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Mormon Church uses YouTube to battle stereotypes

TAMPA

The filmmakers came from Utah with cameras and settled inside a modest church across from the University of South Florida.

Inside, eager young Mormons were being trained for their missions, learning to knock on doors, talk to nonbelievers and change minds.

But that's not the image the filmmakers came for. When people think about Mormons, they already picture teens in black ties toting Bibles, riding bikes down neighborhood streets. The filmmakers were after something more unexpected that day.

They stood in the hallway killing time next to a picture of Jesus. They laughed at themselves.

"People think we're a bunch of weirdos," said sound guy Jason Allred.

Weird is not the mission here.

• • •

Imagine you're Mormon.

People think you have eight wives, that you're not diverse, that you don't believe in Jesus, that you're in a cult. You're associated with compound raids, homogenized hairstyles and underage marriages. Folks flip to Big Love and Sister Wives and think of you.

You need an image overhaul.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as it's formally known, conducted a survey to glean people's perceptions. Leaders had a feeling. They were right. In the age of social networking and ground-level marketing, the changes would have to start online.

In 2010, the church revamped its website, Mormon.org, into a jazzy meetup for believers and curious types. Then began the quest for cool Mormons to appear in a series of slick video profiles for — what else? — YouTube.

"We thought we'd start with a dozen or so and see where it went," said Ron Wilson, senior manager of Mormon.org. "We put feelers out to friends and neighbors. Who do you know who's not what some people think is the typical Mormon?"

They found happy moms, reformed alcoholics, artists, surfers, businessmen. The white founder of the Backstreet Boys, the black, female mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, the Hispanic 9/11 survivor. They filmed in homes and offices and streets, creating tidy three-minute morsels that all end the same.

"My name is . . . and I'm a Mormon."

The videos blew up on YouTube — 10,000 hits, 20,000, 800,000. They're warm, digestible and habit-forming. They pop up when you're searching for things like skin cream reviews and funny clips.

The church will have more than 100 profiles by the end of the year, Wilson said, reaching every corner of the country, Florida included. There are 234 Mormon congregations in Florida, five missions and one temple, in Orlando.

In Tampa, there is Bruce Summerhays, the guy the filmmakers came here to shoot.

He is 64, a retired professional golfer who converted to Mormonism at 16. He spent more than 30 years as a club professional, then went pro at age 50. He earned the nickname "Iron Man" among players like Arnold Palmer. He and his wife, Carolyn, have eight children, all grown. The couple came to Tampa for Summerhays to be president of the Florida Mission overseeing more than 160 missionaries.

His video is in postproduction. It will show him on the course, walking with his wife and working at the mission.

"I'll take any opportunity to spread the message of the Gospel," he said. "There's a lot of confusion about what the church is and what it represents."

• • •

They have a history of marketing savvy.

"Mormons had Hollywood connections very early on in the early days of Hollywood film," said Danny Jorgensen, who teaches Mormonism in America at USF. "They wanted to produce their own film material so that the membership wouldn't be dependent on the crudities of Hollywood shoot-'em-ups and sex."

There's Samuel W. Taylor, who wrote the film Bait and the story behind The Absent-Minded Professor. There's Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, and there's the Osmond family, and there's Brandon Flowers from the Killers.

"Go back and look at the first three episodes of Battlestar Galactica," said Jorgensen, who grew up in Mormon splinter the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "They are a sci-fi version of Mormon theology."

In the past few decades, Mormons have tried to portray the faith as all-American, Jorgensen said — miles from its roots in plural marriage, theocracy and communal living. They downplay the more unusual aspects of the faith, like temple rites and rituals, disdain for alcohol and caffeine, and male-heavy leadership.

Apple pie politicians like Mitt Romney embrace the faith in public.

"Most people in this country recognize that the nation itself was founded on the principles of religious tolerance and freedom," Romney said this month on Piers Morgan Tonight.

The church, which doesn't publicly disclose finances, has produced sophisticated television advertisements since the 1970s. For the YouTube campaign, it enlisted retired advertising executive Parry Merkley of Merkley & Partners, whose client list includes Mercedes-Benz. Merkley helped recruit filmmakers from Hollywood and Provo, Utah, where there's a studio-grade soundstage at Brigham Young University.

Leaders won't say how much the campaign cost.

"It's expensive, but we spend a lot more money each year helping the poor," said Wilson.

The church is very wealthy, Jorgensen said, but not as wealthy as many other faiths, such as the Catholic church.

"The fact of the matter is, religion is big business in America," he said. "Mormons are not particularly unique. But they are very efficient."

• • •

The camera rolls, and a petite mother of four jumps on a trampoline with her husband and special-needs children. They are playing make-believe, dressed as superheroes in capes she sewed herself. She breaks up a fight in the car. She brushes her daughter's hair. She kisses her son's forehead after he finishes a race at the Special Olympics.

"When you watch my video you're not going to think I'm running around with sister wives," said Rochelle Tallmadge, 38.

Still, she can't comprehend why a video of her life has gotten more than 900,000 hits on YouTube since September.

On her blog, Rochelle's Ravings, Tallmadge writes about yelling at her daughter, then repenting. She writes about kids screaming and diapers exploding. She chronicles raising a son who can't speak. She was already public about her life. Video seemed like a good idea.

Now, she pauses.

"A lot of people have clicked thumbs-down about my video and I think, how can you thumbs-down a handicapped child?" she said. "But that's not what they're doing, they just see that I'm a Mormon and click it."

Her in-box fills with messages from strangers who like her story. Then there's the snail mail sneaking into her stacks of bills. The letters and pamphlets about other religions, about hellfire and salvation. She calls it "a little bit creepy."

A couple of months ago, she got recognized while vacationing with her daughters in New York. A woman shouted out her name.

"When you know me you can't say we are shrinking violets and we're submissive," she said. "Because I'm definitely not that."

• • •

Catherine Anderson, a 21-year-old Hispanic Mormon, clicks through the videos on her computer.

"I have to answer a lot of questions about things like polygamy and I've had people confuse me with the Amish," Anderson said. "A lot of people think I joined a cult. The videos let people know that we are normal."

Just a few years ago she didn't know a thing about Joseph Smith.

Missionaries approached Anderson on campus at USF in 2008. They smiled, which made her smile, and when she went to visit their church, she felt comfortable. She never felt that way growing up Catholic.

Her parents disapproved when she converted. Even more when she met a boy from that small Tampa church. And more when she got married and transferred with her husband to Brigham Young University-Idaho.

Anderson's parents couldn't come to her temple wedding because only approved Mormons can go inside a temple, but they managed smiles at the reception.

They're adjusting, Anderson said. Dad went to a Mormon church service. Mom let missionaries visit her at home. Anderson wants her parents to watch the videos but is nervous to send them a link.

"I'm still a little wary about talking about it with them for fear of them saying something negative," she said.

When people make up their minds, she said, it's hard to change them.

Sarah Whitman can be reached at swhitman@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2439. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

Mormon Church uses YouTube to battle stereotypes 02/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 4, 2011 7:47pm]

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