ITV has been criticised after it played an advert for the Church of Scientology in a prime-time slot on Monday, prompting viewers to complain to the UK’s advertising regulator.
The 30-second clip, shown at 7:30pm during the break between soaps Coronation Street and Emmerdale, asked viewers to: “Imagine science and religion connecting. Imagine technology and spirituality combining. Now imagine that everything you ever imagined is possible.”
The words 'spiritual technology' then morph to reveal: "scientology."
Founded in 1952 by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, the religion has been dismissed as a cult by some. But the group, which counts actor Tom Cruise as one of its most well-known followers, was given greater legitimacy earlier this year, when the Supreme Court gave the Church permission to solemnise marriages.
Since the advert’s airing on Monday, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has since received 24 complaints from viewers fearing it preys on vulnerable people.
One person with the Twitter handle @PoliticalEmma wrote on 12 May: “A dark day for British TV. ITV allow Scientology to advertise just before popular soap opera.”
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Meanwhile, a change.org petition set up to lobby the Advertising Standards Authority to ban the advert had received 82 signatures on Wednesday evening.
Petitioner Summer Regan posted on the website: “I was shocked when I saw an advert for Scientology on ITV; not only does it describe scientology as 'science and religion connecting' with no scientific evidence supporting the affirmations of Scientology, but it claims 'everything you've ever imagined is possible' as if it is fact, surely this is false advertising?”
A spokesman from the ASA told The Independent: “We carefully considered the complaints but decided that there weren’t grounds for further action. We considered that the ad was not targeting vulnerable people.
“We appreciated that some viewers might consider the ad in poor taste because they disapproved of the practices and beliefs of the advertiser, or because they believe ads for religious organisations should not be broadcast on TV," he said.
However, he added that as the advert did not push explicit statements of belief, or attempt to make viewers change their beliefs, it did not breach the ASA's advertising code.
Asked whether the line “Now imagine that everything you ever imagined is possible” could be classed as a misleading, the ASA explained its Code states that advertisers’ claims "must be backed by documented evidence”.
“If anyone has concerns that the ad was misleading then they could lodge a complaint with us,” the spokesman said, adding the regulator's role was to make sure adverts are not "misleading, harmful or offensive.”
The ASA did ban a religious advert by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in 2009, because it claimed a "blessed oil" had cured a person's heart problem.
Graeme Wilson, a spokesman from the Church of Scientology, told The Independent the religion has seen a spike in interest since the Supreme Court ruling in December.
"The purpose of the advert (which has been airing since February) is therefore to show people who are interested where they can find out more information about the Church," he said.
"The truth is that our Churches are open seven days a week, we welcome visitors to come in and browse our information displays and ask questions. We welcome any genuine interest to know what our religion is.
"Lastly, I don’t think viewers of Coronation Street and Emmerdale should be insulted and stigmatised as “vulnerable”, whatever that means," he added.