Skip to comments.LDS Ads The Message: Family First
Posted on 06/15/2002 9:32:54 PM PDT by Utah Girl
One of the most successful broadcast advertising campaigns has never paid for a minute of commercial airtime.
It's never used celebrity pitchmen, sexy models, catchy jingles or bawdy humor. No Madison Avenue ad agencies, focus groups or test markets. Yet since 1972, a series of sentimental vignettes promoting family togetherness produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has defied programmers' inherent reluctance to give a religious group free airtime as part of television and radio stations' public service obligation.
The campaign has beat out such powerhouses as Coke and Nike for national advertising awards and become a model for subtly marketing religion in mass media.
"The goodness of the message stands on its own," said Curt Dahl, who has written and produced hundreds of the so-called "Homefront" public service announcements for the LDS Church through church-owned Bonneville Communications in Salt Lake City.
"Our quest has always been to give people a little reminder to take a closer look at their relationship with their families."
With storylines and imagery that sometimes evoke Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers, the ads have become a public touchstone to the modern image of Mormonism, a staple of overnight commercial breaks and the electronic medium equivalent of a Gideon Bible in a hotel room nightstand.
"We thought, well, advertising can sell products like soap and sodas and sedans, and was very successful at doing that, can it do something to promote an ideology?" said Richard D. Alsop, recently retired president and general manager of Bonneville, who hatched the Homefront concept with colleague M. Gordon Johnson in 1971.
The initial 1972 campaign lacked the production quality that would be the campaign's hallmark. But the tone was set the next year with an ad showing a father in a recliner watching TV as his son waits outside the window, baseball and glove in hand, eyes pleading for Dad to play catch.
"Remember last week when you said next week you were going to spend more time with your children?" the announcer asks the potato chip-chomping father. "It's next week."
Others were poignant. A popular ad featured a pigtailed little girl returning home from a birthday party, eager to report what happened, only to be ignored by busy parents and siblings. She finally finds an interested ear -- the family pooch.
"Children can go to the dogs when families don't listen," intones the voice-over.
Storylines are often mawkish -- in a 1978 spot, a feuding husband and wife reflect on happier times in a mini "Love Story" sequence as the announcer says, "Think of the times you pulled together instead of apart, and then, think again."
Other plots became classics: 1985's "Water Fight," where carousing muddy kids are caught by their stern father, who warns "Don't anybody move. I'll be right back," only to return with a camera and join in the mess.
"Water Fight" took the American Advertising Federation's top national award that year -- Apple's legendary 1984 Macintosh Superbowl spot was the previous winner -- and was included in The 100 Best TV Commercials by Bernice Kanner.
This summer, a popular Homefront ad from early in the campaign will be re-made and re-issued for the first time. "Kidnapped" was a 1974 commercial featuring a son who persuades his father to take a break from the pile of work he has brought home to see something in the camper. When Dad gets inside the camper, his son shuts the door and hops into the pickup cab where Mom is waiting behind the wheel and they drive off with Dad locked in the camper.
"What does it take to get you back into the lives of your children?" asks the announcer. "Give them everything, give them your time."
The venerable ad campaign represents a "masterful job of branding," according to one scholar who studies how effectively churches use mass media.
"These ads have remade the public image of the Mormon church without ever addressing Mormon theology or Mormon understandings of God," said Jeffrey H. Mahan, professor of ministry, media and culture at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, and author of Religion and Popular Culture in America.
"They have played a major role in repositioning the Mormon church in the wider society," said Mahan, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. "The church was largely seen as an alternative religion, always a little strange anyplace but Utah. What the advertising campaign did was to help make them mainstream."
With the 83rd set of Homefront spots going to broadcasters this month (new spots are mailed to 1,200 TV stations and 4,000 radio stations every three months), Homefront is marking its 30th anniversary. Bonneville officials contend it is the "longest running, most broadcast, most highly awarded public service campaign in the world," racking up Clios, Emmys and Cannes Film Festival honors, as well as airing on thousands of local stations and most major broadcast networks in North America, Australia, New Zealand, the South Pacific, Latin America, Brazil, the United Kingdom, the Philippines and Europe, creating millions of impressions.
