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Why I Don’t Like the #BecauseHeLives Campaign

by Joseph Peterson

I’ll never forget reading this line in a news article in the run up to the 2012 U.S. Election: 

“The Mormon Church’s marketing makes the Catholic Church seem like…well…the Catholic Church.”

I’m paraphrasing here, but this punchy remark stayed with me because 1) I’ve been Mormon my whole life, and 2) I got my degree in (and I love) Public Relations. But the sentence is somewhat of a double-edged sword and has left me wondering why, exactly, is my church so sleek and polished with their public relations and marketing? I’m not talking about public relations in response to crisis, or smoothing over uncomfortable gaffes—although industry insiders in Utah all point to the LDS church as a prime example in all of these. 

I’m talking about the kind of public relations that blurs the line with marketing, with brand building and with a social/digital forward shine that feels an awful lot like a political campaign, or like a big corporation that’s trying to reinvent itself for a younger demographic. 

#BecauseHeLives

The Church launched an Easter initiative March 28, 2015 that looks a lot like a polished social media campaign cooked up in a hot ad agency. And even though it’s a basic rehash of previous hashtag campaigns, no doubt the current #‎BecauseHeLives initiative will reach millions and will become another social media feather in the cap for the Church’s own Bonneville Communications.

Now I’m not trying to stir a pot. I’m a card-carrying (literally), active, church-going, calling-holding, believing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But I’m not going to participate in the #BecauseHeLives hashtag for three main reasons. 

1. Discomfort. Perhaps I don’t fully know why, but I freely admit a level of discomfort when my religion is marketed as smoothly as car insurance. I question whether a religion should be promoted in the way potato-chip flavor contests, super bowls, political movements, or even activist causes should. My faith, and what I believe, are beliefs that are important to me. And I know in practice that Social Media is an effective way to spread important messages, but I can’t help feeling that a hashtag campaign is too trite of a delivery system of said message. It feels funny for me to reduce my spiritual thoughts to 140 characters that begin with this: #.

This is what I'd call cross-promotion

This is what I’d call cross-promotion

2. Worry. I worry about creating a social platform for well-meaning LDS to come across as spammy in-your-face zealots. I feel like my deeply held spiritual beliefs are not something I toss on a bandwagon of a social media campaign by packaging it in a cleverly worded sentence or two, slapping on a hashtag, and shoving it in front of people’s faces. I wonder if this is actually landing in an audience of potential converts, or if it’s just propagating group-think and confirmation bias among those in the “in” crowd. 

3. Apprehension. I always tell my clients, what works with social media isn’t polish or pander, it’s authenticity. That isn’t to say that hashtag campaigns are bad. I love and employ them all the time. But they also seem to be the quickest way for a church to seem cheap by wrapping up an incredibly powerful idea about salvation into a three-word hashtag and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars producing and promoting content for that hashtag. This isn’t because I don’t think that’s good marketing. That’s great marketing! Especially if you are a nonprofit, or a brand. But if you are promoting a religion or trying to spread a belief? It just lands a little askew for me.

Church as Brand. 

Perhaps it’s a brave new world viewing the modern church as a brand. I’ve written about this concept before, and I get it. I do social media marketing all day every day for a living. It’s nice to be able to create a campaign centered around a hashtag where you can measure engagement, response, and popularity. 

It's a game of Where's God, complete with geo-location balloons.

It’s a game of Where’s God, complete with geo-location balloons.

But at what point when a religion, a belief system—albeit the administrative arm of a belief system—starts trending in behavior (as well as on Twitter) toward more of a focus on popularity? Is not the endeavor of a faith, rather, to set aside the cunning ways of the world and remain peculiar and unaffected by the fancy frills of new media? Is it to focus instead on its charge to care for the poor, administer to its believers, and take care of the flock through saving, healing doctrines taught by prophets as opposed to slapping a sign that says “He Is Here” on your photos and plunging them into the hashtag stream?

