“Winning on the Homefront,” Ensign, July 1979, 78–79
We hear a phone ringing. “Hello,” says a man’s voice. A girl’s voice somewhat hesitantly replies, “Hi, daddy. I just, uh, called you to tell you I love you and appreciate everything you do.” There is a silence. Then comes the man’s stunned question: “Who is this?”
It’s his teenage daughter. And the message, clearly, is about family communication. This spot “Love Calls,” is one of the Homefront series, produced by Bonneville Productions for the Church’s Public Communications Department. These public service announcements air on up to fifty-two percent of America’s more than seven thousand radio stations, and appear on an incredible ninety percent of the nation’s more than seven hundred commercial television stations.
Homefronts may well be the Church’s most successful public relations effort ever, with their warmly upbeat messages about the importance of the family. Fan mail ranges from grandmothers to network officials. NBC called them “some of the most beautifully produced PSA’s [public service announcements] on television.” CBS aired sixty-five announcements on network time—not counting affiliate station time—at an estimated value of $89,000 in 1977. They were seen by an estimated 40,365,000 viewers. During the first quarter alone of 1978, the time contributed to these public service announcements by CBS was a whopping $272,594.
A woman living in Baltimore was so impressed by one of the Homefront spots that she contacted the missionaries and was baptized.
A woman in Indiana wrote exuberantly, “Who would have believed that after so many years my first fan letter would be to a T.V. commercial!” She added, “Whenever I am privileged to see one of your delightful messages I am moved to go to my daughter and give her a hug, or to go into the kitchen to prepare a special dinner.” John G. Kinnear, Church director of broadcasting and films, recalls seeing “literally only one negative letter in the last three years.”
It’s not only the public and the broadcasters who like Homefronts. Professionals, eyeing the technique at least as much as the message, have stopped by to learn how it’s done.
And Homefronts have won just about every professional honor available: over 160 state, national, and international awards since 1972, including thirteen prestigious International Broadcasting Awards (“Love Calls” won first place), forty-two Clio Awards, five Clio statuettes for best public service spots, thirteen Gabriel awards—eight of them for first place—from the National Association of Catholic Broadcasters, two Freedom Foundation Awards, nineteen Andy Awards from the Advertising Club of New York, twenty-five Utah Advertising Federation Awards, twenty-one American Advertising Federation Awards, a first-place award from the Chicago International Film Festival, and awards from Advertising Age Magazine; the Ohio State Award for 1978, and two awards from the U.S. Television Commercials Festival.
Educators use the Homefront spots to train teachers and counselors; a sociologist sent a personal note congratulating these “religious commercials” on being “neither insultingly tendentious … or ecumenical to the point of banality.” A Catholic archdiocese in the East uses them in a television awareness training class to show “that it is possible to do good things with television.”
What accounts for Homefront’s success? “Quality,” says John Kinnear simply—but quickly, in his clipped Rhodesian accent. He replaced Heber G. Wolsey in January 1978 as overseer of the Homefront project when Brother Wolsey moved into the managing director’s spot after four successful years of developing the Homefront series.
“We go for professionalism every time,” says Brother Kinnear. “We have ultimate control, but we use the best editors, writers, and actors available.”
The second success factor is packaging. “When broadcasters get our material, it’s attractive, it’s appealing, and it’s lively. That’s part of being professional too.”
Third is its skill at meeting audience needs. “One of the greatest illusions we could have as religious broadcasters is that our job is done if we get it on the air,” says Brother Kinnear. “Just because it’s on the air is no guarantee that anybody’s listening. We need to meet the listener’s need—not just our own need to teach.” The importance of family communication is obviously one of those needs. So is the Roots-oriented interest in genealogy. “Climbing Your Family Tree” is still on the air after a year—“and the average life of a public service announcement is eight weeks.” Over 85,000 requests have come in for the innovative, Bonneville-designed how-to-do genealogy booklet.
Fourth is the momentum of success. Broadcasters welcome Church-produced material now and want more. Brother Kinnear feels that the Homefront series’ indirect approach is a real factor in their success. “The second greatest illusion of religious broadcasting is that a strong doctrinal or denominational message—even on purchased time—is effective. It’s not. Comparatively few will listen to a sermon. Some broadcasters won’t accept ‘recruiting.’ In some countries, even identifying a church by name on the air is illegal.”
In New Zealand, for instance, Public Communications provided broadcasters with Homefront spots for three years even though the Church was not identified with them on the air. “It was bread upon the waters,” says Brother Kinnear. “At the end of those three years, they gave us—free—a complete hour of prime time on Sunday night for our television special ‘The Family … and Other Living Things.’ And with Church identification.”
Homefront is also exporting its success. It’s been making spots on location in Buenos Aires since 1978 for Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking audiences—and they’ve been winning awards too. This year production begins in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Approval for Italian and French series have been given. Test spots in Australian English have been completed.
Homefront has no intention of resting on its laurels. Spots released in January 1979 have moved into a new area—husband-wife relationships. They’re looking toward a new audience too—young people. A survey of converts in two California missions shows that seventy-six percent of all converts are under thirty-four; fifty percent are between twelve and twenty-four. Approximately half of all U.S. radio stations see this age group as their target.
Another potential audience is ethnic groups. Many radio stations are programming for Spanish, Indian, Black, Chinese, Korean, and other minorities.
“We’ve got the hardware,” says Brother Kinnear. “The technology is there to deliver any message. Our challenge is packaging the message.” He looks hopefully toward the increasing numbers of “professional young Latter-day Saints” in acting, editing, directing, writing, and composing. “They’re creative. They’re innovative. And they have testimonies. We need to give them a stewardship and let them develop it without too many rules and restraints, even if they sometimes stumble. We can trust them not to fail their Heavenly Father. They can, will and are producing some great works.”