The Selling of Scientology

Blink and you missed it, it seems.

For this past Super Bowl XLVIII, the commercials, as always, were a draw and a source of conversation and controversy.  And while everyone is talking about Coca-Cola’s “It’s Beautiful” ad, and the right-wing reaction against it, a different ad caught my eye.

Here we have another attempt by The Church of Scientology to market itself to a national audience.  Scientology has produced regional commercials before, and even this one aired before the Super Bowl.  They have their own YouTube channel, through which you can see past television commercials and other vidoes.   This commercial aired for maximum audience impact, in what has been described as the most viewed Super Bowl, the most viewed sporting event, and the most viewed television event in United States history.  This commercial for Scientology reached potentially over 100 million people when it aired, and even more through online distribution.

And yet, the people I asked who had watched the Super Bowl didn’t recall seeing it.  It may be because the organization bought local time, airing the commercial in specific markets, just as they had done in previous years.  But from the reports I am seeing around the Internet, the commercial appeared in enough markets for it to reach a sizable percentage of the immense Super Bowl audience.  Of course, viewers may not recall seeing it, or recalling it as a Scientology commercial, since there was nothing upfront that identified it as such, and there is nothing terribly memorable about it.

However, this commercial is important to sit down and watch — and not because I am advocating people convert to Scientology.  Its importance lies in its uniqueness and its intended impacts.

It is rare to see a religion market itself via a television commercial.  However, it does seem to be a viable option for those religions who are facing public scrutiny and even confusion.  For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints has engaged in a multimedia campaign that includes televisual and online marketing within the past several years to address the confusion, uncertainty and even ridicule that Mormons have been facing.  Their “I’m a Mormon” campaign was designed to dispel notions that all Mormons are polygamists, or that Mormonism is a cultish religion.  This campaign has been particularly important given the 2012 Presidential campaign saw the first ever Mormon candidate, while at the same time the success of the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon was spreading the facts about the religion through satire and musical numbers.

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The Super Bowl commercial from Scientology could be the beginning of their own “I’m a Mormon” style campaign.  They have a tagline of “Spiritual Technology” as a clever slogan to build such a campaign around.  As with the Mormon campaign, Scientology also has its own public relations issues to deal with.  Almost since it’s beginning in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the organization has been criticized as a cult and questioned as a true religion, worthy of tax exemption.  In fact, the story of the rise of Scientology was essentially the basis for the 2012 film The Master, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman (may he rest in peace) and Joaquin Phoenix.  However, with the religion centered in Los Angeles and counting many of Hollywood’s elite among its members, the organization has managed to weather all of these criticisms and is now celebrating its sixth decade as a religion.

More recently, however, more and more stories of the organization have leaked and raised more critical gaze on what happens behind those closed doors — doors that are famous for being very closed, with members who are famously closed-mouth.  That any leaks come out from this secretive organization is remarkable, but there have been stories on alleging that members are brainwashed, abused or forced to sever ties with their families upon becoming full members.  The organization has denied such allegations, but they continue to surface — as does information about what Scientology actually preaches.  One famous example comes from the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who more recently brought Mormon doctrines to light via their Broadway musical.  In the 2005 episode “Trapped in the Closet”, Parker and Stone reveal the “secret doctrine of Scientology”.  While there never was much backlash from the organization to the comedy duo or Comedy Central, apparently the doctrine of “attack the attackers” was enacted, as Parker and Stone were investigated.

All of this is to say that Scientology has not necessarily enjoyed a positive reputation as of late, and that paying perhaps upwards of $8 million dollars for one minute of air time was a way to address this reputation issue.  And most likely the commercial was not designed to counter the allegations but rather to inoculate people against them.  Unlike Mormonism, Scientology is less mainstream, less known nationally; the allegations fuel the critics of the religion, but they probably do not even reach a level of awareness with the general public, beyond the idea that it is something Hollywood people do.  In this way, the commercial seems more designed as an attempt to normalize the religion, to align it with mainstream conceptions of religions like Christianity, Judaism and even Islam.  Showing a building and iconography that resemble Christian symbols helps to make this connection, and thereby would rhetorically allow the viewer to see Scientology as just another religion.  This attempt at normalizing would work to create the idea of what Scientology is in the mind of the viewer, which they could then call upon when faced with other representations of the organization, such as the allegations and the truth of its secret doctrine.

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At the same time, the commercial appears targeted at millennials, who, according to research, may be less religious but still spiritually seeking.  As with previous commercials, the main characters shown are young people, depicted as seeking themselves, the truth, uniqueness, et cetera.  This commercial takes it one step further with the “Spiritual Technology” tagline — because what do young people like more than their technology?  As young people embrace science and technology over fundamental religious doctrine, Scientology sells itself thusly:

Imagine science and religion connecting.  Imagine technology and spirituality combining. Now imagine that everything you’ve ever imagined is possible.  Scientology; there are higher states of existence.

So, we see the commercial appropriating more normalized religious iconography to relate to the mainstream populace, as well as appropriating the importance of science and technology to target young, potentially new members.  But the commercial also does one last really important thing.

It starts to embrace the fact that its secrets are out.

The commercial shows what appear to be “E-meters”, or electropsychometersthe devices members use to deal with the traumas inflicted on their present self through their past life experiences.  These devices are quickly displayed, as are examples of the facilities, in a dream-like display of fuzzy focus and lighting.  In fact, the images are so fuzzy that they do not appear to be real — instead, they appear to be mystical.  Visually, then, they represent the blurring of the line between religion and science that Scientology desires, and the uncertainty about what is being seen lends the commercial and what is seen a mysterious nature, perhaps encouraging audiences to find out more on their own by visiting the website address given at the end.

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Thus, it seems that the commercial is doing triple duty: normalizing Scientology, reaching out to young targets, and cracking open the lid to the secrets they have long held close.  In its 60th year, could The Church of Scientology be attempting to go mainstream, to be more accepted by a wider swath of the population?  Only time will tell if they pursue this “Spiritual Technology” campaign as much as The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints has with its “I’m a Mormon” campaign.  It may be that, like the commercials of the past, this is a short-lived affair, a one-time attempt to reach out to a large number of people engaging in the religious activity that is watching the Super Bowl and the Super Bowl ads.

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