Those ‘I’m a Mormon’ ads created community and identity. Why throw them away?

Latter-day Saint blogger argues they did as much to unite insiders and showcase diversity to members — as they did to educate outsiders.

In the not-too-distant past, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proudly wore the “Mormon” moniker.

Starting in 2011, the Utah-based faith produced a global advertising campaign with the slogan “I’m a Mormon.” It included hundreds of short video or photographic bios of individual members as a way to show outsiders that Latter-day Saints come in all shapes, sizes and colors — that they’re not so different; they’re your friends and neighbors.

After current church President Russell M. Nelson stepped into his role as “prophet, seer and revelator” in 2018, though, he mandated that the “Mormon” term be banned from general use by members, scholars, outsiders and media alike.

In a recent By Common Consent blog post, Taylor Kerby waxed nostalgic about the ad strategy. In The Salt Lake Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast, he discusses what he liked about it, what it did for him and the church, what he misses about it, and how a similar campaign might prove helpful today. Here are excerpts:

Where were you during the “I’m a Mormon” campaign?

I was serving a Chinese-speaking mission in Washington, D.C., which created some unusual circumstances for us. …One thing that was so wonderful about the “I’m a Mormon” campaign was it gave us videos and resources of people that looked like the people we were serving. …There were one or two that actually had Chinese in the video. The person would speak Chinese to their family and then go back to English when talking to the camera. But more than that, it demonstrated to all of us Mormons that there are people of all backgrounds, colors and cultures who are involved within the Mormon movement.

Can you remember a favorite one?

The one that I always go to is this kind of rugged-looking biker guy, and it shows him out riding with his biker friends and their leather jackets. They look so much like the sort of people that your Young Men president would tell you not to be. Then he comes back to his house and has a Family Home Evening. It forcefully [changed] my expectation regarding what a member of the church looks like. At the end of his interview, he says, “I look around at the other people in the church and I know they’re doing better than me, but I can only do what I can do.” …We just need to make sure our doors are open to all sorts of people. And it reminded us that all sorts of people are already in our church.

Why do you think that the ads were so successful?

Because they cut against what outsiders expected Mormons to be. … If you have ever had the pleasure (or displeasure, I suppose) of watching “The Book of Mormon” musical, for all of its faults, it does a good job of showing, rather accurately, how people outside our church view us. And it’s not a very flattering description, but it’s also a very monolithic description. …The “I’m a Mormon” campaign fought against that perception quite forcefully, and I think that’s why it was so successful.”

The ads let people talk for themselves rather than using stock photos. Do you think that sort of authenticity was part of the message?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Some 250 double-decker buses in London featured "I'm a Mormon" advertisements in response in 2013.

Absolutely. It gave voice directly to the members of the church to say, “This is who I am. This is where I come from. And this is why I believe in Mormonism. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has brought value and meaning to my life.” That’s so powerful. For better or worse, we more often hear from our leaders than we do from people on the ground.

Were you proud of being Mormon when you watched the ads?

[A professor of mine told me] there is simply no secular equivalent to the sort of community that religion can provide. …It’s just not out there. And so when I think about our faith and the continued preservation of our faith, we must remember that our market advantage — forgive me for using so clinical of a term — is our ability to foster meaningful community. Everything else that we imagine as being so special and sacred, (and I’m not saying it’s not), all of it can find some sort of allegory, some sort of counterpart on the outside.

Do you worry that the community is being lost within the church?

Yeah, I do. I often think about how I experienced the church when I was in the youth program versus how I experience the church now as an adult. When I was in the youth program, you were forced to make meaningful connections with the other young men and young women in your ward and stake. I have really fond memories of being assigned a small group of people that I was going to be best friends with for that week or, you know, being forced to go to dances and hang out with these people. As you grow older, there is simply no version of that for adults, and I don’t know what the version ought to be.

Some say the “I’m a Mormon” campaign presented a diverse and accepting community that didn’t really exist.

This may be a controversial answer, but I truly don’t care if it was real or not. It may be true that it was aspirational rather than real. And if it is aspirational rather than real, it’s important for us to continue to hold to it as an aspiration.

Now those videos have been taken down, and the word “Mormon” was scrubbed from a lot of elements of the church. What do you think is the harm of losing that word?

I take President Nelson at his word when he says that he sees that the name of the church is quite special; that it’s listed in scripture, and that we ought to, as members of that church, keep Jesus Christ in the forefront. …With that said, the one piece of discomfort I have in our abandonment of the word “Mormon” is that when I say I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, other than I am a Mormon, I am declaring my allegiance to an institution rather than my heritage. Much of my Mormonism is based on my own heritage as a Mormon. It’s a way for me to connect with my ancestors. It’s a way for me to connect with my mother and my grandmother, and I do feel a little sad that I am asked now to instead speak directly to my membership in this church community rather than to the history I have with the community. There’s something lost there.

So could the church just do this campaign and say “I’m a Latter-day Saint” instead?

I truly think they could. I don’t think it was the word Mormon that made the magic here. I think it was our willingness to hear from individual members about their own experiences, their own backgrounds, and about what made the church meaningful to them. … Each one of us may have something different that we find meaningful. Each one of us has a different aspect of the gospel that brings us fulfillment and meaning and purpose in life. But, nevertheless, we are all unified in our recognition that there is something special about the restored gospel, and it’s special for us, and it can be special for you whether or not you are already in it. So, yes, they could do it without the Mormon word 100%. I don’t know … what it would look like. But I would love to see them try something that looked like it. Absolutely.

To hear the full podcast, go to sltrib.com/podcasts/mormonland. To read a complete transcript and receive other exclusive Tribune religion content, go to Patreon.com/mormonland.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints_ A previous "I'm a Mormon" ad on display in New York City.