The "I'm a Mormon" ad campaign that hit New York City by surprise last week is "very savvy branding" that's an unusual take on an old advertising strategy, a public relations expert said.
"As a religion, branding a religion, I can't recall [another one] offhand," said Rosanna Fisk, CEO of the Public Relations Society of America in New York. "What I see in this, however, has similarities of other kinds. It's quite a testimonial.
"[The campaign] shows how different people come from different backgrounds and are all joined by the same, common belief."
Now splashed across an electronic billboard in the middle of Times Square, the ad includes photographs of individuals from different walks of life, all under a headline that reads "I'm a Mormon."
The campaign, which has also rolled out taxi toppers and subway advertisements, inserted the billboard blocks from the theater showing the Tony Award-winning musical "The Book of Mormon," which takes a satirical look at two Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionaries as they travel through Uganda.
Although the Times Square ads come at a time when the Mormon religion is in the news, the campaign itself began in 2010, testing television ads in nine markets: Rochester, N.Y., Oklahoma City, Okla., Colorado Springs, Colo., Tucson, Ariz., Baton Rouge, La., Jacksonville, Fla., St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis-St. Paul. The church said it hopes to expand into 10 to 20 markets across the country throughout the coming year.
"We've added New York to the cities we're going into this year because of the conversations that are happening here," said Michael Purdy, a spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "There's undoubtedly a national conversation going on currently about the church and its members, and we want to be part of that conversation. New York City is perhaps a center of much of that conversation."
The campaign's website, Mormon.org, showcases video clips from various church members talking about their lives: a lawyer named Victor raised in the Brooklyn projects; a surfer named Joy from Hawaii; an 18-year-old basketball player who says she loves ice cream and yoga, among others.
Some events often associated with Mormonism have perhaps contributed to an unfavorable view of the church, such as the arrest of fundamentalist sect leader Warren Jeffs and programs such as HBO's "Big Love," which chronicles the lives of a husband with three wives.
Kevin Kelly, associate professor at Brigham Young University and a member of the church, said he hopes that the campaign will help to expel stereotypes surrounding the Mormon religion.
"I think people see our missionaries sometimes and think they're naive and brainwashed. We would like to overcome some of those stereotypes," he said, adding that he believes the location of the ad is no coincidence.
"I think the reason it's in Times Square is because of 'Book of Mormon.' I think the musical stereotypes Mormon missionaries as being really simplistic and naive. If people go to mormon.org, they'll see that we're a very diverse group."
The campaign also comes on the heels of the presidential candidacies of two Mormons: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is in the race, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who plans to declare his candidacy today.
But just what role Mormonism will play in the 2012 presidential election is unknown. A new Gallup poll found that Americans are reluctant to vote for a Mormon for president, with nearly 20 percent of Republicans and independents, and 27 percent of Democrats, reporting such opposition.
As one of those candidates, Romney discussed his faith in a June 6 interview with CNN's Piers Morgan, but also said that he wants to keep the promotion of his church out of his campaign for the White House.
"I'm not a spokesman for my church, and one thing I'm not going to do in running for president is become a spokesman for my church or apply a religious test that is simply forbidden by the Constitution, I'm not going there," said Romney.
As for the ad campaign, the purpose is simply to personalize the religion. "Previous campaigns focused on what we believe, and we also want people to know who we are because of what we believe," spokesman Purdy said. "This is one way to get to know us."