Being able to go search the Internet has been a remarkable thing for people looking for more information about the world. I always tell my kids when they want to know something that I don’t have stuffed away in my head, “Let’s ask the Great God Google.”
(Of course, knowing where to look is a whole ’nother article, fraught with lots of black holes …)
One of the ads you might or might not have seen at Super Bowl LII on Sunday was about Scientology. It was a new ad shown to a few select markets, and it basically challenged people to go find out more, ending the commercial on the words: “Curious? We thought so.”
The 30-second clip showed images of the Church of Scientology, that lives right in the heart of Los Angeles, some splashy logos, and somebody typing the question, “What is Scientology?” into Google. Like all Super Bowl spots it’s a pretty spend-y ad buy—and one that the church unloads a significant chunk of cash on every year, and has since 2013.
The ad asks a pretty innocuous question, right? “What is Scientology”? So what do you get when you put that question to Google? The first four search results are from the official Church of Scientology website, then a very kind piece from CNN which refers to Scientology as “successful” and “misunderstood”, followed by two Wikipedia pages, and finally a blog called Operation Clambake which has sought to “undress” Scientology since 1996 (the site’s graphics corroborate this date). So if anyone is curious enough to Google the ad’s prompt, they’ll mostly be met with propaganda (from both sides), with some neutral Wikipedia ground in the middle. Side note: Wikipedia banned the Church of Scientology from editing Wiki pages back in 2009.
In response to the Super Bowl ad, several who have left the religion after accusations of abuse took to Twitter, including actress Leah Remini:
— Leah Remini (@LeahRemini) February 5, 2018
And one from writer Cyd Ziegler:
— Cyd Zeigler (@CydZeigler) February 5, 2018
Here’s another from writer/director Marco Diaz:
— Marco A. Diaz (@infantible) February 5, 2018
And still one more from Twitter user Patrick Tubbs:
#Scientology should be taxed if it can afford a Super Bowl ad.
— Patrick Tubbs (@Pat1072) February 5, 2018
The debate over whether it’s a cult or not is ongoing, but it won tax exempt status in 1993 after court battles to “prove” it is a valid religion. (I mean… as much as any religion can prove itself “valid,” right?)
Here’s the actual ad if you really, really want to see it:
The Scientology Super Bowl LII commercial differs to past ads, like this one from 2013, which typically present an inspirational montage of ideas and then springs a surprise on the audience with the unveiling of the Scientology logo at the last minute. This year was the church’s first ad to introduce its intention upfront, and is also the first not to feature a voiceover. With its documentary style opener and murmurs of “What do they do in there?” “Have you met a Scientologist?” and “What do they believe?”, the church seems to be capitalizing on the recent popularity of expose documentaries on Scientology, like Going Clear and My Scientology Movie, and challenging people to seek the truth on their own. Not so much the truth, you know, but as the 2013 ad voiceover tellingly states: “Because in the eternal debate for answers, the one thing that’s true is what’s true for you.”
For its part, Toyota got a little bit into religion during the game as well, showing an ad featuring members of several different religions, with the tagline at the end, “We’re all one team”—referring to the upcoming Winter Olympic Games.
Not a bad sentiment, but like the odd Martin Luther King voiceover ad trying to sell Dodge trucks to the masses, it’s a bit of a strange merger of inspirational ideas with commercialism.
Religious ads have been turned down by the NFL before. There was one ad that was actually banned from the 2011 Super Bowl, featuring a pretty crass attempt to sell Doritos and Pepsi Max to churchgoers. It’s… funny, but yeah. No.