LDS Church buys ad space in 'Book of Mormon' musical playbill

Published: Thursday, Sept. 6 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

If you're going to see the musical, you should also read the book.

That's the message of a new advertising campaign being launched by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a campaign one nationally recognized public relations expert praised for being "bold" and "savvy."

The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday that the LDS Church has purchased ads promoting the actual Book of Mormon in the playbill for the Los Angeles production of "The Book of Mormon" musical.

"Patrons of the musical aren't likely to leave the theater with a better understanding of the Book of Mormon," LDS Church spokesman Michael Purdy said Thursday afternoon. "Our message in the playbill invites the audience to seek a more complete perspective on the book, its Christ-centered message and its place in Mormon belief."

The church has not placed similar ads in the playbill for the Broadway run of the musical. And Purdy said that plans for future use of the ads for the production's national tour "have not been determined."

The Times story indicated that "one of the ads in the L.A. program features the face of a smiling man with the words, 'I've read the book.' Another features a smiling woman with the words, 'The book is always better.'"

The ads both include the URL, thebookofmormon.org, "which takes you to an official site for the church," the Times reported.

The ads are consistent with the tone of the church's original statement on the musical, released in early 2011: "The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ."

"The playbill ad is another example of the LDS Church's savvy response to 'The Book of Mormon' musical," said award-winning public relations guru Chris Thomas, co-owner of Intrepid Communications in Salt Lake City. "Instead of protesting the musical, which is something that many would do, especially religious organizations, they made a bold and deliberate decision to embrace the situation. They have taken something that could have been detrimental to the church's missionary efforts and made it positive."

Which is not to say that the church has embraced the musical itself. Michael Otterson, head of the LDS Church Public Affairs Department, wrote an article in the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog site called "Why I Won't be Seeing the Book of Mormon Musical." Others have debated the relative merits of the musical, a nine-time Tony winner in 2011. Even people outside the LDS faith have weighed in on whether or not the show is a form of aesthetic bigotry.

And with good reason. The Times describes "The Book of Mormon" as "the comical story of two Mormon missionaries who travel to a remote African village," and that it "pokes fun at the tenets of the Mormon Church, as well as those of other religions. It also targets a host of sensitive subjects such as AIDS and female circumcision."

Other observers have referred to the show as "vulgar," "foul-mouthed" and "profane."

Still, Thomas noted, the LDS Church officially "didn't say anything negative about it."

"Instead, they just encouraged people to learn the truth about their beliefs," he said. "They've been consistent throughout — they haven't changed. They took a bold position initially, and now it is clear by the playbill ads that they are sticking to it."

From a public relations perspective, Thomas said, that is "refreshing."

"Too often communications professionals will develop a daring strategy that the client — or in this case, the administration of the LDS Church — is reluctant to embrace," he said. "In my opinion, those who made the decision to go with this campaign — and stick with it — demonstrated clear strategic thinking and strong leadership."

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