Scientology’s Super Bowl ad proves religions should advertise
Last year, the publicity campaign for the film Limitless appeared to parody a Scientology ad. Billboards on the tube showed Bradley Cooper advertising a “clear” pill, which seemed to be a reference to the Scientology term for removing negative memory-aliens. The ad was effectively creepy, conjuring up the spectre that one day Scientology itself might advertise.
Well, now they have: the cult/religion/business venture/circle jerk society ran a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl. (It has been on their website since November.) And it’s way less creepy than we might have expected.
The main reason for this, of course, is that it’s so lame. Various actors from Golden Era Productions, the Church of Scientology’s internal training-video studio, raise their hands to the heavens, look penetratingly at the camera and get hit attractively by raindrops, while a narrator intones some greeting-card idiocies about truth being personal and how knowledge is “things that actually happen to you”. It resembles those Harry Potter portraits in which the sitter is 3D and animated but just sits there, looking smug, like a news anchor straightening his papers. And in which all the people are taken from a Getty stock-photo archive.
The ad is so screamingly inane, in fact, that it made me stop freaking out about religious advertising and wonder: why shouldn’t ALL religions advertise? God knows they could use the positive press. C of E attendance is at record lows; Islam could use a burnishing of its brand image; motherfuckers don’t even KNOW what’s up with Zoroastrianism. Things have gotten so bad for the Catholic church that yesterday’s news about the state of Ireland being complicit in the forced labour of women in nun-run laundries is actually probably good PR, in that it distracts attention from all the boy-rape.
Religions are the original brands. Christianity practically pioneered the discipline of brand management, with a flexible logotype – the cross – and what brand gurus call regional architecture (local manifestations of a global idea): on the Catholic side you’ve got Roman, Maronite, Orthodox, Coptic; on the Protestant side you’ve got a different version for pretty much every failed pyramid-scheme marketer with vertical hair and an amphetamine addiction.
Catholicism has also long used gold and fancy churches in its mission to awe the shit out of illiterate peasants, and you could make the case that advertising does exactly the same thing for brands: money spent in the public sphere is somehow reassuring, persuading us that don’t worry, it’s OK, these guys are legit. With Super Bowl spots running an estimated $3.7m for 30 seconds, they’re the ultimate reassuring statement.
After years of doing themselves absolutely no good at all by hiding in bushes with camcorders and lawyering up every time somebody suggested David Miscavige’s smile might be a bit unsettling – not to mention that hilarious leaked Tom Cruise promotional video – Scientology’s brand managers appear to be smartening up. As the New York Times pointed out, they didn’t even complain when Hollywood made a very critical film starring very famous actors, The Master, right in its backyard. That could be because they’re scared to take on PT Anderson and Philip Seymour Hoffman: or it may be because, like other brands learning to deal with unathorised product placements, Scientology is starting to realise that it’s best to loosen your grip a bit. In other words, let people bitch about you on social media all they like: just keep releasing positive ad campaigns and people will eventually forget the negative stuff. (Sweatshops? What sweatshops?) After all, in branding as in sports, the best defense is a good offense.
It’s a lesson the other religions could stand to learn. Politicians advertise. Celebrities advertise. Charities advertise. It’s time for religions to join Scientology in the 21st century and hire Wieden + Kennedy already.
• By Christopher Michael