Last night we watched a Mexican film called La Misma Luna, which tells the story of a young boy’s attempt to cross into the United States to find his mother, who is working as a maid in Los Angeles. The film is shamelessly manipulative, from its angel-faced protagonist (who apparently can weep on command) to the downtrodden mother to the evil and parasitic smugglers, drug addicts, and rich housewives they both encounter. But, despite all of that, the film worked. You have to hand it to the filmmakers that their shameless emotional manipulation works that well, even on a cynic like me.
The experience reminded me of our missionary efforts, which were designed to get people to “feel” something, and then we would helpfully point out that what they were feeling was the spirit, or the Holy Ghost. We would encourage people to read the Book of Mormon and then ask them how they felt when they read. If they said anything remotely like “good” or “peaceful,” we would move in for the kill. “That feeling is the Holy Ghost testifying to you that the book is true.”
Not surprisingly, many of the LDS church’s publications and media presentations are designed to elicit emotions, which can then be tied to the Holy Ghost. Interestingly enough, the church’s broadcasting arm, Bonneville International, which produces most of the church’s media presentations, has actually developed a sales technique called “HeartSell”®, which is described as “strategic emotional advertising that stimulates response.” That could just as easily describe the LDS church’s missionary program.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the church produced a number of films that seem designed to prey on emotional response. Think, for example, of the weeper “Legacy” that attempted to cast Mormons as pure and righteous victims of evil and cruel murderers. But perhaps the zenith (or nadir, depending on your perspective) came in the film “Together Forever.” The film looks like a documentary, and centers on interviews with ordinary folks with ordinary problems and how the LDS church helped them overcome their problems. The most poignant segment concerns a couple whose daughter has been killed in an accident. The interviewees bear fervent testimony of the restored gospel and explain how the church has blessed their lives. The couple who lost the child tearfully express their gratitude that they will be with their daughter, “together forever.”
And then you find out that these people are actors.
I first saw this film at a missionary fireside in Utah many years ago. A non-LDS family sat next to us, and the wife had cried all the way through it. At the end, the allegedly dead child is shown playing with her family happily. In hindsight, it was probably intended to drive home the idea of together families. But it clearly demonstrates to the audience that this was all make-believe, a manipulative setup.
At that moment, the woman sitting next to me had suddenly stopped crying, and her face had clenched in anger. She and her husband left quickly without staying for the refreshments, and some church members expressed bewilderment at her behavior. But I understood. For the first time in my life, I had felt shame at being so overtly manipulated. I wasn’t so much angry at the film-makers for manipulating me as I was for having swallowed it whole.
And like it or not, we humans have an infinite ability to base our most fundamental decisions on emotion. “What is your gut feeling?” we hear all the time. But that gut feeling is subject to extreme manipulation. Con men cheat people all the time by using their trust and compassion; and some religions gain and keep adherents with the same tactics.