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."
"'It's kind of neat,' said Dowd Timmerman, 35, of Augusta, Ga., who was staying at a nearby hotel and said the ad was one of the first he noticed in the crowded square. "I guess anybody can be a Mormon."
(For more examples of media coverage of the "I'm a Mormon" campaign, please go to "Mormons try to brush up image while in the spotlight" and "Mormon ad campaign could confuse Christians, ex-Mormon warns.")
Some of the news coverage referred to the national public opinion research that was conducted by the LDS Church in 2009 that served as the basis of the campaign.
"In our research," Trotter said, "we identified that almost half of the people in this country say they know nothing at all about Mormons, with many saying they do not know any Mormons personally. "
This was troubling to church officials who felt that "the best way to understand Mormons is to meet and come to know us," Trotter said. Since they couldn't arrange to get more Mormons to live in more neighborhoods around the country, church strategists decided to harness the power of the internet in general, and social media specifically.
"We determined to use mormon.org to help people get to know our members," Trotter said. "The campaign directs people to the website, where thousands of members have created profiles about themselves describing their interests and how Church teachings and practices make them who they are."
There are a couple of different ways that visitors to mormon.org are introduced to individual Mormons. More than 60 video segments profile Latter-day Saints from all walks of life. These segments are not scripted, but feature members of the Church speaking about their lives and their faith in their own words.
In addition to the videos, the website also includes thousands of testimonials written and provided to the website by members of the church who are anxious to share their faith with others.
"This is one way to get to know us – through the lives of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," said Elder Richard G. Hinckley, executive director of the Church's missionary department, which oversees the mormon.org website. "It's one thing to read a list of beliefs and to try to determine what it all means. It is quite another to see those beliefs in action in an individual you know."
Mormon.org has other features, as well: information about Jesus Christ, the LDS Church and its teachings, and links to help people get a free copy of the Book of Mormon and to find a local LDS congregation near them. It also has a link through which members of the Church can enter their own "I'm a Mormon" profile.
Once the website was populated in 2010, elements of the "I'm a Mormon" campaign were originally tried out in nine markets around the United States: Baton Rouge, La.; Colorado Springs, Co.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Oklahoma City, Ok.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Rochester, NY; St Louis, Mo.; and Tucson, Ariz.
"The markets where we placed the ads last year did see an increase in interest in the Church and the total number of visitors to mormon.org," Trotter said. "We think the campaign is working, which is why we're expanding to other communities this year. There is undoubtedly a national conversation going on currently about the Church and its members, and we want to be part of that conversation."
Especially in New York City.
"There is a good deal of conversation going on in New York now," Trotter acknowledged. "That it why it is the first city the campaign is in so far this year."
The Boston Globe story indicates that the campaign will be seen in 24-29 different markets this year. According to Trotter, the Church has yet to determine what those future markets are and when their respective campaigns will begin. But clearly the "I'm a Mormon" campaign will continue, and will have you hearing and seeing even more Mormons.