NEW YORK CITY — You see them everywhere in New York City these days: smiling, happy faces looking down from billboards, beaming from subway advertising placards, flashing by on top of hundreds of taxi cabs and illuminating Times Square on a huge video display.
And believe it or not, they don't have anything to do with "The Book of Mormon," the Tony Award-winning musical that has taken Broadway by profanity-laced storm. These Mormons actually ARE Mormons, or better said, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
And they want people to know it.
The faces are part of the LDS Church's "I'm a Mormon" advertising campaign, which was tested in nine different U.S. cities during the summer of 2010 and launched two weeks ago in New York City. The campaign hopes to attract people to the church's mormon.org website, where visitors can, according to a church press release, "read the profiles of more than 30,000 Mormons, chat live with representatives who will answer questions about the faith and watch dozens of videos giving a glimpse into the lives of Latter-day Saints from all over the world."
And so far, it seems to be working.
"Since the launch of the New York campaign, we've noticed a significant increase in visitors to mormon.org," said Scott Trotter, spokesperson for LDS Church's Public Affairs Department. "Most of the recent traffic to the site is coming from mobile devices. This change suggests people 'on the go' are visiting the site after encountering the ads."
National and international media sources have also noticed the campaign. In a long and detailed story by Lisa Wangsness, the Boston Globe observed that the "I'm a Mormon" effort "overlaps with a political campaign that, for the first time, includes two Mormons who are presidential contenders – former governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts . . . and Jon Huntsman of Utah . . .
"Both men will have to overcome the same unease about Mormons the ads seek to diminish.
"At the same time," the story continues, "pop-culture forces like 'The Book of Mormon,' an irreverent Broadway musical hit about two naive Mormon missionaries who are sent from Utah to Uganda to proselytize, have driven public interest in Mormonism to new heights."
Elsewhere, Roseanna Fisk, CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, referred to the campaign as "very savvy branding" in an ABC News story.
"As a religion, branding a religion, I can't recall [another one] offhand," Fisk said. "It's quite a testimonial. [The campaign] shows how different people come from different backgrounds and are all joined by the same common belief."
Another media outlet, the online Huffington Post, spoke to Mara Einstein, an associate professor of media studies at City University of New York Queens College and author of "Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age." She indicated that "religious institutions are becoming smarter in terms of their marketing and branding and are not just using it to drive people to the pews, but using it to manage reputations.
"Here," she continued, "[Mormons] are really trying to drive home the point that they are Christians and are 'one of you.'"
The Huffington Post even did a little on-the-ground research, speaking to several people as they walked through Times Square. According to Huffington Post, "Rachel Hanson, 20, who was in New York on vacation from South Dakota, came to a pause as she saw one of the billboards that showed an Asian woman surfing, a rock climber with a prosthetic limb and a black man singing in a recording studio. 'You don't usually see this,' Hanson said of the images of Mormonism. 'We see the guys in the black pants and white shirts sometimes around the neighborhood, but haven't really thought much about them. I'd check out the site."
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