Saturday, October 27, 2007

Unitarians Try to Raise Profile with New Ad Campaign

Proud of their liberal views, spiritual skepticism and religious diversity -- counting atheists, neo-pagans and Buddhists in their ranks -- Unitarian Universalists are not known as heavy-duty evangelizers.

But with just 250,000 members nationwide and growth relatively stagnant at 1 percent a year, the Unitarian Universalist Association

(UUA) is trying to raise its national profile with an unorthodox ad campaign -- the first in its 46-year history.

"We've kept our light under a bushel," said the Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, the UUA's director of congregational services. "I think this current national campaign really does reflect a shift for us in our passion and willingness to be more present."

The campaign, in conjunction with Time magazine, hopes to amplify the church's voice on national issues, increase name recognition and inspire pride in the UUA identity. It's not a reaction to the religious right, necessarily, but an effort to provide "messages that the world desperately needs right now," Robinson-Harris said.

"I would say that we are speaking up on behalf of a more tolerant, more affirming approach to the diversity of religious perspective in the world," she said.

Although rooted in Christianity, the only creed within Unitarian Universalism is that there is no creed. Instead, congregations adhere to seven principles, including "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning," and draw on texts from various religions, science and literature.

In recent years, several mainline denominations have introduced ad campaigns.

In 2004, the United Church of Christ's "God is still speaking" television ads were booted from major networks as "too controversial."

In 2001, the United Methodist Church launched their "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" campaign; an independent study indicated people who saw the ads were 47 percent more likely to have a positive impression of Methodists than those who had not seen it.

Recent regional advertising by the UUA has proven successful. In Kansas City, Mo., the number of church visitors rose by up to 25 percent, while a campaign in Houston helped turn a 7 percent membership decline into an 8 percent increase over the course of a year.

The UUA's $425,000 ad campaign will run through the end of the year, but Robinson-Harris wasn't sure if it will continue into 2008. She said the UUA chose Time because of the demographics of its 21.4 million readers.

The UUA ad campaign has two parts -- traditional print ads in Time, and "advertorials." The print ads carry the message: "Is God keeping you from going to church?"

The more unusual advertorials debuted on Friday (Oct. 26) in, an online archive of Time religion stories. Its tagline is "Find us and ye shall seek."

The online archive will only feature stories that focus on three areas chosen by the UUA: religion and science; religion in American democracy; and religion, sexuality and morality. Readers will be able to click on links to a UUA Web page with essays written by UUA ministers about these topics.

"The advertorial concept is certainly new for us," Robinson-Harris said. "It is a new opportunity to be able to draw on the wealth of stories that Time has accumulated and to offer up to Time's readers the opportunity, in a focused kind of way, to explore more about those various issues."

That's not to say the idea hasn't been without controversy. The Rev. Scott Wells, a Unitarian Universalist minister who's starting a church in Washington D.C., said the advertorials blur the line between editorial content and advertising.

"If I was an outside reader ... I'd wonder why wasn't a story written about Unitarian Universalists if they're so important or relevant? And I don't think I've ever seen another religious body stoop to an advertorial," he said.

Wells associates advertorials with commercial companies and lobbyists -- "not the company I think we should be keeping," he said.

Robinson-Harris said the advertorials would not affect the magazine's religion coverage, since the stories were already written, and isn't worried about a backlash about whether such advertising is inappropriate.

A Time spokesperson said it's the first time a religious organization has advertised in an online archive of Time stories, and said the magazine has designed online sections that have been purchased by other advertisers.

She said Time would consider working with other religious groups if approached.

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Sotto Voce


Robin Edgar said...

In reality, according to the UUA's own official membership statistics, there are closer to 150,000 card-carrying adult members of the Unitarian*Universalist aka U*U "religious community" than 250,000. Let's round it up to 160,000 or so. As Mark Twain said, "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics." Did you catch how the UUA is proudly proclaiming that this Time magazine advertising campaign is it's first national marketing campaign in 50 years even though the UUA is several years short of 50 years old itself?

I suppose it is possible that U*Us have kept their light under a bushel but they have also done a pretty good job of keeping their darkness under a bushel too. . . U*Us, including U*U clergy like Rev. Victoria Weinstein aka Peacebang, quite regularly point an accusing finger at Roman Catholics over clergy sexual misconduct while turning willfully blind eyes to the U*U community's own serious problems with clergy misconduct, sexual misconduct or otherwise. . . Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris herself has effectively rubber-stamped such anti-Catholic finger pointing by a U*U minister who stridently pointed the finger at Roman Catholics over clergy sexual misconduct at a time when one of her own aging parishioners was convicted of raping the preteen daughter of a neighbor as well as "a female family member."

If the UUA hopes to amplify the church's voice on national issues it would do well to start by quadrupling its stagnant membership which would still be well under 1,000,000 members nationwide. . . Garrison Keillor and the Simpsons have probably done more to increase name recognition for Unitarian*Universalism aka U*Uism than any TIME magazine "advertorials" ever will. Heck, it even sounds like the ads are aimed at U*Us themselves, as much as anyone else, in that they are supposedly intended to "inspire pride in the UUA identity." I sure would like to know just what "messages that the world desperately needs right now" the Unitarian*Universalist "religious community" has to offer. I am not sure that "God is dead" is a "messages that the world desperately needs right now" even though that message is effectively, if not quite literally. . . preached from the wayward pulpit of too many U*U "churches".

Robin Edgar said...

Thanks for posting the above comment Sotto Voce. It is much appreciated.

I guess we share similar roles in that I am certainly doing my bit when it comes to "Giving The Uncomfortable Truth And News" about the self-described "Uncommon Denomination" aka the U*U World albeit somewhat from the Outside as an "excommunicated" Unitarian.

Robin Edgar said...

I found yet another example of the Catholic bashing that goes on in U*U "churches" in this blog post earlier today -

The sermon kept my attention the entire time (wow!!) and explored what makes us commit bad acts and how the church can counter that. The minister spent some time talking about Abu Ghraib, and then she said something to the effect of “But you don’t need to go prisons in Iraq to find people who commit terrible acts. Look no further than the Catholic church.”

end quote

It sounds very much that this Catholic bashing was committed by a U*U minister during the course of a U*U "church" service. Whether this attack was written into her Sunday sermon or was an ad lib is unclear but I would not fall off my chair if it was in fact written into the sermon considering some of the other questionable statements that are found in U*U sermons. AFAIAC Unitarian*Universalist clergy who publicly criticize the Catholic church from their wayward pulpit, or in rather too opinionated Op/Ed pieces etc. etc., might do well to pay heed to Matthew 7:3-5. . .

I tried posting an appropriate response but my comment was blocked. . .

Robin Edgar said...

The Chicago Tribune recently did a story about the UUA's national marketing campaign headlined Unitarians Put Faith In Advertising, my comments on it may be read here. They were rather quickly cut loose from the article page. ;-) This article was picked up by several other US newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle. The article actually was not all that flattering. It was bluntly to the point that the UUA's advertising campaign was largely motivated by the fact the Unitarian*Universalism is an aging and dwindling congregation. Some of the headlines of the other papers even used the word dwindling in their headlines for the article. The Houston Chronicle headline may well have contained a witticism on the part of the copy editor. To wit - Unitarians put *a little faith* in advertising. . .

The article, which quotes a few Chicago area U*U ministers, makes it quite clear that God, and God believing people, may not be all that welcome in many U*U "churches".