Storytelling

Storytelling is a buzzword in social marketing. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think churches should be absent from participating in social media. It’s a wonderful channel to reach people and to share stories. But when it starts to feel more like Coca-Cola and less like religion, I wonder if too much of a good thing, that is, high-end, top-notch digital communications, is looking beyond the mark. 

I think in our pursuit of “likes” and engagement metrics, we also mustn’t lose site of the fact that we’re not about being popular as we are about being effective. And I do think there is a difference. I wonder if on the back-end, the number crunching and ROI metrics are zoomed in so far to how popular they are, that they fail to see how effectual they are. 

See the Forest for the Trees

I guess part of a bigger question, should religions market themselves digitally as brands?

And if so, why do some do it more than others? And how is that different from simply using social channels to connect with an existing audience. As I’ve said, I think it’s great for causes and companies to engage in polished digital campaigns, but I wonder why it falls flat and seems cheap when a religion peddles that same territory. 

I’d Like to Bear My Testimony

For the record, my membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been both a boon and a blessing in my life. The way my faith ties me to an abiding belief in Christ, and a continual hope for the future is, in fact, my balm in Gilead. But “being a Mormon” in 2015 isn’t really analogous to my experience of being a believer of Christ through the lens of Mormon doctrine. 

It’s a nuance that I think should be more purposefully explicit. Because I don’t view myself as a brand evangelist for cultural Mormonism I don’t feel the need to spread any messaging that comes through the chute cleverly packaged in a breezy hashtag. But, and here’s the rub, I also don’t feel the need to tell everyone how awesome Apple products are, even though I use them. 

Put simply, if you want to talk about why my faith has changed me, I’m more than happy to have that conversation. Give me a call. Come over for dinner. Send me an email! It’s just, I don’t know, I can’t really tell you in a hashtag. 

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Comments

  1. Wow, you’ve expressed so well how I’ve felt observing various church media campaigns. It’s a strange mix of awe and apprehension. Authenticity is key, especially in sharing religious or spiritual messages, and it’s something these media blitzes don’t capture well. Although I too am card-carrying, active, and believing, I choose not to participate in these social media campaigns because they feel contrived. (They remind me of being asked to bear my testimony on tours of church sites, which I am also uncomfortable with.)

  2. #BecauseHeLives

  3. The Church’s marketing is no different than that of an insurance company because the Church is no different than an insurance company. It sells you an eternal life policy for only 10% of your income. Insurance company = Corporation. LDS Church = Corporation.

  4. Doug Perry says:

    Nice post. I guess I’m torn on it. I don’t like the intentional-blitz-and-glitz-nature of it either. But I do like that the Church encourages us to be a little more out their about our faith in Christ.

    As I think about it further a few questions come to mind. I’m reminded of last year’s ice bucket challenge. I read reports that questioned the level of sincerity and commitment to fighting ALS and that the movement was in actuality more of just a “cool” thing to do for a few laughs on Facebook.

    And, by participating in these “campaigns” are we becoming so effective at spreading this message that we are losing the true meaning of the message? Are people generally going to dismiss the message because the messenger is so loud?

    When things get too “in-your-face” I tend to tune them out as a consumer. So I shouldn’t be surprised if people are same way with this campaign.

    The Church is exceptionally-well organized and very smart in their PR work, and I a guess I am okay that they created the first hashtag campaign – it went very well and got the message out there. But to repeat it makes me wonder if that’s such a good idea for the reasons mentioned earlier on top of those you listed.

    Sequels are rarely as good or better than the original – it’s hard lesson to learn because it’s the easiest path to re-create something that works. But on Elder Dallin H. Oaks “Good, Better, Best” scale, I think round one was best, and each similar one after just isn’t going to be. Something different might be better or even… best (again).

