Scientologists are pretty great at a lot of things. Gaining tax-exemption for religious reasons? Check. Generating billions of dollars? Check. Making up words and acronyms, attacking the field of psychology, and promoting televised couch-jumping? Check, check, and check.
What they're not so great at, at least anymore, is damage control.
Thanks to the popularity of Alex Gibney's HBO documentary, Going Clear, the Church of Scientology is now facing its greatest PR crisis to date. And like every other hurdle thrown the organization's way, Scientologists are handling the situation the only way they know how: by throwing huge piles of untaxed revenue at it.
Frankly, though, their PR strategy is shockingly bad. The Church's current method of digital damage control only underlines the fact that they are desperately out of touch with, well, pretty much the entire internet.
Scientology has been dumping an embarrassing amount of money into Google advertising for years, but they've really stepped up their game lately. In the past, the organization paid to appear in response to search queries like "Church of Scientology" and "Is Scientology a Cult?" displaying ads with links to www.scientology.org.
Those ads encouraged viewers to find out about Scientology "for themselves." You know, by reading church-approved documents on church-approved sites by church-approved leaders.
Search results for those same terms no longer bring up ads for Scientology. Instead, the Church has shifted the vast majority of their digital advertising to combat searches for Going Clear.
When you google "going clear," a sponsored ad from the Church of Scientology appears above all other relevant search results, including HBO's own site. But the ad doesn't go to www.scientology.com. Instead, it's linked to the website for Freedom Magazine, the Church's most dogged property in combatting "suppressive persons."
These paid ads, which feature text like "Is it a real documentary? Watch the video… The Story HBO Ignored," also include sub-links for many sources featured in the documentary. Each link takes readers to a specifically targeted smear campaign for Gibney's subjects. CoS is also targeting each contributor, independent of their connection to the film as well. Google search "Marc Headley," a former Scientologist, and you'll see an ad that says "His claims were thrown out of court" before linking to freedommag.org.
If you're gullible enough to actually click on the hyperlink, then you're taken to a special section of freedommag.org, dedicated solely to bashing anyone who's ever starred in, contributed to, or even thought about the words "going clear."
Headley, for example, is referred to with the catchy epithet "The Soulless Sell Out." Sarah Goldberg is labeled "The Home Wrecker" and Mike Rinder, "The Wife Beater."
Like most organizations, the CoS preemptively purchases domain names that could be used against their wishes. For example, the Church owns several domains relating to Lawrence Wright, who was never a Scientologist but who wrote the book on which Gibney's documentary is based. They also own domain names like www.scientologyisgay.com and www.volunteerministerssuck.com. A single official email address for the CoS has almost 3,000 URLs registered to it, and many of them include the names of apostates, like Mark Rathbun.
That said, it looks like ScientologistsLie.com, LRonHubbardCult.com, and ScientologySucksDick.org are all still up for grabs.
The Church's ads on YouTube are somehow even worse than the ones listed on Google. The audio and video ads generally make topics more relatable and easily understood, but Scientology's "Going Clear Documentary" ad provokes more questions than it answers.
Less than a minute in, the menacing, off-camera voice switches from attacking Alex Gibney to accusing his father of being a spy… or something like that? The Church's YouTube ad, which was heavily leveraged on YouTube and various CoS properties, was only viewed around 5,000 times before the documentary aired. Despite receiving the most media attention it's had in decades, at the time of publication the video still has fewer than 60,000 views, compared with the Going Clear trailer's 682,000.
And their official YouTube channel isn't much better. Scientology claims to have more than 8 million members, but only 20,000 of them are willing to subscribe to a YouTube channel this boring. These guys make videos of babies being frightened by their own farts, and even they have more than 300,000 subscribers.
Social Media Accounts
The Twitter account @FreedomEthics was launched on January 16 to combat those who lent any help to Going Clear. In the few months that it's existed, Freedom Ethics has sent out 871 tweets, which have gone to just 712 followers.
Leading up to the documentary, most of their updates were just silly stock photos of someone sleeping in an empty theater, with text that reads, "#AlexGibney #GoingClear Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz"
The rest of the tweets personally attack contributors to the film. There's one photo, which shows Mike Rinder drinking a Bud Light (as if that's damning evidence?) and many others, which make outlandish claims about ex-Scientologists and Going Clear sources.
In the end, what has Scientology accomplished with all of this digital damage control?
Well, when I googled "Is Scientology a Cult," this is what popped up: