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Mormons use ads, social networks to fight misconceptions

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 22, 2010 - Have you been wondering about those Mormon commercials that seem to be playing on television 24/7?

They feature "real people," including a surfer, skateboarder and artist, talking about their lives and beliefs as up-tempo music plays in the background. Oh, and they all end with the same refrain: "I am a Mormon."

St. Louis is one of nine test cities for this new TV and radio advertising campaign launched in late July by the Church of Latter-day Saints. Despite the fact that 5.5 million Mormons live in the United States, their numbers are small outside of Utah and some other places. St. Louis, with roughly 11,500 Mormons, was chosen because of its size and demographics, according to church officials.

Their hope is that this hip, new campaign will counter all those "Big Love" polygamy misconceptions, and general stereotypes that Mormons are straight-laced, conservative and sexist, instead introducing them as our neighbors, colleagues and friends interested in many of the same things that we are.

"Our research showed that once someone met a Mormon, stereotypes fell away," said Kim Farah, a spokesperson for the Mormon church in Salt Lake City. She added that a major component of the campaign is a newly launched website, which encourages Mormons worldwide to create internet profiles explaining about them and why they live their faith. So far, 2,000 have completed profiles and 13,000 more are in the works.

"The response has been amazing," said Farah, adding that since the website launched July 15, traffic is up 50 percent and the number of missionary "chats" is also up significantly.

Ben Munson is a local Mormon working on a profile for the site that tells how he is a writer, editor and photographer, with interests in golf and hockey. What he likes about the "I am a Mormon" campaign is that it shows the diversity among membership that had been obscured by previous marketing efforts.

"It portrays a new generation of Mormons as the voice of the church," said Munson, of Lake St. Louis, who is a regional media affairs specialist for the Church of Latter-day Saints. "Mormon commercials in the mid-'80s had more of a PSA-feel to them. What the ("I am a Mormon") commercials do is take the message of what we believe and show members living their faith, tying it all into the social media aspects of 2010."

The Mormons aren't the first to use social media to spread their message or connect with constituents. In interviews with marketing experts and religious leaders of all faiths, most seem to agree that the internet has become the modern-day town square. Through social media, denominations can reach many more people with much less time and money.

According toinsidefacebook.com, religion takes many forms on Facebook. There's a page for "The Bible," with more than 4.5 million "Likes." Religious leaders, too, are gaining fans; the Dalai Lama, for example, has 913,200. Places of worship have their own pages. There are also some popular applications -- "The God Wants You to Know" app has around 2 million monthly active users.

Meanwhile, all this religious marketing has prompted an awareness campaign geared to the millions of atheists, agnostics, skeptics and humanists living in the United States. Last Tuesday, the Greater St. Louis Coalition of Reason, which is made up of six like-minded groups including the local Ethical Society, unveiled a billboard near St. Louis University, at Interstate 64/Highway 40 and Vandeventer Avenue, that says: "Don't believe in God? You are not alone." The billboard is part of a nationwide campaign in 30 cities sponsored by the United Coalition for Reason. The billboards steer the public to the organization's website

"America is all about marketing; we market religion like we market soap," said Fred Edwords, the coalition's national director. "That said, we have an audience, too, that we are trying to reach. We aren't trying to convert anyone. We just want people to know that there is a smorgasbord of religious choices, including not being involved in organized religion and not believing in God."

Ellen Futterman is editor of the Jewish Light, where this article also has been published.