Mormon commercials spread the gospel from 1970s to now

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In a Faith Counts video Elizabeth Smart explains a detail in her kidnapping that gave her the faith to endure the next nine months. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Winder)

A father plays exuberantly with his sons instead of answering a phone call from his golfing buddy. A Southern California teenager decides to attend seminary rather than go surfing. Olympic champion Missy Franklin says she communicates with God before, during and after her swim competitions.

These three inspiring stories come from faith-based commercials produced over the years by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and BYU filmmakers.

Commercials have been a mainstay for the LDS Church as it circulates its messages about faith, hope, family and missionary work. The work of LDS filmmakers started entering the homes of millions in the early 1970s with Homefront TV and radio spots, which were primarily family focused. According to Stephen B. Allen, managing director of the church’s Missionary Department and former executive producer of the series, the Homefront commercials broke barriers in the television industry.

“It broke down some of the barriers and the misunderstandings about the church,” Allen said in a Mormon Newsroom press release. “And it had an impact on individual lives and changed the ways people parent.”

Jeff Parkin, a BYU film professor and professional filmmaker, said the Homefront campaign was cutting edge for its time.

“It’s interesting, because I think that people think that the church is really slow to adopt new technologies, but if you actually go back and look at their history, the church really is on the forefront on the ways that we adopt new technology, and President Hinckley was a big proponent of that from the get go,” Parkin said.

BYU advertising professor Kevin Kelly started working for Bonneville Media Communications in 1976. He said some of his proudest work was working on the Homefront commercials, which, he said, attracted top TV commercial directors who often won Director Guild Awards for best commercial of the year.

“It was an exciting time to be working on those messages,” Kelly said. “We developed messages for family, building self-esteem — all kinds of messages.”

Kelly said these commercials helped create a brand for the church, which was easily recognizable to the general public. “The brand was so well established, if you froze the commercial, you knew those were the Mormons,” he said.

Kelly said the Homefront commercials were notable because they were a great success and done without any paid media.

“It was all done with public service; we weren’t buying any of the time,” Kelly said. “They were paying top dollar for the production, but they weren’t spending any money on media.”

According to Kelly, public opinion of the church changed drastically because of the Homefront commercials. He said before the campaign started, many people’s perception of the church was that members were polygamists or prejudiced. But after a decade, the first thing that came to most people’s minds was that Mormons are family-oriented.

That change in public perception, Kelly said, was the biggest accomplishment of the Homefront campaign.

“I think that perception still carries; people still think this is a family church,” Kelly said. “We did some good.”

Kelly went on to work on the less successful Truth Restored campaign, which preceded the I’m a Mormon campaign. He said they were testing the market to find the right message, which was more information oriented but did not make as strong an impact.

“It didn’t reach the target — the test went out, and the church used it about two years,” Kelly said. “We knew we had missed after it was tested.”

He said they learned from the mistakes in the Truth Restored campaign, and the church produced the I’m a Mormon campaign, with its Mormon Messages videos, which has been very successful.

Sean Kimball, a BYU student majoring in business management from Laguna Beach, California, was featured in a Mormon Message titled “No Regrets,” which dealt with his choice to attend seminary rather than try out for his school’s surf team. The video reached more than 200,000 people, according to to LDS.org.

Sean Kimball, a BYU student, was featured in a Mormon Message about making the decision to attend seminary rather than joining the surf team. (Photo credit: Casey Richmond)

“It was crazy and really interesting,” Kimball said. “After it aired, I got tons of messages on Facebook from people all around the world, just telling me how much they loved the message and it’s helping them go to seminary seeing that someone did it too.”

Kimball said he feels his Mormon Message helped teenagers like him going through the same dilemma. “Everyone goes through that same process, deciding whether or not to go to seminary — whether it be surfing or anything else,” he said.

Lizzie Koch is a BYU student majoring in sociology and a former missionary who served in the Texas Houston South Mission. She used the Mormon Messages as an aid to her lessons with investigators or inactive members of the church.

Koch said she saw Mormon Messages capture people’s attention and tug on their heartstrings.

“It really brought the Spirit to the lesson before we got started. It was shocking to them, the amount of Spirit they can feel through it,” Koch said.

Jeff Sheets is a BYU professor and director of the Laycock Center who works on a multi-faith initiative, Faith Counts, along with Kelly and Parkin.

Faith Counts is comprised of a council of diverse faiths such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Seventh-day Adventist church, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Hillel International (Jewish student organization), Franciscan University of Steubenville and the 1st Amendment Partnership.

“The church is very interested in faith from anywhere at this point,” Kelly said. “I think they want people to develop any type of faith.”

Kelly said Faith Counts’ target audience is millennials, which, he says, has been challenging but fun. He said millennials have a hard time showcasing their faith or beliefs, and a majority have little to no faith.

“I think they’re shunned; it’s the least popular subject (religion) to bring up,” Kelly said. “You can bring up anything but your faith. Some of the content that we’re developing addresses that in fun and interesting ways.”

Some of the Faith Counts commercials derive from a class on campus that mixes advertising students with film students. The students produce two pieces of content every month, according to Kelly.

Sheets said he believes that the social impact from Faith Counts and Mormon media helps use it as a tool for good.

“They’re essentially tools that Heavenly Father has blessed us with, and we need to use them the best we can to communicate, disseminate and persuade,” Sheets said.

According to Sheets, the church understands how to use social media and media to spread its messages and leads the way for other religions to follow behind. “I’m really grateful that the church is a perfect model for us at BYU for using media in powerful ways to impact the world through positive messaging and pro-social content.”

Sheets said the impact that Faith Counts and other Mormon commercials have on people from its media is divinely inspired and can be used for good rather than bad.

“You can throw your hands up and say all these media things are bad, making films, YouTube videos and advertising, but if it’s so powerful that it can persuade you to do things you wouldn’t necessarily do, then the converse of that has to be true,” he said.

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