Mormon Media Observer: The New Yorker remembers the Homefront commercials

Published: Monday, Jan. 23 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Remember the song that the great Michael McLean used for a soundtrack to a TV commercial?

"Look, I know you gave up a lot, but look at the kids you've got. Hey, Mom, you've never failed me."

Or remember the advertisement where a child, excited to bring home an excellent report card, gets yelled at by Dad for slamming the door. "Think again," the announcer taught us.

Those two were part of the church's remarkable Homefront series of television commercials that helped shape the image of the church over the last decades.

As a blog in the New Yorker points out, the first of these advertisements ran 40 years ago this month.

Not surprisingly, given the depth for which the New Yorker is rightly famous, the blogger, Rollo Romig, wrote with sophistication and depth about the quality and emotional power of these commercials — saying they were among the best commercials from childhood in the 1970s.

It was a fair-minded, smart and very flattering portrayal of the church.

However, Romig concluded with a wish for a return of the older commercials, rather than the new, "I'm a Mormon" campaign.

Romig argues that the new ads don't work because they make Latter-day Saints appear insecure and leave viewers wondering why it is the church needs to have a public relations campaign in the first place.

Lest I be misunderstood, I don't agree with the Romig's take. The "I'm a Mormon" campaign has accomplished much from what I can see. It's got people talking around the country. I believe and hope many people have investigated the church as a direct result.

Furthermore, the online component is extraordinary. It includes Latter-day Saints telling their own stories, while dispelling stereotypes. The campaign, in its entirety, shows how people live this religion in ways that explain the joys — the normality — of its place their lives. It shows how religion is integral to all they do, how religion enhances all of the normal things we do.

Romig needed to look at the campaign more deeply, I believe.

Still, the New Yorker posting does suggest what a paradox we have as Latter-day Saints in presenting ourselves to the world.

On the one hand, Latter-day Saints are like everyone else. Prick us, and we do bleed. We have hopes and dreams and accomplishments and failures like everyone else.

On the other, we Latter-day Saints wish to be a peculiar people, set apart from the world.

It's a true paradox to try live in the world, but "not of it."

For example, it is not part of the national mainstream to believe, as I do, that a young man walked out of the woods carrying golden plates he got from an angel. It isn't part of the national mainstream to believe Elijah the prophet has returned as promised — to a smallish building not far outside Cleveland.

It isn't part of the national mainstream to believe the most important event since the resurrection, the dramatic vision of the Father and the Son, happened to a boy in the woods outside Rochester and Buffalo.

Insofar as I only explain what makes me typical — my love for football, my appreciation for Mozart and Shakespeare — I still can't be typical. For as long as I believe in the Restoration, I will never be typical.

With that, I try to never lose sight of something. What I — what we — offer the world isn't what makes me, what makes us, typical.

It is the knowledge that the heavens have opened again is the primary story we need to tell.

In this paradox of our public face, the things that make us weird and unusual to others will remain our primary offering to the world.

As I peruse Mormon.org, I see Latter-day Saints embracing this difference and sharing their unique faith in powerful ways. This is the underlying message to me of the "I am a Mormon" campaign, therefore. Sad that the New Yorker missed that part of the campaign.

And it is sad when we fail to individually embrace the opportunity to share what makes us, well, a little unusual.

Among my favorite writings of the late Hugh Nibley was a speech he gave to the Church communications department in 1991. In his typically understated way, he called it "Mediocre Meditations on the Media."

In it, he describes a media world that, then as now, seemed frequently focused on the otherworldly with lead characters like ghosts, and like vampires, zombies and other immortals today.

Nibley then added this powerful insight about media immortals: "But only Moroni has something of real consequence to give us."

Nibley's point was the world today really needs what we offer. It's a powerful call, always worth pondering:

"Only the gospel can offer us (a fulness of life). Today only the gospel even pretends to. It is a Shulkhan Arukh, a table spread for a banquet, a full-course dinner, and we are sent out to invite the world to a feast. Are we holding back? Are we telling them what they are missing?"

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.

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