Sunday, May 25, 2008

Finding Suckers

Those paying attention will know that I am an avid reader of the Advertising Standards Authority adjudications. In the United Kingdom adverts must comply to a set of standards and those that do not, and are complained about, will face the mild wrath of the ASA. Every Wednesday the ASA publish on their website the results of their investigations into whatever possibly non-complaint ads have swum into their purview.
Advertising compliance focuses primarily on three particular areas: offense, misleadingness, and harm, and because of the last two, woo advertising falls fowl of the codes over and over again. The ASA takes an evidence-based approach - if a claim is made in an advert and there is reason to question that claim, then in pursuing an investigation the ASA will require evidence that those claims are genuine. Needless to say, for much of woo, no such evidence is forthcoming. This is just as true with "the world's favourite cheese pasty" style claims as it does for books the ownership of which may cure you of your brain tumour. The point is, if someone is putting that claim into the advert, then the claim ought to be based on something other than the whims of the advertiser.
Much as I enjoy reading through individual adjudications, despite the fact that more often that not all that happens is that the ASA rule an advert that has already finished its run must not be run again, there are certain important aspects of the marketing of woo that only really come to light by comparing similar cases.
The most obvious one, to me at least, is the paths by which such things are advertised. The more laughable the claims being touted the more likely the ads have appeared on either race- or faith-based broadcasting channels. The reason for this seems clear; in the United Kingdom racial communities are more often than not faith-based communities too. The Afro-Carribean community in London, for instance, has a very loud and very active Christian centre. Asian communities will tend towards Hindu or Muslim, simply because there is a greater overlap between race and faith than there is when compared to more secular caucasians.
Consciously or not, those peddeling their woo realise that it is a waste of energy trying to sell their magic beans to people who already demonstrate a lack of gullibility. So the thinking goes that if they are open to religion, open to miracles and wonder and prayer-answering deities, then they will have no trouble stomaching the notions that crystals can shield you from evil forces, or that someone can cure your heart-condition over a premium-rate phoneline. Advertisers pursue faith channels, which is a no-brainer, and race channels because they know that they will get a higher sucker yield for their buck than other, more inclusive, broadcasters.
For some reason, though, I feel that such behaviour is less of a transgression than the sight that met me while visiting Brixton yesterday. Laid out, ironically enough alongside a small choir singing Jesus's praises, were a set of tressle tables with an all too familiar offer of free stress tests and copies of the gate-way tech manual Dianetics.

Brixton, for those who do not know, is one of the most Afro-Carribean areas of London - added to the number of small churches that pepper it and the surrounding area, it has the reputation (not entirely earned) of being a rough part of town. Google provides 327,000 hits for Brixton Murder, and 620,000 for Brixton Drugs. This mix of race, religion and trouble, it seems, turns the area into something of a honeypot for the Church of Scientology.
Things noticed about the operation on Saturday. The Scientologists selected for the operation all seemed to be under thirty. Some, the ones selected to hand out the notorious "2 out of 3 people suffer from stress" leaflet (also, it seems, non-compliant), were just children. Naturally it was ixnay on the ientologysay, apart from the copyright notices in the small print, so perhaps people don't think enough to notice, but there is something worrying that CoS can't pull in any old Scientologists to sell their stuff. This, you would expect, would be the way to go - if someone has been involved in Scientology for years, then they'll have more experience, more knowledge, of the effects of the tech, but it is not these that are sent out but the young and occasionally the beautiful. CoS, comparatively, sends out provisionally-licensed drivers to sell cars One can suspect the reasons - old Scientologists are in short supply because people don't stay in. They can't turn to old Scientologists to sell their dangerous nonsense because they've either gone or crossed the street to stand with the critics and Anonymous.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Day in Court No-one Wants

During the May Anonymous demonstrations, a fifteen-year-old boy was singled out by the police and served with a court summons for persisting in holding a plackard that stated "Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult." This story has been picked up by The Guardian, and leads to a curious issue. The article in question is by Anil Dawar, who wrote about Will Smith's forthcoming school which intends to make use of Scholastic Tech, the untested teaching method licensed from the Church of Scientology and "developed" by physics drop-out L Ron Hubbard. This is how the first sentence in that article reads:

"Actor Will Smith is funding his own private school that will teach youngsters
using an educational system devised in part by the Scientology cult."

