Prop. 8 Media Battle Isn't Over Yet

Mormons Targeted; 'No on 8' Messaging Criticized

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Steve Roth Steve Roth
A week has passed since 52% of voters in California voted to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry. But the issue is far from dead. Instead of silencing gay-marriage supporters, the vote has served as a rallying cry -- resulting in rallies and protests across the state that have grown in size and number with each passing day.

I've avoided discussing the battle over California's Proposition 8 in this blog because I considered it more of a political issue than an advertising, marketing or communications issue. But clearly it's taken on significant dimensions in all these areas -- from the record amounts of money spent on advertising by both sides to the sources of those funds to the messages each side used to define the issue.

To start with, supporters and foes of Proposition 8 together raised more than $74 million (roughly evenly split), making it the nation's costliest ballot measure this year and the most expensive in our country's history for a social issue. Much of that $74 million was spent on TV advertising in some of the nation's most expensive media markets. And there's little doubt that the heavy advertising in both English and Spanish played an important role in influencing the final vote.

Then comes the question of where that money came from. Several religious organizations both inside and outside of California -- including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, California's Roman Catholic bishops, the Catholic fraternal organization Knights of Columbus, and several evangelical churches -- were among the most vocal supporters of the ban on gay marriage. And they often used their pulpits to advance their political agenda and to raise the funds needed to support the costly "Yes on 8" advertising campaign.

The Mormon church has been singled out for its activist role in support of Proposition 8, and with good reason. In June, its top leaders issued a letter to every Mormon congregation in California, asking members to "do all you can to support" the proposition by donating "your means and time." The gay news magazine The Advocate estimates that contributions from the Mormon church and its faithful in favor of Proposition 8 range from 48% to 73% of the total $36 million raised.

Now, many of the protests in the wake of the passage of Proposition 8 are targeting the Mormons, with demonstrations taking place in front of Mormon churches across California and as far away as Washington state and Utah. And beyond mere protests, many supporters of same-sex marriage are calling for boycotts of the Mormon church, the Sundance Film Festival and the entire tourism industry of the state of Utah.

While not all gay-rights leaders have stepped up to support the calls for boycotts of Utah and the Mormons, a vocal contingent of gay-marriage supporters believe that an economic boycott is both appropriate and justified. Online media, including blogs and social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, have taken on important roles as communications channels and organizing tools for political rallies and calls for boycotts.

John Aravosis, editor of the popular, took things one step further. In an interview with the Associated Press, he said that "the main focus is going to be going after the Utah brand. At this point, honestly, we're going to destroy the Utah brand. It is a hate state."

Gay-marriage supporters have also launched an online effort to challenge the church's tax-exempt status.

Some of the anger over the Mormon church's activism on the issue stems from the messaging used in the ads supporting the ban on gay marriage. One of the most popular and most widely used ads suggested that young children would be required to learn about gay marriage in school, something that the California superintendent of education roundly denied.

Some supporters of same-sex marriage have also begun to criticize the messaging employed by the "No on 8" campaign, asserting that it was not direct enough or proactive enough in making the case in favor of equal rights and same-sex marriage. Some fault the "No on 8" campaign for not showing more gay couples in their ads, and accuse them of "watering down" the message to make it more palatable to a wider audience. No doubt more criticisms of the "No on 8" messaging and campaign will continue to surface as supporters take time to process the loss and look for reasons for the failure of "No on 8."

The battle over same-sex marriage is still raging in California and across the country and is likely to continue for some time. In fact, supporters of gay marriage are already discussing putting forward another ballot initiative that would overturn Proposition 8. If that happens, you can bet there will be an even greater focus on the fundraising, advertising and messaging of both sides of the issue.
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