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Nine Moons » Blog Archive : Mormon Propaganda » Mormon Propaganda

Mormon Propaganda

Rusty - January 11, 2005

As someone in the business of corporate branding, I’m forced to look at a corporation for what it is: a bunch of people providing a service or product trying to make money. From there we build their story. Depending on the service/product and the company, the story differs. David, the graphic designer, drives to work in his Volkswagon listening to David Byrne. Wearing all black and drinking his special coffee blend he works on his Macintosh G5. Phil drives a Dodge Ram to his cabin where he chops wood and drinks a bottle of Budweiser. By the campfire he prepares for the next morning’s fishing trip with his dog Patch. Jen buys her clothes at Abercrombie and listens to… you get the idea.

The stories are lifestyles.

Companies no longer deliver products or services, but try to either fit your lifestyle or entice you to be a part of the lifestyle they create. You no doubt notice how commercials rarely mention the product itself, but rather showcase a potential happier life using it. Your choice in beers means the difference of meeting a beautiful woman or going home alone. There is so little difference between the carbonated sugar waters that we need athletes and polar bears to help make the distinction for us.

This is nothing new. Wartime propaganda used similar techniques (regardless of which side of the border it was produced). The enemy was always portrayed using negative stereotypes, meanwhile the portrayal of those at home as wholesome, righteous, innocent and courageous.

The obvious purpose of this is manipulation. Whether by truth or deception, the idea is to lead a large segment of society to take action (buy war bonds, buy Pepsi, join the armed forces, etc.) or think a certain way (Hitler is evil, Volkswagon is hip, America is good, etc.). There have been volumes written about this relationship and I will continue no further, other than to say that it doesn’t stop with corporate advertising or national patriotism.

Enter, the Church.

The other day I received a packet in the mail from my CES administrator. In it was a booklet put out by the CES for seminary teachers. One of the photos really bothered me. It was of a primary teacher teaching her group of children. Each child was sitting upright very attentively, all smiling, two resting their chins on their hands, all with hair combed and dressed in perfect Sunday attire (boys with white shirts and ties and girls in dresses).

You know these types of photos because that’s all that exists in the Ensign. Everyone doing something righteous is happy, anyone making a poor decision is mad (well, supposed to be mad, but most of these photos are of some phony actor who can’t even hide the laugh just below the frown). The men all wear plaid button shirts with khakis when casual and white shirts and ties and suits (over the age of 14) when performing a church function. The images of women are even more pathetic. They all have ankle-length dresses/skirts with either a plain, plaid or flower pattern. I can’t recall seeing any image of a woman over the age of 14 wearing pants. The hair is always very conservative. If there is any expression of rebellion, it usually consists of wearing black (and extreme rebellion with someone in a black leather jacket with metal zippers). Nobody prays slouched over, nobody leans back in their chair, no seminary students look tired, nobody ACTUALLY looks poor, and NOBODY believes these photos!

This is silly propaganda and I don’t understand why they do it. I’m not sure if it’s to avoid a truthfull portrayal of a real person or to try to influence us all to become more like those they portray. Either way, I hate it. I can’t imagine how this false portrayal of the Saints is beneficial to the general membership of the Church. These aren’t real humans. It makes me think of all the popular magazines with their skinny models and the psychological damage this does to young women. When less-than-perfect members of the Church see these pictures it’s easy to feel like we don’t measure up (i.e. Prozac consumption in Utah). The argument could be made that they portray something to aspire to. Well, if you think skinniness is something young women or plaid button shirts for priesthood holders is something worth aspiring to, then I don’t know what to say.

1 Comment »

  1. Interesting post, Rusty. Yes, several years ago I noticed, for example, that the Ensign photos suddenly became multiracial. I suppose that marks a step forward in LDS racial consciousness, but at the time I thought the new photos reminded me of the illustratins in Jehovah’s Witnesses tracts.

    On the positive side, take a peek inside the New Era, which often features spreads showing youth groups (real people, not youth models) from different states and countries. Sometimes a few in the group shots look a little scruffy, but these are the most authentic photos I see in Church magazines.
    Dave | Email | Homepage | 01.12.05 – 4:26 am | #

    Dave I think you’re right. I had the same thought about looking too much like J.W. tracts.

    The stereotype pictures are just that. I don’t think any of us “believe” them. But what would be the image if there were people in denin skirts and flip flops at sacrament meeting? (I understand that at least one stake in Utah…the name will remain secret..sent out a letter to the Bishops to be read. The letter told the sisters to quit wearing denin skirts and flip flops to sacrament meeting)

    The image the church protrays is obviously important. I guess ideal is more important than realism.
    Don | Email | Homepage | 01.12.05 – 1:30 pm | #

    You raise an interesting point/question, Russ. I can see both sides of it.
    I think propoganda has a place in society, much like what you pointed out, (i.e. war propoganda) but of course, it can also be in the wrong place.
    For the Ensign, I can understand why they do it the way they do, like you said, to get people to see how happy they can be. However, I also think there DOES need to be realistic pictures of real people in there as well. If they could just find a good mix…
    What comes to mind is the movie “On the Way Home” with the family that is color coordinated whenever they are together.
    Bret | Email | Homepage | 01.13.05 – 3:51 am | #

    So just what is your point, Russ? Your perspective is interesting, but I personally don’t think these idealized images in Church magazines cause psychological damage or added Prozac consumption because members don’t measure up to them. As you said, nobody believes these photos—we realize they are posed by models and are usually included only as visual aids to enhance the articles. If the Church is a corporation, I assume they’re in the business of selling the Gospel. So how else do they portray the happiness their “product” brings than through people smiling when they’re obedient and frowning when they’re not? Certainly there is more to a person and his/her spirituality than what he/she wears to church and how he/she sits in Sunday School, but to me these little outward cues seem to be the most easily-grasped way to visually convey the inward message.

    You mentioned the purpose of propaganda is manipulation—to lead a large segment of society to take action. Clearly the Church wants its members to take the action of constantly improving themselves, but I have to wonder if they are consciously trying to manipulate the Ensign subscribers through these photos. I see it more as presenting a positive option the members can choose to follow. Let’s take the white shirt and tie idea. In a conference talk, Elder Holland suggested that whenever possible, white shirts be worn by those handling the Sacrament. He went on to clarify that we don’t want the young men to be unduly concerned with anything but the purity of their lives, but how they dress can teach us all about the sanctity of the ordinance. He even quoted President McKay saying a white shirt contributes to the sacredness of the sacrament. If the Ensign were to consistently show men performing priesthood duties in colored shirts, how would this benefit the point Elder Holland makes? Maybe it would make some Church members feel better about the fact they worthily bless or pass the Sacrament in whatever clothes they choose. But from my experience, one’s attitude and performance is easily affected—perhaps sometimes even dictated—by outward appearance. This is why I find little, if no, harm in Ensign photos that may not be realistic portrayals of real members.

    I agree it couldn’t hurt for them to include more photos of actual people, as the New Era and the Friend do. I’m not saying you’re not right in the lack of reality presented in the Ensign, but I am arguing your harsh criticism of it.
    Amy | Email | Homepage | 01.14.05 – 5:54 pm | #

    Amy, I beg to differ on whether this imagery can/has lead to psychological damage. Of course I could never prove it, but it’s just one more thing that adds to a Mormon’s insecurity about his personal righteousness/worthiness.

    It’s easier for you to have the perspective you do because you aren’t that far off from the ideal, it’s within your personal grasp, but others aren’t so fortunate. They aren’t so fortunate to A) have those clothes or B) have the mental capacity to conclude that it’s just a bunch of pictures and to not worry about it so much, or C) believe that acting in those ways or wearing those clothes actually has very little to do with righteousness or is an “ideal” to work towards in the first place.

    One of the main problems is that the Ensign (and all Church publications) have the rule to not include any conceptual art. Well, the great thing about conceptual imagery is that it has the ability to convey complex ideas with a simple illustration, it forces the reader to make their own connections rather than spoonfeed everything. It seems like the difference between asking a good question or rattling off a bunch of answers. As a teacher, I prefer the former. The students learn a lot better that way, mostly because it forces them to think.

    Maybe this is for another post, but wouldn’t it be great to think about prayer on a different level because the combination of the words and illustration made you think in a way you hadn’t before?
    Rusty | Email | Homepage | 01.15.05 – 1:12 pm | #

    Let’s give the Church (rather its magazine editors) the benefit of the doubt. Is their aim in fact manipulation? Come on, Rusty, you can be more fair to the Church and its magazines. I’ve seen some Church magazines that feature kids with missing teeth and poor dress. The Church is obviously trying to put out an impressive, uplifting magazine. I just don’t agree with one of your conclusions that an aim is to manipulate. Do you really believe it yourself?

    More appropriate terms than manipulation or branding should be used to describe methods used by the Church (and its magazines)to affect behavior. If you think the Ensign is a manipulative tool, that’s fine. I regret you feel that way as a member of the same Church. I just have to disagree.