  5. So why don’t we look at the message verbatim…

    Easter Message from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
    “Because He Lives”

    Wherever He walked
    Wherever He taught
    Wherever He healed
    He changed everything
    Then everything changed
    The man they called Master, Messiah, Friend
    Was gone
    But the greatest miracle was yet to come
    He is not here
    He is risen
    He lives!
    And because He lives
    If you reach out
    Call out
    Cry out
    He is here
    Then
    Now
    Always
    He is here
    During the good
    The bad
    The in-between
    He is here
    No matter who you are
    Or who you were
    He is here
    No exceptions
    No lost causes
    At all times
    In all places
    He is here
    He rose on the third day
    He lives today
    Find Him
    #BecauseHeLives

    I simply cannot find any fault in this message nor in the way the Church presented it to the world (which it sorely needs) this past few weeks. I’d like to see someone, including you, Bro. Peterson, produce a better Easter presentation to represent the risen Savior on Easter for the world to see.

    In recent memory we’ve had several members of the Quorum of the 12 urge members to use social media in sharing the Gospel with the world. I would rather suspect that the Church leaders were/are aware of the #BecauseHeLives campaign and approved of it.

    Given the weighty mandate we have to share the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ with the world, I see no wisdom in publicly expressing “discomfort” and “apprehension” about how the Church and its leaders are trying to do this.

    • Dee Harrow says:

      Lyle, the best presentation one could make would be deeds not words.

      The reason the church is struggling is because it spends tens of millions on campaigns like this, yet spends $1.5 Billion on a shopping mall that is open on Sunday and sells alcohol and advertises itself with women in non standard church clothing.

      Meanwhile children around the world go hungry or die from curable diseases. Ask yourself, what would Jesus do, buy a Mall or save lives? Buy two private hunting reserves with private airstrips or heal the sick. At no point in either the BOM or the Bible does the church become a commercial venture. When GAs are paid $175,000 dollars a year tax free and get free first class flights around the world, there are some who think it is fair to ask how that fits in with scripture – what happened to the BOM leaders who sustained themselves?

      I don’t doubt your love for the saviour, but with regard to this article, the Author is (IMO) correct. If anything the author understates the case. It isn’t just the use of commercial promotional methods but the fact that the Church officially no longer exists. It is purely a corporation sole owned by the President, it is a church in name only and has been in every legal sense since it dissolved the church decades ago.

    • Brother Minor says:

      Lyle – scripture converts, not hashtags. With double missionaries and millions in advertising and hashtags the church is growing less than ever before. Maybe we should concentrate on converting members to humility and love toward all men, rather than pride and popularity in the site of the world.

  6. Lyle, no one is criticizing the message. The message is true and should be shared. The question is how. Can you see the difference between sharing the whole message, as you did, or, say, sharing a personal message of what Christ’s atonement means to you, versus tweeting everyone about Costco’s great flower selection #becausehelives?

    • Yeaaaah, the flower thing … >_>

      While we’re on the subject of hashtag campaigns cheapening religion, I kinda have to say things like that don’t really help “sell” yours from either a philosophical or a branding standpoint. I don’t know if blatant non-sequitur tweets like Skaggs’ are a widespread thing or not, but I’ve seen a lot of people basically crediting everything good in their lives to (fill in the blank), whether it’s the Mormon religion, some version of Christianity, an expanded-consciousness cult, or even a multi-level marketing campaign.

      Something little went right in their lives just now? #tendermercies!

      What disturbs me is that the commonality between the kinds of people who do this isn’t that they all belong to a particular religion or corporation, but that the ones that they do belong to are really aggressively focused on bringing in new converts. And/or customers. When the defining feature of your church is that it pressures you to recruit more people, it may not be the force for good in the world that you think it is.

  7. While I, too, feel uncomfortable with a too-convenient, easy-to-rationalize hashtag to represent my religion, this also brings up a question: What else can we do?
    People are already exhausted to the point of fury at our door-knocking, mostly ignorant and insensitive missionaries. The “I’m a Mormon” campaign met with decent success. The family-oriented commercials of the 70s, 80s, and 90s were viewed positively. Our press-releases involving recent movements by the Church in Utah and national politics, while not well-received by particularly close-minded groups in other parts of the country, have been mostly in our favor.

    If the Church is going to be on social media, don’t you think it should at least use it well?

    • Dee Harrow says:

      The i’m a Mormon campaign has a really interesting origin. Take a look at this video and you can see where the idea came from.