Clearly the Church of Scientology wishes to choose its battles wisely, and sees more scope in taking a minor to court over exercising his freedom of speech than a national newspaper. The trouble is, should the Crown Prosecution Service feel that a child calling a cult a cult is a matter for the courts, then who will benefit from the trial? The defendent could probably do without the hassle. He's got GCSEs to prepare for. The Church of Scientology probably could do without the embarrassment of standing in court and describing how, against all knowledge of their modus operandi, the term "cult" is abusive and insulting. Those who will benefit, one can assume, are the media. A large and powerful organisation playing to type by pursuing a case against fifteen-year-old that will make McLibel look like the Queensbury Rules will cause heavenly column-inchage for reporters in any country the CoS maintain an org in.

This demonstrates with incredible clarity how lost the Church of Scientology has become. It finds itself in an idealogical combat with a group that was motivated primarily in pursuing a freedom of speech agenda. At a demonstration targeting specifically the Fair Game policy, which suggests that crimes of critics should be discovered or invented, they ensure that freedom of speech is curtailed, and potentially that people may be criminalised for daring to speak out against the criminal organisation in their midst. This can and will and has brought the wrong kind of attention to further the planet-clearing ambitions of Scientology. Why grass roots parishioners have yet to hammer CoS out of existence remains a mystery.

The Telegraph cover this story too.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Call an End to "Pay and Obey" Scientology

It's no secret that I don't agree with a great deal of Scientology's weltanschauung, but nevertheless I do believe that it is an individual's right to believe in whatever they may wish to, on the proviso that that belief does not damage in any way anyone who does not share that belief, or encroach on their freedom.
There appears, with the emergence of various websites written from, if you like, a post-Church Scientology perspective, that there is a growing wave of dissent against the current Church's hierarchy, its staff and its policies. The trouble is that due to its fascistic nature, the brandishing of ethics as a weapon against dissent, its use of KSW as a means of keeping parishioners and staff in line, it is difficult and often impossible for that dissent to find a stong enough position to have an effect on the Church.
Another poster on ARS has called attention to the child-abuse scandals that have beset the Roman Catholic Church, and this provides a very powerful allegory for dissenting Scientologists. This is covered in great detail in the Clay Shirky book Here Comes Everybody. Priests who were guilty of child abuse were being protected by the Church; and unpalatable and unacceptable state of affairs, but within the parishioner / church relationship there was no mechanism in existence that could counter it. Legal actions were derailed by the church's attempts to cover up what was going on.
The thing that finally empowered the parishioners, and allowed a victory against the church, was the networking tools available on the internet. By some coincidence, the difference that the internet had over such a situation can be clearly seen; two separate, but near indentical, scandals broke out, the first in 1992, the second in 2002. In each case a pressure group was formed, but the one that was able to utilise modern communication technology was the one that won through. The ability to quickly and cheaply spread the scandal far and wide, and attract an interest in doing something about it made all the difference.
Voice of the Faithful was set up by Catholics frustrated with the conspiracy of silence and the browbeating that their Church was perpetrating against its parishioners. The initial membership of 30 meeting up in a church basement quickly grew, such that in a few months the group had amassed 25,000 supporters; a single body stretching over diocesan borders the world over - a post-geographic organisation fighting against (or rather for) a geographically demarcated body.
The RCC were unable to quash the movement, and some six years after its conception, the VotF have become a genuine force for laity representation in Church matters, having brought about a bedrock for reform, and even successfully campaigning for the resignation of corrupt church staff. It should serve as a beacon of hope for any Scientologist who feels that the Church no longer represents their faith, that their Church could quite feasibly be brought to order, that all it would take is the strength that comes from parishioner unity.
The relatively small size of the Church of Scientology might make what Voice of the Faithful achieved seem only a pipedream, but consider that, with a smaller parishioner base, the power yielded by each individual parishioner is far greater. If the rules and policies that you operate under forbid such union and affirmative action, then perhaps that is where your reformation should begin; the RCC tried to insist that VotF follow diocesan boundaries; VotF simply refused. KSW serves to keep any existant rot in place, which surely is not its purpose.
With CoS in such a state of chaos, it seems the moment is ripe for the Church to be refashioned by its grass-roots laity into something worthy and respectable. If you want to read more about the VotF story, here are some links to get you started: