Advertising regulator says Church of Scientology humanitarian ad claims are unsubstantiated

by Gregory Tomlin, |
U.S. Actor Tom Cruise gives a speech at the inaguration of a Scientology church to a large crowd in a street in Madrid September 18, 2004. | REUTERS/Paul Hanna PH/WS

LONDON (Christian Examiner) – The Advertising Standards Authority in the United Kingdom has banned a television ad from the Church of Scientology after ruling its claim about the number of people assisted by the group cannot be substantiated, the Guardian has reported.

According the regulator, the ad in question features on-screen text which claims the Church of Scientology works "with volunteers from many faiths to help people ... including teaching 19 million the facts about illicit drugs."

That phrase was accompanied, the regulator said, by an image of a line of school children reading one of the church's leaflets.

The ad also included images of two members of the church carrying a person on a stretcher and a medical worker holding an infant. The images were accompanied by text claiming the church was "giving aid to 24 million in times of need" and "making tens of millions aware of their human rights."

The ad concluded with the tagline, "Our help is yours."

The ASA did not consider all of the ad misleading, but it said the number of people receiving disaster assistance from the church – 24 million in the commercial – was far too high and not based on "direct" assistance provided by the Church of Scientology itself. Instead, the number was reached by tabulating the number of times Scientology "volunteer ministers" lent aid between 1998 and 2014.

The ASA said the church had displayed no effective means of counting the number of people it had assisted and had no method to ensure people assisted were not "counted more than once." ASA also said the evidence for the claim appeared to be "anecdotal."

"We concluded that the claim had not been substantiated and was likely to mislead viewers," the ASA said in its ruling. "The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told the Church of Scientology International to ensure they held adequate evidence for any claims that viewers were likely to regard as objective and capable of substantiation."

The ASA, an independent regulator, enforces industry standards in the UK. While not officially connected to the government, it is recognized by the advertising industry in the country as the regulator of all television and print ads and is funded by the industry itself. 

The Church of Scientology has issued no official response to the regulator's ban on the ad, but according to the ASA, the church explained that the figure of 19 million figure – those who received drug education – was based on the drug education and rehabilitation assistance of 17.8 million people through Narconon, a church charity, over a span of 30 years. The church said it had offered drug education to another 1.9 million as part of their "Truth about Drugs" video campaign.

ASA said in its findings that the anti-drugs portion of the ad was not misleading. It also said the church was not misleading the public when it said in response to the inquiry that 133 million viewers had seen its short films about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and millions had visited the church's internet site to read about its efforts.

While the figures do not tally the number of viewers who saw the videos or visited the internet site more than once, the church was still cleared of intentionally misleading the public.

The Church of Scientology was founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard supposedly as a means of improving mental health. The church, however, rejects the use of mental health drugs and has earned a reputation of ridiculing those who take them. It has also allegedly physically and mentally abused its members. The abuse was documented in the film Going Clear.

Actor Tom Cruise is the most prominent spokesman for the church. Several other Hollywood actors and celebrities, such as Lisa Marie Presley and Leah Remini, left the church after calling its practices abusive and cult-like. The church, awash in wealth donated by its 45,000 followers, was founded liable for fraud in a French court in 2013.

According to the Church of Scientology, man is an "immortal spiritual being" and God is "expressed as the Eighth Dynamic—the urge toward existence as infinity. This is also identified as the Supreme Being. As the Eighth Dynamic, the Scientology concept of God rests at the very apex of universal survival."

"Unlike religions with Judeo-Christian origins, the Church of Scientology has no set dogma concerning God that it imposes on its members. As with all its tenets, Scientology does not ask individuals to accept anything on faith alone," the church's website claims.