Rewind: When the Church of Scientology Was a Master of Book Marketing

Before 'The Master,' Before Tom Cruise, There was 'Dianetics'

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"The Master," Paul Thomas Anderson's new critically-adored film about a cultish movement called The Cause, is set in the years immediately after World War II. But the thinly-veiled references to Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, sent some of us back to a different decade -- the 1980s -- when stuffed between ads for Jordache and Cookie Puss was a series of curiously vague spots set to urgent, hypnotizing theme music and feature a mystical money shot in the form of an erupting volcano.

Nowadays, most people are probably introduced to Scientology through its most famous practitioner, Tom Cruise, whose deep involvement in the controversial church may have contributed to his high-profile split with Katie Holmes. Back then, there was probably a lot more space for subtlety.

The ad doesn't offer up much information about its product, a book called "Dianetics: The Owner's Manual for the Human Mind," first published in 1950 as the erstwhile science-fiction author Hubbard's first attempt to sort out the relationship between the mind and body.

Rather, it's a work of commercial minimalism designed to pique curiosity about the big questions, such as "How a person might suddenly lose confidence?" Helpfully, the ad tells us, the answer is on page 194.

From the spot alone, you wouldn't know that there's anything religious going on at all. There's no mention of Scientology, no explanation of the volcano.* It just seems like a pitch for a run-of -the-mill self-help book. How could it possibly work in an era of big-budget TV campaigns?

The effectiveness of the campaign, created for a reported $2,000, has been the center of some debate, though not because "Dianetics" didn't sell. Some have suspected that the book was such a big hit because it was being purchased in large quantities by wealthy Scientologists eager to keep the buzz alive. However, former Scientology marketing chief and current church critic Jeff Hawkins has said the sales were legit, telling the Village Voice in 2010:

"Yes, the 'boom' in the late 1980s was driven by the book sales, and those were real sales, caused by TV advertising, good book distribution and an aggressive PR machine. They tried to get me to organize Scientologists to go out and buy books to artificially jack up the sales (as they did when 'Battlefield Earth' was released) but I refused to play that game. After we had been running an aggressive advertising and PR campaign for about four years, we had built it up to between 10,000 and 30,000 books being sold weekly through U.S. bookstores -- something that would have been impossible by 'getting Scientologists to buy copies."
No agency is attached to the ads. Another former marketer, Steve Hall (not to be confused with Steve Hall the blogger), told that all the work was done in-house. The one exception is when Al Ries and Jack Trout were hired to do a campaign. According to a 1991 Time magazine article, Mr. Trout suggested the group "stop being a church." But, said Hall, "David Miscavige didn't like it so that killed it right there. That was the last time they hired an outside agency to do something."

And after the Time article -- called "Scientology: The Cult of Greed" -- appeared, Trout & Ries were sued by the group for breaching a confidentiality agreement.

*Turns out the volcano was part of Scientology's origin story, which stars an ancient galactic dictator named Xenu. He brought a bunch of people to Earth, positioned them around volcanoes and then erupted those volcanoes with hydrogen bombs. This story is only supposed to be available to those who have completed a high level of training, but parts of it began to leak in the 1970s and '80s.

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