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Did You See a Scientology Ad This Weekend?

Did You See a Scientology Ad This Weekend?

Update: After the jump, we'll show you the church e-mail that confirms just about everything we were told by Jefferson Hawkins about this sudden ad campaign.

The Church of Scientology bought network TV ad time in a big way this weekend. On Saturday, we started noticing Twitter users complaining that they were running into Scientology ads on Hulu -- a place where the church's ads have been pretty common in the past. But then that night, a lengthy ad showed up during the Miss America pageant, prompting a burst of mocking tweets. Then, Sunday, things really got interesting.

Twitter users seemed shocked when the lengthy ads showed up during Sunday afternoon's football playoff game between the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans. (I didn't catch the commercial myself, but judging from the way Twitter users described it, the ad was a version of the 2-minute film that pops up when you first visit the church's official site, Scientology.org.)

Easily the biggest reaction we saw on Twitter came Sunday evening when the Golden Globes broadcast started out with the same Scientology advert.

Did You See a Scientology Ad This Weekend?
Did You See a Scientology Ad This Weekend?

The church's ads are common on the Internet, but not so much on broadcast television. Then, this weekend, Scientology suddenly made big buys during at least three expensive examples of event broadcasting -- Miss America, NFL playoffs, and the Golden Globes.

What was going on?

We had a feeling Scientology was hitting back after the devastating negative publicity it received after Debbie Cook's now infamous New Year's Eve e-mail calling for a rebellion within the church. But could it have pulled together a major ad campaign so quickly?

Yesterday, I fired off an e-mail to church spokeswoman Karin Pouw, asking her to comment on whether the weekend salvo of ads was long planned or something that came up quickly. Like all of my other requests for comment in recent months, however, I got no reply from Scientology's media office. [Go here for our primer, "What is Scientology?"]

But that's all right. I knew who to turn to for some real talk about Scientology and advertising.

Scientology may be dwindling now, but it reached its greatest expansion in the 1980s, thanks largely to one man: Jefferson Hawkins.

It was Hawkins who ran the church's marketing then, and who came up with its television advertising that for years was a staple on TV and sold millions of books. I tracked down a copy of his famous "volcano" Dianetics commercial, but the quality of the recording is poor...

Anyway, I called Hawkins yesterday and told him about the sudden weekend advertising onslaught by the church. Wouldn't something like that need to be planned well ahead of time? He explained that, at least in his experience, there's a way to buy major placements like that very quickly by outbidding and bumping someone else who had purchased the time.

"I don't think there's any question that they're reacting to Debbie Cook, because that was a major blow," Hawkins says.

Judging by how it has operated in the past, Hawkins says, he predicts that the church's major donors were hit up for the sudden advertising campaign.

"The IAS [International Association of Scientologists] would contact all of their major donors and tell them, 'The church is under attack, we need to make a big ad buy.' Then all the heavy hitters would pony up and they'd get a couple of million dollars," he says.

"I can see how they would reg it: we're going to be on the playoffs, we're going to be on the Golden Globes," he adds, using Scientology's word for fundraising, reg, short for registrar, the church officials who constantly hit up members for donations.

"Chances are, after this weekend's ads, they'll drop it. It's an immediate reaction, and it's something they can do to get some money. And secondly, it's something they can use at a later event. 'We all banded together and the IAS was on Miss America, and we were viewed by so many billion people,' they'll say."

I pointed out, however, that the ads seemed to be met with a lot of derision by viewers, at least judging by the harsh reaction at Twitter. But Hawkins says attracting new members really isn't the point.

With the dwindling numbers of active Scientologists and more longtime members breaking away all the time, the drumbeat to get more money out of who's left becomes frantic.

"It doesn't really do anything for them. I mean, it might get a little pip on their website, but really, what they do these days is just try to excite the existing members," he says.


Update: Further proof that Jeff Hawkins knows what he's talking about when it comes to Scientology and its marketing attempts, former Scientologist "Plain Old Thetan" published an e-mail that was sent to church members about the weekend ad campaign. At his blog, "Possibly Helpful Advice," Plain Old Thetan published an e-mail which makes it quite explicit that the burst of marketing is being used a fundraising tool for the IAS. It also lists some prime time shows where you might catch the ad, so be prepared:

American Idol, Parenthood, Glee, Castle, Modern Family, Big Bang Theory, Grey's Anatomy, Blue Bloods

And more ads tonight!...

Did You See a Scientology Ad This Weekend?


Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he's been writing about Scientology at several publications.

tortega@villagevoice.com | @VoiceTonyO | Facebook: Tony Ortega

Keep up on all of our New York news coverage at this blog, Runnin' Scared


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