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."
Steve Densley Jr. of the Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research, a long-time observer of the treatment of Mormonism in the media, agreed.
"The popularity of the musical presents a great opportunity for the church," Densley said. "I think most people recognize 'The Book of Mormon' musical to be satire, and not an accurate representation of Mormons or their beliefs. So many of them will naturally wonder what Mormons really believe. I think it's great that my church is taking this chance to respond to the curiosity that will arise after people see the show."
It isn't likely that you'll get any argument from the musical's production team. Late last year NPR interviewed Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of television's "South Park" as well as "The Book of Mormon," and they talked about the LDS Church's response to the show.
"The official church response was something along the lines of, 'The Book of Mormon' the musical might entertain you for a night, but the Book of Mormon — the book as scripture — will change your life through Jesus," Stone said. "Which we actually completely agree with That's a cool, American response to a ribbing."
Stone said that "before the church responded, a lot of people would ask us, 'Are you afraid of what the church would say?' And Trey and I were like, 'They're going to be cool.' And they were like, 'No, they're not. There are going to be protests.' And we were like, 'Nope, they're going to be cool.' We weren't surprised by the church's response. We had faith in them."