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Church of Scientology rolls out new ad campaign in bay area

The advertisement is sleek and subtle, surfacing on the upper right side of the St. Petersburg Times' Web site, tampabay.com.

The text floats onto the screen: "Love" then "Hate" then "What is the answer?"

The final display comes in a flash of light: "Scientology.org."

It's a small spot, rotating among a lineup of online ads that includes commercials for Radio Shack and BlackBerry. But it has drawn some attention, partly because the newspaper has published several stories recently featuring serious allegations involving the Church of Scientology and its top leaders.

Beginning June 21, the three-part series "The Truth Rundown" featured the stories of four people who once held top positions in the church. They alleged that leader David Miscavige physically attacked members of the church's top leadership and fostered an atmosphere of violence among Scientology's international management. Another story Aug. 2 revealed allegations from other former staffers at the church, which locates its spiritual headquarters in Clearwater.

Given the stories the St. Petersburg Times has written recently about the church, why is the organization selling advertising space to them?

Paul Tash, editor, chairman and chief executive of Times Publishing Co., said the company doesn't take Scientology recruitment advertising. But the current online ad, which speaks more to Scientology's overall image, doesn't meet that definition.

"We tried to construe our (advertising) policies as widely as possible to make sure they had every opportunity to respond (to the newspaper's reporting)," said Tash. "I articulated some principles for the decision, which was made by the appropriate people, and I support it."

Officials from the Church of Scientology in the Tampa Bay area and California did not return calls for comment. Spokesmen for the church have denied the allegations from the St. Petersburg Times stories in past statements and a 38-page presentation in its magazine, Freedom.

The online ads appear to be part of a local media campaign that includes airing commercials on almost every major area TV station starting that started Monday, possibly coordinated in a strategy some industry experts call "roadblocking."

The idea is to buy advertising space across a wide array of TV stations at close to the same time, so that if viewers change the channel during the commercial on one station, they will encounter it on the next channel.

"No matter where you turn, they're there," said Greg Blackburn, creative services director at WTOG-Ch. 44, which is airing the new ads from the church and estimated such a strategy locally could cost as much as $300,000.

"It is a strategy that's effective, especially right now, when stations need the money and rates are low," said Cherie Umbarger, vice president of marketing and advertising at the Tampa firm Marshall Advertising.

Officials at WTSP-Ch. 10, WTVT-Ch. 13, WFTS-Ch. 28, WTTA-Ch. 38 and WMOR-Ch. 32 also said the church has purchased commercial spots on their air, though many would not reveal the cost or duration of ads.

Most stations said they had no qualms about airing the ads, which have aired in other markets, because they were well produced and low key, with no controversial images or language. Church spokesman Pat Harney told a reporter for WTSP that the TV and online ads were not a response to the St. Petersburg Times series.

Church of Scientology rolls out new ad campaign in bay area 08/11/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 11, 2009 10:27pm]

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