Still, many Utah viewers may have never seen the ads, which seldom air on commercial television stations in Salt Lake City -- world headquarters of the LDS Church.
"My guess is because [LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University public television station] KBYU runs them all the time, the other stations figure there's enough exposure in this market," said Dahl, Bonneville's creative director. "Honestly, I can't tell you the last time I've even seen one on [LDS Church-owned commercial television station] KSL."
By design, the ads are a soft sell, with messages that are as universal as a Hallmark greeting card. Only a video logo or tagline mention at the end indicates sponsorship, such as "a thought from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." Bonneville also produces a separate series of advertisements that the LDS Church pays to air on some cable networks and TV stations nationally that include an offer of a free Book of Mormon for those who call a toll-free phone number.
"There are some similarities in the feel of those paid ads compared to Homefront, but there is usually a deeper emotion at work in the paid ads since not everyone is ready for that message at all times in their life," said Dahl. "But Homefront is our flagship, and there's never been anything said to me that the church wants it to do more than it already is doing."
While the immortality of the family is a central cornerstone of Mormon doctrine, the low-key style of Homefront's message has allowed broadcasters to overcome hesitation of airing religious public service announcements (PSAs) from among the thousands of spots sent by non-profit groups. Studies have shown spots with religious or political messages are routinely trash-canned by programmers, whose stations no longer must fill a federally mandated "quota" of PSAs but are under a "public service obligation" by broadcast licensing agencies.
"A church-produced PSA getting on the air is an aberration to a certain degree," said Dennis Wharton, senior vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).
"But this is one of the more highly run PSA campaigns because it isn't saying, 'Go to church Sunday or you'll go to hell.' It's a non-proselytizing, universal appeal for family support, and the pro-family message is a safe message to run in every market in America."
A survey of broadcast public service directors by the Kaiser Family Foundation released in February found a 57 percent majority cited PSAs about family, children or teen topics as their station's top priority for filling donated airtime. A soon-to-be-released NAB survey found TV stations average 73 minutes per week airing PSAs while radio stations average 100 minutes per week. In 2001, the NAB says American broadcasters donated $6.6 billion worth of airtime for PSAs.
It's free advertising that has prompted other faiths to cast a sometimes-envious eye toward the LDS Church. The United Presbyterian Church actually produced and offered PSAs before the advent of Homefront, but no religion has managed to match the global branding of such slogans as "Family: Isn't it about time?" as has modern Mormonism. And some faiths would never consider trying, reflecting an age-old debate whether mass media are an appropriate vessel for the gospel.
"The United Methodist Church has made some real efforts to have a stronger media presence, and while no one involved would acknowledge it, they are clearly informed by the Mormon model," said Mahan. " But in my own denomination there are those who believe we should trust people to come to us for the rightness of our message rather than watering down the truth into a 30- or 60-second commercial."
Dahl, like many Bonneville veterans, is convinced of the propriety of the Homefront approach through hundreds of letters and anecdotes collected from viewers or listeners, or by LDS missionaries who regularly report people they contact recognize the faith through the ads. His own experiences, which have become the basis for innumerable Homefront storylines, lead him to believe spending time with family is a message that can never be repeated enough.
"A few years ago I was working at home at night, trying to get a new series of Homefront spots written and my young daughter kept calling me to her bedroom to get her a drink of water, a blanket, her doll, on and on," he said. "I was thinking, 'Doesn't she understand I have to work on these ads about spending time with family?' And she called me to her bedroom again, and I went in and said, 'Now what do you want?' And she said, 'Dad, I love you.'"
I think the universal appeal to these spots is that we recognize the situations. They are just part of normal family life.
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