    Leaders constantly speak out against the stereotypes you brought up (skinniess, being perfect, etc.). They certainly have an interest to not propagate the wrong attitudes in their magazines. Fat, less attractive, and other imperfect people can be found in the Ensign and other magazines.

    You said you didn’t know why this silly propaganda was done. Yet, you must have a guess why it’s done if in fact you have found a existing pattern. You began your blog by mentioning what a corporation does: a bunch of people providing a service or product trying to make money. I question and resent your use of this connection to the LDS Church and its magazines. The Church is in the business for saving souls, but I believe attempts to do so in the appropriate way.

    Perhaps being in the business of corporate branding has made you into a cynic–unfortunatly, even as it relates to the Church.

    Many of your blogs, Rusty, have been produced with undertones of cynicism and negativity. I haven’t seen as much laughing at Mormon culture (goal of Nine Moons) as I expected. I’ve read more critiques and near blasts of Church-related produres, operations, etc. than I have chuckled at stories relating to jello salad sprinkled with carrots. I wish you’d be more sympathetic to our difficult cause.

    It just doesn’t sound like you’re on “our” side. You are almost completely critical in your blog. What are your solutions? My baseline assumption is that the Church is doing its best. It doesn’t sound like that is yours.

    In conclusion, I believe this particular blog suggests too strongly that the Church is projecting a single, not-true-to-life image. I see different images projected by the Church–not just one of rule-keepers and perfection. The editors try to balance their images like those of any other magazine.
    Beverly | Email | Homepage | 01.17.05 – 7:45 pm | #

    Beverly, wow, I am really taken aback by your comments. I truly appreciate your reading this blog and letting me know your opinion. I don’t think I’m as cynical as you might suspect, but I may not be communicating my ideas as clearly as I hope.

    Firstly, I understand the aim of the Church and I actually do give them the benefit of the doubt. I read the Ensign all the time and gain a lot from it. What I find disturbing (and what I was originally trying to communicate) is that there seems to be much of the same tactics used by the Church as advertising agencies and vendors of mass media. They want us to buy stuff, the Church wants us to commit ourselves to the Gospel. But both are trying to persuade. I’m not suggesting that the Church is evil like ad agencies, I’m just saying that there are better ways to visually communicate the messages than what they are doing. The Church is doing the best with what they have (their design staff), but their staff isn’t the best they can get. I know of a large handful of designers in Utah who could communicate the messages the bretheren want to share in a much clearer, much more honest way than what is current. I’ve seen those photos of real people (they are usually some story of people in Guatemala or something) and they’re fantastic. I believe those photos.

    You realize that jello salad isn’t funny anymore. Way too many people have made some joke along those lines that I can’t laugh about it anymore. I don’t know if I ever did. I’m searching for the funny things about our culture that we can all laugh about like Greg Olsen paintings. What’s important is to not take ourselves so seriously (or don’t take me seriously, especially if you like Greg Olsen). Any suggestions?

    Beverly, I’m sorry if you feel like I’m cynical or have a bad attitude towards the Church. I truly don’t. Ask the only three other people who read this blog (Don my dad, Amy my sister, and Bret my brother) and they will say that my problem is with Liz Lemon, not with the bretheren.
    Rusty | Email | Homepage | 01.18.05 – 12:12 am | #

    Bev is right about one thing….we should laugh a lot more on this blog. Like laughing about how cheap Mormons are! Bargin shopping is one thing, but Mormons take cheapness to a whole new level.

    Or we should laugh about how un-friendly we are at our church meetings, toward new people we don’t know.

    Or lets laugh about how poorly we do our missionary work, or personal history, or genealogy, or temple work or, or, or….

    Opps I guess I’m being a bit cynical. But it is true we are Mormons have so much to laugh at ourselves about that we should have more blogs in that vein.

    Thanks Bev, you’re right!
    Don | Email | Homepage | 01.18.05 – 1:25 pm | #

    There’s nothing wrong with manipulation and branding i.e. marketing.

    There are, however, more effective and less effective ways to go about such efforts.
    William Morris | Email | Homepage | 01.18.05 – 3:10 pm | #

    William is right.

