads were a good response to the musical. One replied that the I'm a Mormon campaign has been around much longer than the musical. (He/She was probably referring to the version of the campaign.)

A few Mormon commentors with positive response for the campaign added statements of belief. One shared a scripture. Two others shared conversion stories.

Discussion of Anti-Mormon Movement

One commentor said the I'm a Mormon campaign is a good response to Warren Cole Smith, a popular Evangelical Christian political writer who is criticized for being, "so intent on marginalizing the Church of the Latter Day Saints that he implied that he wouldn't even fly in a plane piloted by a Mormon pilot, let alone vote for a mormon president." (

There were two comments about the I'm an Ex-Mormon ad campaign on YouTube, one noting the "bitter" nature of these ads, and another noting the popularity of them.

5 more Mormon commentors complained of religious discrimination. Of these, four added the optimistic belief that negative attention can indirectly result in conversions to the Church.

Insults and other conflicts

Altogether, there were 15 intentionally offensive statements made throughout the conversation. Some were rude statements and generalizations about groups, others were intended to insult fellow commentors directly.

Insulting comments made by Mormons:
  • 2 toward atheists
  • 4 toward the LGBT movement
  • 1 toward non-Mormons
  • 1 toward the pornography industry
  • 1 toward the entertainment industry
  • 3 directed at a commentor named Pagan
  • 1 directed at a commentor named sergio
These Mormons seemed to be trying to defend their culture and beliefs, but clearly did not add to the positive image of Mormons the ad campaign seeks to achieve.

Other insulting comments:
  • 7 toward Mormons (3 by Pagan, 2 by Sergio)
  • 2 toward religion in general
Not that this is really a surprise. Anonymous internet conversations allow people to be on their worst behavior without consequences. The ruthless candidity is probably the reason I continue to study this type of conversation year after year. Just for fun, here are a few conflict highlights:
Pagan | 8:53 a.m. June 15, 2011
Salt Lake City, UT
Why do mormons feel the need to shove their chosen lifestyle in our face? :)

Captain Kirk | 10:16 a.m. June 15, 2011
Lehi, UT
@ Pagan | 8:53 a.m. June 15, 2011
"Why do mormons feel the need to shove their chosen lifestyle in our face? :)"
Because they are proclaiming the gospel of Christ and trying to save people ... according to what they believe. I often find your prolific comments as an effort to "shove" your lifestyle in others faces. I know that you see it differently. At least the LDS message is, in my opinion, an effort to help people.

Eddie | 10:41 a.m. June 15, 2011
Syracuse, UT
@ Pagan
Since when is the LDS Church has the "need to shove their chosen lifestyle in our face?" I guess we could respond with "since when do we need people like Pagan to seek out and read articles about us and then make rude comments"? It is you who chose to read the article, or read billboards or anything else that is Mormon. If you don't like it you can ignore it and go about your life.

Pagen | 10:50 a.m. June 15, 2011
'Because they are proclaiming the gospel of Christ and trying to save people... (sic) At least the LDS message is, in my opinion, an effort to help people.'  -Captain Kirk
And I'm sure you see it that way. The claim of Mormons being 'in your face' was an attempt at satire. A direct similarity to those same claims against LGBT.
I'm sorry if I offended you.

Belching Cow | 11:30 a.m. June 15, 2011
Sandy, UT
"Why do mormons feel the need to shove their chosen lifestyle in our face? :) "That's pretty funny. Maybe the LDS Church does have something in common with the LGBT community.

procuradorfiscal | 12:22 p.m. June 15, 2011
Tooele, UT
Re: "Why do mormons [sic] feel the need to shove their chosen lifestyle in our face?" We could ask the same question of you, substituting "LGBT activist" for "Mormon."

nayajja` | 6:06 a.m. June 16, 2011
Ephraim, UT
@Pagan "Why do mormons feel the need to shove their chosen lifestyle in our face?"
You have it wrong. Mormons invite, not shove--mainly because they believe their religion promotes happiness and they want to share. Gays don't invite; they try to shove their lifestyle choices into educational curricula and they try to illogically compare their lifestyle choices with race discrimination, and they try to pass laws making criminals of those who disagree with their lifestyle choices, meanwhile forgetting all about laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion. The entertainment industry doesn't invite; it creates outrageous "entertainments" based on hurtful and false stereotypes that mock our religion, to enrich themselves. What if the Broadway musical had been a mocking attack on the "values" of gay people? Think it would win Tony Awards?
Concluding Remarks

Although as a Mormon I certainly approach this topic with a bias, my interest has been to uncover truths (whether positive or negative) about Mormons, the I'm a Mormon ad campaign, and the Utah conversation about it. I appreciate your readership and feedback.

1 comment:

  1. This is really interesting, Karen! Before I start I guess I should give some context to my comment by saying that I am both a Utahn and a Mormon. I think the funny thing is that when my husband and I first started watching the YouTube campaign I called it the, "'I'm a Mormon, and I'm normal' campaign." I guess it just send that not so subtle vibe, eh?

    The comment by Mormoncowboy resonated with me. After I watched all the videos in the campaign I told my husband, "I'm Mormon, but not a cool enough one to ever get a video like that." It made me feel almost a little . . . betrayed? It was like my simple, stay-at-home wife, start a family on one income and while you are still establishing yourselves financially, save don't spend leading to an un-flashly, un-hip, uncool life that I lived BECAUSE I was trying to follow the teachings of the church was suddenly not cool enough for them. I see what they were trying to do, but it just doesn't groove with me.

    After feeling that I found it interesting when when C. Jane ( said "I've called for a Mormon Message video where people just look at the camera and tell us what they believe. No music, no stirring strings just people's faces and their testimonies. While it wouldn't appeal to everyone, at least it would be an honest portrayal of what a testimony sounds like coming out of your average Mormon's mouth"

    There is so much to respond to, but I think that is about all I can do. I've got to get back to my un-hip typical Utah Mormon life.