Between plays during Super Bowl XLIX, viewers of the big game's NBC telecast were inundated with ads featuring adorable lost puppies, model fathers and empowered women. But there was one 30-second spot that didn’t seem to fit the mold.
A commercial for the Church of Scientology aired in major U.S. cities on Sunday night during the big game. The 30-second ad, called “Age of Answers,” showed fast-moving crowds, a woman searching the Internet, a man hiking and a strand of DNA. A voiceover spoke of living in “an age of searching to find solutions, to find ourselves, to find the truth.” Toward the end, the commercial shifted to an image of an E-meter -- a device used by Scientologists to measure a person’s mental state -- as well as a shot of a steeple with a Scientology cross.
“Now, imagine an age in which the predictability of science and the wisdom of religion combine," the narrator said. "Welcome to the age of answers.” Two title images ended the 30-second spot, “spiritual technology” followed by “scientology.org.”
The Church of Scientology did not necessarily fork over $4.5 million like other companies did for their 30-second Super Bowl ads. Instead of purchasing nationwide ad time, the church bought spots in local markets – a strategy it used during last year’s Super Bowl and the one in 2013.
According to Tony Ortega, executive editor of The Raw Story and a Scientology critic, the ad appeared in New York City; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Sacramento; Portland, Oregon; Seattle; Las Vegas; Phoenix; Salt Lake City; Cincinnati; Denver; Minneapolis; Nashville; Austin; Dallas; Tampa, Florida; and Washington, D.C. It also may appear during upcoming prime-time programming, Ortega said.
Like other Scientology commercials from past Super Bowls, this one's most likely part of a broader campaign. After the ad appeared on Sunday night, the church’s Twitter account announced that it was called “Age of Answers.” Last year’s commercial featured similar dialogue about “science and religion connecting,” but it was not attributed to a specific campaign. In 2013, the church’s Super Bowl commercial belonged to its “Knowledge” campaign. At the time, it drew criticism for its striking similarities to Apple’s 1997 “Think Different” spot, which praised “the ones who see things differently.”
According to Ortega, all of these ads appear to target a younger audience but this initiative has failed.
“[Church of Scientology leader David] Miscavige and other Scientologists may think this is an effective recruiting tool for bringing in college kids, but young people who actually see these ads tend to mock them in social media,” Ortega said. Indeed, once the spot aired, Twitter erupted with users mocking the ad, its organization and its beliefs.
“These ads are really aimed at Miscavige and his biggest donors, the small number of very wealthy people who are keeping the organization afloat. It’s important to them to see Miscavige making this effort,” Ortega said.
The Scientology ad also may be part of a larger mainstream discussion about the religion. The Super Bowl ad aired a week after a critical documentary on Scientology premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The film, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” is based on the 2013 best-selling book of the same name. It will air on HBO starting March 16.
Directed by Oscar-winner Alex Gibney, the film profiles eight former members of the Church of Scientology, describes the life of the faith’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and discusses some of the church’s celebrity members, including Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Among its revelations, the documentary claims the Church of Scientology has fewer than 50,000 members worldwide and more than $1 billion in assets.
On Jan. 16, ahead of the film’s premiere, the Church of Scientology launched an attack ad in the New York Times against the film and its director.
“HBO is planning to air a documentary about the Church of Scientology, and like Rolling Stone, HBO is not confirming facts central to its film,” the print ad stated, adding that the church made 12 fact-checking requests to HBO and Gibney that were rejected.
In a tweet that day, Gibney called the ad a “chosen device of a business protecting market share, not church protecting belief.”