      I think the author of this blog has a point. When campaign ideas like I’m a Mormon are being copied directly from the Church of Scientology then i think that is a problem. Either the ‘Thetans’ inspire Scientologists ahead of God inspiring the Prophet, or we’ve got a case of careful and embarrassing plagiarism on our hands.

  8. If anything, the Atonement and the Resurrection are pretty weighty topics for anyone not acquainted with scripture or religion. The church’s campaign makes it more approachable, more accessible. These are the times in which we live. With technology, and those silly little hashtags, we can reach so many more people. And religion, nay GOD isn’t talked about enough in the world… I think promoting and sharing our beliefs and love of God is wonderful. I have felt the Spirit testify truth many times while reading the testimonies of others on places like IG and Facebook. There will never be one way to share your testimony and there shouldn’t ever be just one way. Participate how you feel is best, but don’t knock others down for how they share theirs; you don’t know the impact their written words will mean to someone reading it in the quiet of their bedroom, or in a moment of desperation… it may have been all they needed to hear/read.

  9. I share your discomfort and I thank you for articulating so beautifully WHY Mormon social media campaigns make me “ewww”.

  10. Not all Of us are comfortable sharing it face to face like you invite; wish I were. I can do it on social media, and mean every word. I don’t think there is one right way.

  11. God made the internet to spread the gospel easier. I for one encourage every avenue to get the word out that the lords church has been reestablished on the earth. Now its time for us to bear our testimonies with such conviction as to match the messages spreaf by the church for us.

    • Dee Harrpw says:

      You’re kidding right? God made the internet? Did he also patch in my ISP and configure my router? No.

      The internet like the Nuclear missile was invented by man. It’s a by product of other ideas being linked together and revealing something useful in a multitude of ways to different people.

      Right now – the Internet that you claim God invented is the main provider of pornography world wide. It’s also the largest source of information about church history leading to disaffection from the church.

      I’m a theist and enjoyed reading this blog, but not for one moment would i make the claim that God made the internet. He know more did that than made the hang mans noose, or the Guillotine.

      • trytoseeit says:

        Well, if that was your point, it was sort of a waste of bandwidth. You either struggle with the concept of metaphor or else, as a theist, paradoxically can’t fathom the idea of divine influence over the broad sweep of events in the Universe. But I don’t imagine “ron” thinks that God had a job at DARPA back in the ’60s. And besides everybody knows that Al Gore actually invented the Internet.

        • According to what I heard at conference, God hates the internet. It tells people the truth about me marrying the prophet Joseph Smith when I was 14 and not wanting to marry him and he was 38 and an angel took his free agency away and said he had to marry me. This isn’t necessary information. Who cares about the founder of our beloved church coercing teen girls into marriage behind his wife’s back. That doesn’t suggest a motive for founding a religion at ALL.

        • trytoseeit says:

          If that’s what you think you heard at conference, I think we know where the problem is. And, you’re right, it ain’t the Internet.

  12. Ron Proctor says:

    I wish more people in the church were like you. I left Mormonism for many reasons, but their approach to marketing was a contributing factor. It cheapens a message that’s supposed to be sacred, makes me question the sincerity of the top leadership, and also makes it seem as though the leadership views members and potential converts as a mass of simpletons, easily swayed into big life changes by advertising. It’s a lot more complex than that.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your article. You articulated really well some of the concerns I’ve had.

  13. trytoseeit says:

    “[W]e also mustn’t lose site of the fact that we’re not about being popular as we are about being effective.” OK, I get that.

    Still, I’m having trouble with the overarching idea here that simple brand-conscious marketing is somehow troublesome or inappropriate or inconsistent with core principles or … what have you. I think that author here is struggling to say exactly what he thinks is wrong (“I wonder why it falls flat and seems cheap when a religion peddles that same territory”), and for one commenter it seems to boil down to “ewww,” which (forgive me) falls somewhat short of analytical.

