Q&A: Scientology Marketer Describes 'Stinking Horrible Mess' Inside Church

Last Updated Jan 26, 2010 11:50 AM EST

For 20 years, Steve Hall was a senior writer in the marketing department of the Church of Scientology. He wrote the tagline "Know Yourself; Know Life." He left the church -- which he now refers to as a "cult" -- to start his own graphic design firm, Steve Hall Creative.

He talked to BNET about how Scientology markets and advertises itself, and discusses famous Scientologists such as Leo Burnett's Cheryl Berman, Neopets.com's Doug Dohring, and of course actor Tom Cruise. Hall describes an "inept" organization that has historically failed to take advantage of the experience available to it, and which has become "a stinking horrible mess" as a result.

BNET: What did you actually do for the Church of Scientology? Hall: I did a number of things over about 20 years. My background was in advertising. I grew up in an advertising family. My dad was at Tracy-Locke. He worked on their No.1 clients such as Frito Lay and Pearl Beer, which was at one time the No.1 beer in Texas. I wanted more than a house and a wife and a dog and a gold watch. A lot of people feel like that. They're looking for meaning. They recruited me. I was doing the courses. They provide counselling, auditing, which means "to listen." I took a job and after about three years I heard they were forming a new organization of staff in Los Angeles that was going to handle advertising for the church. That was 1987. So I went to Los Angeles. My first job was as a product manager. And I later became the director of marketing for Dianetics. It's a book but it's also a subject. We did direct mail. We did fliers, brochures, handouts and TV ads. I've done TV ads for Dianetics and a lot of TV ads for Scientology. There was a big campaign released in 1998, a series of ads on TV promoting several different books. I was pretty much the senior writer. For most of my stuff I reported either to David Miscavige [the leader of the church] or one of his direct juniors. As a screenwriter I had 14 writers under me, plus a secretary. Not all of those people were full time.

BNET: Do they use ad agencies? Hall: They do everything in-house. At one time they hired Trout & Ries [that's Al Ries and Jack Trout]. They wrote, "Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind." It came out in the late 1970s. They were hired to do an advertising campaign for Scientology but David Muscavige didn't like it so that killed it right there. That was the last time they hired an outside agency to do something.

BNET: A lot of executives would regard Scientology as an extremely difficult marketing challenge. Hall: The challenge of trying to market Dianetics and Scientology is probably one of the most difficult assignments in the world. They are not thought of well. There's a lot of suspicion and controversy. Most of that is generated from within because of the way the leader of the church has dealt with people, such as issues to do with internet copyright. They do a lot of lawsuits. They run full-page ads in USA Today attacking Eli Lilly (LLY) [which makes antidepressants, which Scientology opposes]. It makes people stand back. Time magazine wrote them up as a "mafia-like" organization. How do you create a want for that? It's an almost impossible challenge.

BNET: The main problem seems to be that Scientology is a secret organization. Most people have no idea what it stands for. Hall: It's not deliberate. It's just inept marketing. I think they don't have a clue what they are doing. I've worked at the top ranks of management, shoulder to shoulder. They all worry constantly about the big problem that nobody understands them. But for other reasons they have not been effective at all at communicating what they do, what their beliefs are and so forth. They're not deliberately keeping it a secret. It's a more simple problem than that. A lot of organizations that do their own in-house marketing, they eat the product, breathe the product, 24/7, and they lose their objectivity and they don't know how to connect with people outside. Compounding that, [founder L. Ron] Hubbard wrote in the 1970s and '80s a few policies on how the church was to do their marketing. There's nothing wrong with what he wrote, but that marketing know-how is circa 1975. As any creative person knows, marketing has grown by light years since 1975. By today's standards those methods are terrible.

BNET: Did you ever meet Cheryl Berman? She was Leo Burnett's creative chief and a board member, and perhaps the best-known Scientologist in advertising? Hall: No, I never met Cheryl, but I had a really good friend from Leo Burnett named Greg Bashaw, he was one of their copywriters, he was a mentor for me. I studied with him and I would send him my ideas and get feedback. I never heard Cheryl's name and she was never around. Nobody spoke to her. David Miscavige did not want to use any outside people.

BNET: What happened to Bashaw? Hall: Greg Bashaw was mistreated by the church and committed suicide. He got up to the highest levels, OT7, and there he revealed, I heard, that he had seen a psychiatrist in some earlier years. In response to that he was told he was no longer eligible for services and was left $50,000 in debt, money he gave to the church. [Hall explains that Scientology is bitterly opposed to psychiatry and distances itself from anyone involved in it.]

BNET: But he was a convert, he wanted to be a Scientologist -- why would they reject him? Hall: I know. It doesn't make any sense. He was a really good guy. I think it was 2001. I believe he did it with carbon monoxide, a hose, he parked his car somewhere. I knew his wife, I met his son.

BNET: What role does Tom Cruise play in the church? Hall: He never had any official role. He's just wealthy and famous and Miscavige has taken advantage of him, in my estimation. David Miscavige, the leader of the church, has befriended him and paid him special attention. When he's with Tom he starts to complain ... He ends up creating this feeling that it's you and him against the world. They are best friends. They go places together all the time.

David Miscavige definitely wanted to cultivate celebrities for their PR value. He did see a push to that, which resulted in Tom Cruise jumping up and down on Oprah's couch, which was one of the biggest PR flops in history, so they've backed off on that and just let him do his career.

BNET: What about Doug Dohring, the owner of Neopets.com, who is also a Scientologist? Hall: I've heard of Doug Dohring but I don't know anything about it.

BNET: Hold on -- the church has access to people like Berman, Cruise and Dohring who all have lifetimes of marketing experience, and it doesn't ask them for advice in any way? Hall: I know, it doesn't make any sense does it? That's the point. It doesn't make any sense! Scientology grew and grew all through the 1980s. In 1990 David Miscavige pulled the funding for all that advertising and it stopped. Since that time the church has been contracting. They've bought some buildings but that's it. That's not expanding, they have shrinking membership but they've got a bigger building.

BNET: What kind of events does the church put on? Hall: I put together 28 TV ads in 1998 that used the current tagline that they're still using. Miscavige showed them at one of his events ... Scientologists said "Wow, fantastic! Here's money to run them." The ads ran for a few months and then he totally just pulled the funding and never even showed the very best ads. Their PR was not nearly as bad back then as it as now. Now it's just a stinking horrible mess. The purpose was to show the ads at the events that generated donations. The Scientologists don't know any better. The ads only run for a short time. He spends a minimal amount of money.

BNET: So you made ads to generate donations to run them on TV, but they never ran, they just generate donations at meetings? Hall: Exactly.

BNET: What was your salary? Hall: There was no money in it at all. People at that level, it's a fraternal organization, they're paid 40 or 50 cents an hour. I literally got $46 a week most of the time. Except for David Miscavige, he gets a six-figure income. Not to mention the cars and houses and vacations. My food and housing were paid for and that's it. An average week for me would be somewhere between 80 to 100 hours. It wasn't about making money, it was about the movement.