    Who better to say that than William Morris…I presume from the William Morris Agency…right!
    Don | Email | Homepage | 01.18.05 – 4:29 pm | #

    Whoa whoa whoa…who said manipulation and propoganda are the same thing?
    True, some propoganda is manipulative and they are very similar but I don’t thik they are the same. Propoganda CAN be a good thing. It is hard to give a clear cut example but one I can think of right now is the portrayal of enemies during war. Propoganda tends to de-humanize the enemy so that we are more motivated to fight them. (i.e.–making the Japanese during WWII look like bug-eyed wierdos)
    In regards to the church magazines and other chruch media, I think it is done just fine, for the most part. It is in things like I mentioned in a previous comment where they have everyone in the picture wearing color coordinated clothes and such stuff like that.
    Does that make sense?
    Bret | Email | Homepage | 01.18.05 – 5:53 pm | #

    Actually, Bret, as much as I laugh at the “On the Way Home” color-coordinated family, I’d have to say Rusty’s points of Church propaganda are the ones that can more easily be seen as potentially harmful. (Four people all in yellow washing the car just looks so nice you almost don’t notice, but a picture of seminary students all paying perfect attention just might do more damage to an actual seminary teacher’s morale, you know?)

    Having said that, Russ, I’m still not sure you ought to be quite so harsh in your criticism. Attacking a magazine whose editor is a member of the 70 and that publishes the First Presidency’s and Quorum of the 12’s names inside each front cover is indirectly attacking those men and their decisions regarding the magazine, isn’t it?

    Are you saying all those Mormons in Utah on Prozac aren’t as fortunate as I am to A) have the nice clothes in the magazine pictures, B) have the mental capacity to recognize it’s not real life, and C) be able to believe it’s what’s inside that counts the most to Heavenly Father? Or were you referring to the membership in third world countries?

    I can see what you’re getting at, because perfectionism is certainly a problem in the Church. So my question for you is, “What is your concept of the ideal Church magazine?” Purely conceptual art? As a student of the Humanities I certainly agree with you on the benefits of such art, but I believe striking out the posed photos completely would be detrimental to many members. If your answer is a better balance, would you insist the photos all be of real-life situations? I would be okay with that, but having no editorial experience whatsoever I’m not sure how practical that is in making a magazine.

    Now you’ve got me wondering, why doesn’t the Church hire these better designers you know of in Utah? Are they trying to save money? Have you ever written a letter to the editor of the Ensign to gently ask about the things you are attacking? I wonder if anyone has yet. Or are all Church members too complacent or too naïve to care? If it really matters, please write them and I’ll watch for their response. I am sincerely interested.

    Just for the record, Beverly, my brother is not quite the Church-attacker you may see in him… but I would have to say his career seems to be making him more of a skeptic when it comes to issues as this one. I, for one, will continue to hang (selected) Greg Olsen and Liz Lemon paintings in my home as long as there are young, malleable children in it who will easily grasp the art’s meaning and thereby benefit from such religious images. …I’d have to think twice about Del Parson or Robert Barrett, but that’s mostly because Rusty has pointed out too many specific “laughables” to me in their work.
    Amy | Email | Homepage | 01.18.05 – 11:51 pm | #

    First of all, I don’t understand why everyone thinks I’m “attacking” the Church or its leaders. I think that the editors and designers of the Ensign do a poor job of communicating a realistic message of hope because they utilize similar methods as those of the persuasion industry (advertising, propaganda, etc). I’ve never mentioned any feelings of dissent toward the message itself. I’m sure that if I were in a literary field I would somewhat object to the style of writing therein, but I’m not and I don’t. But the fact remains, they use methods of which I don’t agree with.

    As far as my idea of the perfect Church magazine, I think I might leave that to a later post (now that everyone has me thinking a lot more about it). But I should say that it’s not so much a matter of substance, but more of style. Just because they are trying hard it doesn’t mean that it’s good enough. I expect better from the entity that is communicating to me the most important message I can recieve.

    Steve at BCC just wrote an interesting piece about his complaints of the editorial aspect of the Ensign. Well worth the read (and much funnier than my sad excuse for a blog).

    I do however have a problem with the common answer to complaints “well are you going to do something about it or just complain?” Um… I’m barely formulating my ideas, how am I going to know if it’s even worth formally complaining about if they can be rebutted (by some astute observer). Can I not talk about it with others or do I have to immediately try to address the problem (with my undoubtedly limited understanding of the situation)? I am very open to this dialogue and any other suggestions to fix my attitude because often times that’s what needs to be adjusted. But at this point, I’m not bothered enough to formally complain.

    Lastly, I appreciate all the feedback. While we all may have different opinions as to what attacking Church leadership consists of, I love to read the thought out responses.
    Rusty | Email | Homepage | 01.19.05 – 8:21 pm | #

    Because I think BYU’s decision to hire Bronco Mendenhall as head coach is a stupid, terrible decision, doesn’t mean that I’m criticizing “those men and their decisions regarding” BYU. It just means that I think he isn’t the right guy for the job and there are much better out there.
    Rusty | Email | Homepage | 01.20.05 – 1:04 am | #


    You need to get over to Times & Seasons more often.
    William Morris | Email | Homepage | 01.20.05 – 12:31 pm | #

    I do read Times and Seasons. I do know you are not THE William Morris, but I thought it a funny tongue in cheek remark for those who know what the Willima Morris Agency does.