    The author tells us that he has a degree in, and loves, PR. It’s helpful to know that, as the repeated disclaimers (hey, I have a temple recommend guys!) are likewise helpful for context. But I think that the author may still be ambivalent about a subset of PR known as *advertising*, especially when the subject matter is a brand more than a specific product. In the history of our culture, suspicion of marketing and marketers is as American as, well, apple pie. I see hints of that suspicion here, as I see the idea that somehow religious proselyting needs to be “above” something as borderline disreputable as brand marketing.

    So I ask myself, is that right? Should I share the concern?

    I guess my answer is, no – or, at least, provisionally no. I say provisionally because, like anything else, the ultimate issue is pragmatic: does it work? I don’t think we know one way or another, But it seems worth the effort to try.

    It is not as though the Church puts all its eggs into this particular basket. This is still the Church, after all, that relies more on individual contact by missionaries (sales reps, in the business analogy) than any other method. We also expect members to be their own best source of referrals (prospects) and, I suggest, we believe that the *experience* of participation in the Church is what makes (or breaks, I suppose) the “sale” (conversion leading to baptism). This is as traditional as it can be, and there’s nothing disreputable about it at all, however much detractors would disagree.

    But I suggest that we as members, and the Brethren as leaders, are increasingly conscious that those traditional methods are conducted against an increasingly hostile social background. This comment is already too long, so I won’t try to identify every element of that. If the brand takes a hit from (let’s face it) unrelenting criticism from a number of different kinds of sources, it should make all the sense in the world to a PR guy to try to shore up public perceptions. That’s NOT about “being popular,” it is about being effective.

    • Very good comment with lots to chew on. Thank you for those thoughts. As the author of this article, I think my waffling is more on the existential question of whether or not God should be “marketed.” As far as well-executed advertising, the LDS church is a text-book example. The pragmatist in me would rather they do it than not do it, but I do think in fine-tuning for the next campaign, there can be an element of authenticity to advocate for, that rings a little stronger than it did with this most recent iteration.

      • trytoseeit says:

        Thanks for your kind words. I appreciated your article. Anything that helps us reflect on how we present ourselves is useful. I get that you’re expressing concern with “the existential question of whether or not God should be ‘marketed.’” But I think that question has a very clear answer in Mark 16:15. The Gospel should of course be marketed! We should establish that principle first, and then – absolutely – continue to examine, re-examine, and address questions of time, manner and place. “Fine tuning” is very appropriate in that context. So is experimentation.

        • Hear Hear!

        • I remember a story from one of my mission companions that he and a previous companions were talking to a man about the Book of Mormon and the gentleman said he wasn’t really interested in religion but he loved military history. My then companion started to talk about the ‘War Chapters’ when his companion angrily stalked off because he wasn’t going to talk about the BoM on any terms other than as proof of the Prophet Joseph’s calling.

          I contrast this with the words of Paul:

          19 For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.
          20 And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;
          21 To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.
          22 To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.

          I appreciate Rev. N. T. Wrights insight that to often we treat the Gospel as ‘good advice’ (this is how you get to Heaven), rather than ‘good news’ (Christ is risen and because of that everything has changed).
          The Great Apostle new his job was to announce the Good News that the Kingdom of God had come and like any good newsman he sought every means at his disposal to get out the word.
          .
          Social Media is where people are these days, even when they are somewhere else, The Deseret News article on the statistics shows that the video reached communities we don’t usually reach (3/4 of a million views in Japanese ~6 for every member in Japan).
          I also noticed as I looked through the collection of user generated content that it wasn’t just ‘Mormons’ who were using #becausehelives. As tenuous as it is this is a way to start being in conversation with other people.

  14. > the quickest way for a church to seem cheap by wrapping up an incredibly powerful idea about salvation into a three-word hashtag

    Yes. It’s like writing a limerick for Easter.

    “There once was a cross on Golgotha…”

    It just feels to un-fittingly lighthearted for something supposedly so serious.

