Are Scientology's Ads Aimed at Recruitment or Retention?

Church Buys Ads in Big Events as Tell-Alls Are Released, But Says They Are Timed to Expansion Drive

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If you're a close watcher of the Super Bowl and Grammy Awards, one advertiser may have stood out: The Church of Scientology, which is igniting chatter with its high-profile "Knowledge" campaign.

While the church isn't a consistent TV advertiser, it's been more visible in prime time and major TV events in recent years.

The iconoclast tone of Scientology's 'Knowledge' campaign resembles 'Think Different.'
The iconoclast tone of Scientology's 'Knowledge' campaign resembles 'Think Different.'

The "Knowledge" spot, which ran in several markets during the Super Bowl, including New York, Dallas, Los Angeles and San Francisco, is part of the church's longer-term media strategy, said Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw via email. "The church's general media strategy is to effectively use as many communication platforms as possible to disseminate the fact that the answers to life's questions may be found in Scientology," she said. "This media strategy has been effective as reflected in our enormous growth over the past five years."

The ad, created in-house, will continue to be shown on the organization's website and during prime-time TV over the next several months. The richly produced commercial features young people holding books and in libraries as a voice-over narrates: "To the curious, the inquisitive, the seekers of knowledge ... to the rebels, the artists, the free thinkers and the innovators who care less about labels and more about truth, who believe nonconformity is more than a bumper sticker." The ad has been compared to Apple's 1997 "Think Different" campaign, which included a similar soliloquy that began: "Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels."

The spot first ran on the organization's website in November and in December was played 16 times an hour on a Times Square billboard, including on New Year's Eve. It also aired during the AFC Championship game Jan. 20. Ms. Pouw said the church is looking for a "significant audience in prime time and during such events as the Rose Parade, NFL playoff games and others in the last few years," as well as using online ads, websites and a YouTube channel.

"With more than 30 new Ideal Scientology Churches recently opened in major metropolitan areas and more opening in the near future," Ms. Pouw said it is "a perfect time" to get the group's message out.

One buy that got a lot of attention was a sponsored ad on The Atlantic's website, which was pulled in mid-January after the advertorial was mistaken for editorial content.

The recent buys follow several tell-all books about the church. They include a memoir from Jenna Miscavige Hill, niece of the organization's leader, David Miscavige, and "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief," from New Yorker reporter Lawrence Wright.

Former church member Jefferson Hawkins, who once ran marketing for the organization and is best known for his 1980s TV ad that featured an exploding volcano, said the church's strategy when it comes to TV advertising is mostly reactive. "Their solution when negative stuff happens is to get high-profile ads out there."

Steve Hall, a former senior writer for the organization, who since leaving in 2004 has also been vocal against the church through his site, Scientology-Cult, said he believes "Knowledge" is a direct response to these firestorms. "This is an old tactic used by the church to offset negative PR," he said.

Shortly after former Scientology executive Debbie Cook sent an email on New Year's Day 2012 to church members that challenged Mr. Miscavige's leadership and the money raised through the International Association of Scientologists, ads promoting the church started popping up in shows like "American Idol" and "Glee," said Tony Ortega, former Village Voice editor who runs the blog The Underground Bunker.

Similarly, in February 2011, the church began running two-minute commercials highlighting its social programs, such as mental-health reform, drug education and criminal reform, days after The New Yorker published a profile on former member Paul Haggis, the film director. The article alleged the church was involved in slave labor and human trafficking.

Mr. Hawkins, who has been a regular critic of the church since he left in 2005, believes the ads are vanity TV buys aimed more at retention than recruitment. "From my experience, they don't have a real interest in getting new members," he said. "It costs money to train new members. There's no immediate profit. They are more interested in keeping current members and encouraging them to donate."

All said, Scientology spends relatively little on advertising. From January through November 2012, the church spent $3.6 million in advertising, with about $3 million of that allocated to spot TV, according to Kantar Media.

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