An HBO documentary that's critical of the Church of Scientology—Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief—had Twitter buzzing last night. The terms "Going Clear" and "Scientology" were both national trending topics during the two-hour program, which included interviews from former members who claimed the church was fraudulent and abusive.
While Scientologist leaders refused documentarian Alex Gibney's interview requests, their marketers attempted to voice their story on Twitter, buying Promoted Tweets for the aforementioned trending terms.
UPDATE: The church responded to Adweek's request for comment via an email.
"We had an all-time high interest in Scientology during the airing of the HBO show," said Karin Pouw, a rep for the Church of Scientology. "Over 50,000 people came to our website before we even issued a tweet. As there were so many people curious and interested, we decided to spread the word."
Here are a couple different versions of the creative, including video, that were part of the organization's responsive mix:
WHAT IS SCIENTOLOGY? Find out for yourself. https://t.co/NUnWMCd499— Scientology (@Scientology) March 30, 2015
WHAT IS SCIENTOLOGY? Find out for yourself... https://t.co/hUdN9IRU5A— Scientology (@Scientology) March 30, 2015
The tactic could be compared to Republicans purchasing Twitter ads to counter President Barack Obama's State of the Union address. (The Democrats will almost certainly employ similar buzz-stealing tactics when GOP presidential candidates dominate headlines in the upcoming weeks.)
The Scientologists also may have taken a page out of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' (LDS) playbook. In recent years, the LDS church has purchased ads in the playbill for the critical Broadway musical Book of Mormon.
But does damage control via social advertising generally work? Twitter users can see Promoted Tweets under Trending Topics (on the left side of the social site) or when they search for exact terms such as "Going Clear."
"A Promoted Tweet may create more backlash," remarked David Deal, a social media marketing consultant. "Engaging in a deeper conversation would be a more effective way to influence public sentiment, which just is not going to happen on Twitter in the aftermath of a negative event."
To Deal's point, there was a small flurry of sarcastic reactions to the Promoted Tweets showing up in people's news feeds on Sunday night.
Hilarious, right after tweeting about #GoingClear I get a "promoted tweet" from Scientology.— Nostradumbass (@Kryten2X4B1) March 30, 2015
My internet went out while watching #GoingClear and now I have a promoted tweet from the Church of Scientology. They know.— Aaron Skilken (@askilken) March 30, 2015
Conversely, Blake Scotland, managing partner at Grit Creative, said the Scientology ads could have made the intended impact. "Twitter communities have had a proven influence outside of the social media sphere," he explained.
The church's decision to buy those ads on Twitter—even while the site is experiencing growing pains, and as Facebook emerges as a news-distribution competitor—shows the platform remains the digital world's most influential public square in many people's eyes.
Meanwhile, in her email to Adweek, Pouw called into question the content of Gibney's film, as well as the interviewees, who included former Scientologists like Marty Rathburn, Spanky Taylor, director Paul Haggis and Tom De Vocht. Her organization has denied the documentary's premise since it started making the festival rounds earlier this year.
"[Gibney] only relied on the same stale allegations from the usual handful of bitter former executives and admitted liars kicked out of the Church for gross malfeasance years ago," she said.
Though, lastly, former well-known Scientology member and actor Leah Remini emerged to support Gibney's work late last night.
Thank you to the brave who did something about it. And to those who didn't have a voice, you do now. #GoingClear— Leah Remini (@LeahRemini) March 30, 2015