  15. Thank you for posting this. I appreciate and relate to your perspective.

  16. The kids going door to door selling “the living scriptures” DVD’s…obtaining ward lists from other members. Book of Mormon action figures sold at Deseret Book. Our Apostles sitting on boards of subsidiaries of the Corporation of President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The shopping malls. But most disturbingly, the lack of financial disclosure. #becauseHelives

  17. Suzie-Quzie says:

    THANK YOU FOR THIS POST!!! I think it rings true with more Mormons than headquarters would like to admit. But what do you expect from an organization that takes in $6-8 billion annualiy and has only given $1 billion to charity in the last 20 years? This is one of the lowest percentages of charitable donations of any church in the US. PR campaigns like #BecauseHeLives would abhor the actual Christ. Why not go volunteer in a soup kitchen or tutor a needy child instead of sitting on your rear typing away in social media amidst your online shopping if you REALLY believe it’s #BecauseHeLives. This is not the type of missionary work that Christ did. Church PR is just showing how out of touch they are with Christ and the people who need our help today. Enjoy your cushy desk jobs, PR minions.

  18. Not a Mormon myself, but a student of religion, including yours. Contemporary Mormon PR leaves me cold because it is not, as you say, “authentic.” The obvious downplaying of what really makes the LDS faith what it is –the extraordinarily imaginative restoration project of Joseph Smith and his pre-1890 successors– in order to appear to be just excruciatingly nice Protestants with a second Bible, is deeply deeply disingenuous. And boring.

  19. The Church’s entire direction says much more about us than it does of itself. The Lord finds us where we are and works with us at this point.
    I’m an early morning seminary teacher in the DC area, we just finished D&C 124 where the Church is commanded to put out a proclamation. In the specific section & subsequent proclamation (by the Twelve following the martyrdom), they asked/commanded the world’s royalty, POTUS, & state governors (who actually had some influence back then) to recognize the re-establishment of God’s Church on the earth publicly and to bring all their gold, silver & precious things to them. I confess, reading it gave me the creeps. I felt exactly as you expressed regarding the hashtag campaigns. I was also into PR in college.
    However, the more I thought about previous revelations and how the Brethren of the time, or any time, worded things, how bold they were, how foolish they looked, how they seemed to be making it up as they went–I was so utterly grateful that the Lord gives us a point to work toward and lets us do it the best we can. Sometimes w/direct guidance, sometimes knowing we have all we need to succeed given our previous experiences.
    From the beginning of the D&C the Lord uses the term “terrible” to describe the latter day Church. I wondered about the choice of that word & how it’s “terrible” like you’d describe a lion in old fashioned terms. Which leads me back to my point about how the hashtag campaign says much more about us than it does about the Church.
    Having previously been a Family History Center Director & seeing how fast and miraculously that work has changed and the directions it has moved I can see how this blessing/curse we call the internet is where we are & where we often must be. I don’t think going after people where they live (which these days is online) in any way possible is “slick”. Was Ammon going straight for Lamoni just because he was king & thought he could get some pretty sweet numbers by impressing him first? Did Ammon know what God would do to the king ahead of time? I seriously doubt it. Ammon did what he knew was right & God did the miracle.
    You may scoff/get creeped out by the whole hashtag thing. I think it’s beautiful because it always accompanies messages and images (our generation relies on) of hope. Two sister missionaries in our ward, within the last year, each have helped convert family members & friends from home, while they were on their mission because the person finally listened after seeing some of these Mormon ads, bible videos they shared weekly while on their ipads. They taught them via skype and the persons, in their element, were touched where they were & lifted. Even if they were the only two in the world, that would be enough to do a hashtag campaign.

  20. Simply put, the brethren are inspired. It doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes but they are inspired. These messages are beautiful and simple. I don’t know what you are seeing or how you could interpret them in the way that you do but to me they are inspiring. I love to share them. If you are creeped out, don’t watch, don’t share, don’t worry. Everyone shares the gospel and their testimony in different ways.

Trackbacks

  1. […] In an interesting counter to the Mormon Newsroom #BeacuseHeLives piece, I also found this piece from Joseph Peterson, writing for the blog Approaching Justice. Peterson noted 3 main reasons he wasn’t getting involved with #BecauseHeLives: Discomfort, […]

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