Spreading the Word, Bit by Bit

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Spreading the Word, Bit by Bit

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is burnishing its brand. Since 2010, the church has spent millions of dollars on cheery TV ads and billboards featuring diverse Americans—a surfer, a veteran of the Iraq war, a black woman who’s the mayor of a Utah town—with the tag line “I Am a Mormon.” Scott Swofford, one of the architects of the campaign, told The Los Angeles Times that the goal is to show that “Mormons are not that strange.”

With less fanfare, backers of the church are promoting it online, too. A prominent role is being played by the More Good Foundation, launched in 2005 by David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue Airways, and James Engebretsen, an associate dean at Brigham Young University.

One of the objectives of the foundation is to make it more likely that people looking for Mormon-related information via Google or another search engine will end up on church-friendly turf, rather than on hostile sites run by evangelical Christians, ex-Mormons, and others. Search engines evaluate a Web site’s importance based partly on how many other sites link to it, so the More Good Foundation creates networks of pro-Mormon sites.

As a consequence, the top-ranked results of Mormon-related searches increasingly reflect the church’s perspective, Chiung Hwang Chen writes in The Journal of Media and Religion (November 2011). She compares the top 20 results of various Google searches in 2005 and 2011. A search for “beliefs of Mormonism” led to five pro-Mormonism sites in 2005 and 11 in 2011. “Mormonism” went from zero to eight positive sites. And “Mormon underwear”—the temple garments that many Mormons wear beneath their clothes—increased from one to eight positive sites.

“Marketing Mormonism through missionaries and other devices has long been a part of Mormon identity,” Chen writes. “Internet marketing continues the tradition.”