    It appears no one got it, or everyone who did laughed on the inside.
    Don | Email | Homepage | 01.20.05 – 1:22 pm | #


    And I’m joking too — the relevant sentence would be: “And pitches from wannabe actors, models and other “talented” individuals are right out.”

    In other words, I have disavowed the Agency connection.
    William Morris | Email | Homepage | 01.20.05 – 2:02 pm | #

    Uh oh Russ, do we need a post on BYU coaching and AD hiring? Although I think BYU should have hired Lance Reynolds but I think the next best fit was Mendenhall. I’m glad they hired Doman for QB coach too and I hope they hire Ben Cahoon for recievers.
    Basically Russ, you’re wrong and I hate you for it>8p
    Bret | Email | Homepage | 01.21.05 – 2:16 am | #

    Grrrrrrreat Post Rusty!

    A+ and a sticker for your forehead.
    Lisa | Email | Homepage | 01.21.05 – 4:36 pm | #

    Being a faithful, committed member of the LDS faith does not mean that you can’t draw
    attention to the things that effect you. We are all, “living examples” wether we want to be or
    not, and through that venue itself, grants us all the right to voice our concerns and feelings
    regarding the materials that idolize our lifestyles.

    Glancing through the Ensign sitting on the table, I can certainly see the photos in which were
    described. Beautiful lace trimmed dresses, modern but conservative hair cuts, with not a hair out
    of place. I think you properly described them.

    On the other hand, when I attend a movie, depicting Mormon life, for instance “Baptists At Our
    Barbeque” I can have a few laughs and enjoy myself, but I find my eyes wandering and my mind
    wondering, why… is she wearing a tank top?

    I think what it comes down too, is we that we, or at least “ I “ often feel like I am under scrutiny,
    from my non member and (even some of my member) friends. So when given visual images of
    perfection (or seemingly perfection) it is unnerving.

    Having only perfect pictures wether to inspire making strides to perfection or not, does not
    accurately depict real life, any more than the diet coke ads do. A concern of mine would be, I
    can change the way I feel about them. I can make a choice to laugh them off, or dismiss them
    with out a thought. However, I can’t change how others look at them. I can’t change how my
    friends look at the magazines when they are in my home, or when they glance at book covers
    displayed in Desert Book in the malls.

    In my own opinion, I would prefer to see pictures of real people and families in real life
    situations. I think it would be advantageous for us a missionary religion to pursue depiction of a
    “realness” to our congregations.

    However, I also trust and have faith (Not saying that you don’t Russ) in the First Presidency and
    believe that they thoughtfully and prayerfully take into consideration each choice they make in
    their church pictures, as well as their magazines.

    I think it is safe to say, that we as members of the church, it is our responsibility to ask these
    kinds of questions and to make our opinions known. That is the defining beauty of the gospel.
    Lisa Madsen | Email | Homepage | 01.21.05 – 8:43 pm | #

    Lisa, I liked your comments and agree with most all you said. However your comment about the first presidency “thoughtfully and prayerfully take into consideration each choice they make in their church pictures, as well as their magazines” has taken it too far.

    The first presidency is removed from the day to day running of and picture choosing for the Ensign. They have an editorial staff that is supposed to make those choices.

    Too many times we forget that the church is a corporate church, and it functions way too much like any other corporation. Each area / arm of the church has specific people responsible for that area, the first presidency isn’t involved in the nitty gritty day to day running or choices.

    Example: new missionary discussions being introduced – that was a bottoms up program. It started in the mission and when it was found out it worked then it went up-line for approval. It was then a pilot program, it still worked. Now it is being introduced throughout the church. The first presidency didn’t come up with this new program and have it implemented.

    I wholeheartedly believe in inspiration, but I also know that “man” is left to his own to reason, test, and try ideas for themselves, that’s how we learn.

    There’s been many “programs” in the church that have come and gone. I don’t think the first presidency was involved in all the details of each of them either.

    Sorry, this is far too long and better for a seperate blog, but my point is the first presidency doesn’t make the picture choices for the Ensign.
    Don | Email | Homepage | 01.22.05 – 2:01 pm | #

    That’s how they perpetuate the white shirt issue.
    Kim Siever | Email | Homepage | 01.28.05 – 1:28 pm | #



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