Ruth Williams hands out programs as she greets those arriving for a Sacrament Meeting of the Washington DC 3rd Ward at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints October 23, 2011 in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
There is a TV educational campaign running in a dozen cities across the United States called “I’m a Mormon,” and it’s creating a lot of buzz.
The first time I saw a Mormon-produced television spot was in the mid-1970s. Many will still remember it. The shot opens with the camera tight on a middle-aged man, buried in an armchair and absorbed in his TV football. Outside the window behind him waits his son, baseball and mitt in hand. An off-camera voice asks:
“Remember last week when you said next week you’d spend more time with your kids?”
The man glances toward the camera with a half smile and a grunt of recollection. Pause.
Then the off-camera voice says simply: “It’s next week.”
These spots became very popular, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made dozens of them, winning a trophy room full of broadcasting awards in the process. The theme was family life, and they worked because they were real. Every parent could identify with the no-no things we all do when raising our kids and grandkids. The idea was to encourage the grown-ups in the family to do a little better at the most difficult task any of us will ever have – to steer our kids successfully into life by raising them in a home where love, values and boundaries are in the right proportions and expressed in the right way.
In the 1970s the Homefront series, as these spots were collectively known, got a lot of free airtime from station managers because of the quality of the production and the relevance of the message. After deregulation of the broadcast industry in the 1980s, the amount of free air time on offer dropped dramatically.
Deregulation and other factors prompted a fresh look by the Church at the best way to share its core messages. Many felt that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should be known for more than just happy families, important though that was. What of the deeper issues of faith that we were not explaining adequately, especially the centrality of our belief in Jesus Christ and how that belief impacted our lives? Over the next twenty years a variety of other approaches were tried with varying degrees of success. Some spots invited viewers to send for a free Book of Mormon or Bible. Others attempted to explain our beliefs specifically.
If there was a moment of birth for today’s popular “I’m a Mormon” campaign, it was early in 2009 when it became apparent from research that some more recent church-produced TV spots were not resonating with many viewers simply because they didn’t know a Mormon or had no way to connect with us. The biggest obstacle with these viewers was not doctrine or practice, but unfamiliarity.
The “I’m a Mormon” campaign is working today for the same reason the original Homefront spots worked thirty years ago. They are real. The concept behind the ads is refreshingly simple. A couple of video photographers and a producer show up at the members’ homes and look over their shoulders for a few days. To ensure that church members speak for themselves, their interactions are unscripted and the sole focus is to get at the story that runs through a person’s life, and the thread of faith that is part of it.
Neither do the short TV spots and the somewhat longer profiles or vignettes that are featured on Mormon.org shy away from the parts of life that are gritty and unglamorous. We see Jane Clayson Johnson formerly the elegant news anchor for ABC and CBS, contending with children’s messes and explaining that she considers her transition from high-profile journalist to full-time mother to be one of the wisest decisions of her life. We also see candid portraits of people facing truly painful challenges like the death of a child, infertility, postpartum depression and paralysis –problems that test the mettle of people the world over. These individuals tell us that they find strength in their religious faith that enables them to endure their trials and even find meaning and joy in their lives. Every video profile ends with, “And I’m a Mormon” because this is what being a Mormon or member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is at its core — living a faith-filled, yet highly pragmatic life in the real world. (In future TV spots and profiles, also expect to see the full name of the church).
Few of the people in these vignettes have recognizable names, but there are exceptions. Brandon Flowers, lead for the popular music group, “The Killers,” is one. As he has experienced it, a Latter-day Saint’s faith is a foundation, not something to be outgrown or discarded. It’s something he chooses to embrace even if it makes for an atypical rock musician.
Since the series was launched last year, traffic to Mormon.org, the Internet site for visitors, has tripled. Millions of people are being introduced to real Latter-day Saints for the first time. The Mormons in these spots are like people in your neighborhood or your circle of acquaintances. They are drawn from every walk of life, from different ethnicities and nationalities. They are loving members of families. Most are fathers and mothers, both adoptive and biological. Some are high school or college students with rocky pasts and big dreams. They may claim various political persuasions, and may not always agree with each other. They are people like you.
Which is the whole point. Latter-day Saints are normal in every respect except perhaps one. Studies show that they take their faith more seriously than most. Latter-day Saints who are active in their faith see it as a defining part of who they are and what they have become, not as an afterthought or number 10 on their list of inherited characteristics. Being a faithful Mormon is to live a life of commitment, marital fidelity, parental responsibility if blessed with children, honesty and health consciousness. It is to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ as best they can. It also means recognizing that most of the time we fall short of our own ideals and those that Jesus Christ set for us, but that through repentance and forgiveness we can start afresh and do better.
The Mormons in these spots all believe this in the deepest part of their soul. They don’t necessarily wear it on their sleeves. They may not push it down your throat. But if they say with conviction, “I’m a Mormon,” you can count on the fact that it’s more to them than just a label.
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