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Scientology mounts a PR pushback

July 28, 2009|DAN NEIL

The Church of Scientology has had a bad couple of years, PR-wise. You could start the damage-control clock running in January 2008 with the release of the Scientology indoctrination video featuring Tom Cruise -- you know, black turtleneck, eyes spinning -- claiming that Scientologists are the only ones who could really help at an accident scene. This summer the church was tried for fraud in France. In May, Wikipedia said it would ban entries originating from Scientology IP addresses on account of the church's self-serving wiki-revisionism. And last month the St. Petersburg Times published a devastating four-part expose of Scientology's tiny tyrant David Miscavige, based on testimony from four former high-ranking executives in the church.

Then there was last week's Katie Holmes "homage" to Judy Garland on "Dancing With the Stars." Talk about the scene of an accident.

All of which has left the church with a smoldering crater where its public image ought to be. And yet, the church didn't get to be La-La Land's Holy See for nothing. In May the church launched a series of new commercials, and they are nothing short of brilliant. Sleek, chill and nonthreatening, these ads are visually beautiful, with a kind of tonal waveform of celestial bliss that invites fellow questers on a journey of self-discovery. "Scientology: Know yourself. Know life," the tag line runs. Well, who wouldn't want a piece of that?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, July 29, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Scientology ads: Dan Neil's advertising column in Business on Tuesday misidentified the television program that featured Katie Holmes' "homage" to Judy Garland. It was on "So You Think You Can Dance," not "Dancing With the Stars."

The pleasure of these ads derives from their glossy cinematic execution, of course -- the cerulean monotones, the exquisite jib camera work, the husky, hunky voice-over, the tranquil soundtrack (think U2 jamming with Vangelis).

But it also must be noted that, finally and surprisingly, the church with the greatest affinity for and proximity to Hollywood has finally turned up a decent branding spot. I mean, these are the people of the exploding volcano.

If these spots were produced in-house, somebody's thetan deserves a case of beer or something.

To be clear, I'm no fan of Scientology, and what I've read of its cosmology -- the whole tale of Xenu -- sounds like a rejected "Star Trek" script to me. Still, I kind of love these ads, or at least their perfect cynicism.

Consider the spot titled "Truth." Over a series of close-ups of gorgeous young faces, the copy reads: "You are not your name, you're not your job, you're not the clothes you wear or the neighborhood you live in. . . . not your fears, your failures or your past. You are hope, you are imagination. You are the power to change. . . . You are a spirit that will never die. . . . You will rise again." In terms of marketing a religion, this ad has a proven winner of a message. It is a direct co-opting of Christianity's language of resurrection and eternal life -- which is of a slightly different spiritual chemistry than Scientology's usual promise of millions of reincarnations. In a stroke, Scientology positions itself as Mac in the Mac-versus-PC rivalry.

Another spot begins: "We're all looking for it. . . . " Again, a series of quick cuts of young people who seem to have been drafted out of the Ford modeling catalog. "Some of us have been looking for it our whole lives. Some think they can buy it, some think they can wear it. Some travel the world in search of it. . . . " Here there are shots of people doing amazing things, cave-diving, mountain climbing, which seem to be counterposed to suggest vain and misguided attempts at self-fulfillment. "Most don't even know what they are looking for. But we all feel it, that aching desire, that unexplainable emptiness that can only be filled by one thing. . . . " A woman standing looking in awe at a star-filled firmament. " . . . The Truth."

Awesome, with an emphasis on "awe."

These are virtuoso pieces, tremendously appealing and remarkably shrewd.

For instance, nowhere in any of the three spots does the church take a defensive stance or refer to any boiling controversy around Scientology.

That would violate the first rule of advertising, which is: Never mention your competition. Nor do the ads bother to associate themselves with any of the oddball trappings of the actual practice of Scientology -- no auditing or e-meters and absolutely no discussion of Xenu-focused back story, which simply cannot pass the laugh test in public discourse as far as I'm concerned.

And yet, as splendid as these spots are, I do have a couple of questions: What if you're not good-looking? Nearly everyone in these ads is pretty, handsome or better.

And some of these dewy, dreamy creatures are downright distracting, they are so beautiful. Does Scientology offer hope to the plain? What about the homely? Or should they stick with Catholicism?

I'd also note that almost everyone in these ads is under 30. Now, reasonably, this is an age group that is more susceptible to the message, still searching, still curious, still credulous. However, it is also much less likely to be affluent. If money was important to my client -- and money, it seems, is truly the dark matter that binds Scientology's universe -- I'd pitch to an older and better-heeled crowd.

These ads might recruit only an anguished army of baristas and part-time shoe clerks.

Lastly, judging from these ads, Scientology doesn't seem to have anything to offer those who are actually at peace with themselves and the universe.

You know, sometimes people investigate faiths out of a sense of curiosity and wonder, not because they hate their job or tend to sabotage their relationships.

It seems to me the Scientology ads leave a lot of conquest sales on the table.

--

dan.neil@latimes.com

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