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Is Scientology’s ad campaign aimed at sprucing up its image?

A young girl’s face looks out from billboards, asking, “What is Scientology? Find out for yourself.”

Ads on the sides of Metro buses and bus shelters beckon viewers to tour the church in downtown Buffalo. Radio ads on sports talk shows urge listeners to give the religion a try.

Buffalo is one of three cities, along with Denver and Las Vegas, where the Church of Scientology – which spent $8 million for a 60-second advertisement during this year’s Super Bowl – is mounting a major ad campaign.

But the church is controversial. It has been accused of forcing members to separate from family and friends who become critical of Scientology. Eleven former church executives have accused leader David Miscavige of hitting them. And growing numbers of defectors – including actress Leah Remini and director-screenwriter Paul Haggis – are speaking out.

That’s why some people think the recent ad campaign may be intended to spruce up the church’s damaged image.

“There are a large number of students coming into Buffalo from out of town who may see the buses with these advertisements, or the billboards, and think they should go check Scientology out, that maybe they had the wrong impression,” said Kim Brillon, a former member who is now critical of the church.

She said the four-story terra-cotta building – referred to internally as an “org,” for organization – at Main and Virginia streets is often empty, which has left officials desperate for new members.

Scientologists claim that the religion – which counts actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta among its ranks – helps people find spiritual growth and happiness, and is unfairly accused of being both wacky and authoritarian.

J. Gordon Melton, a professor at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion who has written favorably about Scientology, nonetheless said it has a public relations problem.

“If I were running things, I would feel a tremendous need to rehabilitate my image,” said Melton, who has been paid by the church to prepare court dispositions on its behalf. “I know that, internally, many high-level Scientologists are upset about the image that gets projected. It’s right up there among the most hated religions in America right now.”

Lamar Advertising of Baton Rouge, La., said the ad buy in Buffalo includes 11 billboards and 14 “Superking” ads covering the side of buses, as well as bus stop signs. The company declined to reveal the cost, but advertising rate cards indicate it’s in the tens of thousands.

Local and national Scientology officials ignored requests to talk to The Buffalo News.

Scientologists have often claimed to be unfairly portrayed. The church operates numerous groups and programs that it says promote the public good, although some downplay their church affiliation. Each uses methods or teachings that Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard applied to social problems.

Among the issues are drug education and rehabilitation, psychiatry and prisoner reform.

The church also has a volunteer minister program, which has sent Scientologists to disaster areas, including Manhattan following 9/11 and Haiti after a devastating earthquake in 2010.

Scientology’s belief system held special appeal for Michel Brillon, who worked for the church for more than 20 years, including four in Buffalo, and Kim Brillon, who was a Scientologist when they met.

Now, a year after leaving the church, they say Scientology is a “cult” that preys on an unsuspecting public.

“The main thing is, ‘They don’t give a ... who you are. They want your money,” Michel Brillon said.

“I’ve lost my family. I’ve lost my home. I’ve lost a lot because of this church, because of this cult,” Kim Brillon said.

Michel Brillon said he used his sales skills to help the church sell courses and other products. But over time, he said, intense pressure to boost weekly sales overrode consideration about whether individuals could afford the costly courses, counseling-like sessions and books and videos.

Brillon said that although he wouldn’t push people too hard to buy things, others did – and he was in a position to know.

“I was the person who sold courses when someone got in, so I know exactly how it’s done,” Brillon said, noting most people who come through Scientology’s doors at 836 Main St. are first administered stress or personality tests.

“What I want people to know is that when you are going to go in, you will meet someone who is nice. You will feel understood, finally. And this is where you are going to get trapped.”

It was Brillon’s job to persuade Scientologists to tune out detractors. Members are forbidden to read anything negative about Scientology, and if they do, church officials interrogate them to make sure the information is rejected, Brillon and other ex-members say.

Brillon says that when he looks back at his years in Scientology, he always knew something wasn’t right.

“I always knew. Everybody does. You don’t want to see, because if you have the courage of really facing it, you’re denying your entire life,” he said.

But Brillon said it’s hard to break free. “It’s like you become your own prisoner,” he said.