The Truth Campaign and the War of Ideas: 'Un-Selling' the Islamic State

Can the West Persuade Jihadi 'Fence-Sitters'?

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This article was first published in the July issue of CTC Sentinal, part of the Combating Terrorism Center in the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy, West Point, where cadets are developing communications programs to battle extremism. Deutsch North America Chief Creative Officer Pete Favat recalled the visit earlier this year that led to its writing with Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Price:

I never thought I'd be speaking on the subject of combatting terrorism. When Lt. Colonel Bryan Price, Director of the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, approached me to present on a panel to the U.S. Special Forces and the State Department, I wondered what I could possibly add to that conversation. Of course I accepted and was honored to help in any way that I could.

The government had identified The Legacy Foundation's Truth campaign, a project I worked on for many years with colleague Alex Bogusky, as an example of messaging to youth that successfully combatted the U.S. Tobacco Industry's recruitment of young smokers. They saw a correlation between the campaign's ability to combat smoking and the fight against ISIS recruiting young soldiers.

Being in the private sector my whole career, I never saw how anything we do could possibly help the war on terror. But, I headed to West Point and gave a half-hour presentation on the strategies and executions of the 10-year Truth campaign. I was nervous, but the positive response I got was overwhelming. At the event, there were governors, experts from the State Department, presenters from the CIA, the whole gang — I was clearly a fish out of water as I was among decorated war heroes.

But, I was reminded that what we do in advertising can really make an impact in the world.

Advertising helped recruit U.S. soldiers during WWI through the iconic image of Uncle Sam in a print ad.

It was advertising that made Rosie the Riveter the face of feminism during WWII, raising the profile of women's issues.

It was advertising that played a role in getting the first black President elected in the United States in 2008.

But it never dawned on me that ad agencies could be used to counter terrorism.

When I got to West Point, the first thing I said to the crowd was "I've never been in a room with so many brave people. After all, I'm in advertising." That broke the ice really early.

But then, they taught me a thing or two about how capable we are as an industry.

- Pete Favat, Chief Creative Officer at Deutsch North America

The Truth Campaign and the War of Ideas

The importance of the war of ideas between the United States and jihadist organizations has been well understood by our adversaries since 9/11. In the early days of the long war, Ayman al-Zawahari, long-time deputy to Usama bin Laden and al-Qa`ida's current leader, declared that "more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. We are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our umma." [1]

Senior U.S. government officials have also acknowledged the importance of winning the war of ideas from the outset. A month after the 9/11 attacks, Richard Holbrooke wrote an op-ed warning that our adversaries had the upper hand in the propaganda domain. He famously questioned "how can a man in a cave [bin Laden] outcommunicate the world's leading communications society?" [2]

To better compete with our adversaries in the war of ideas, the U.S. government created institutions like the Counterterrorism Strategic Communications Center in the State Department (CSCC). Despite these efforts, most observers would argue the gap between our enemies and the United States in the war of ideas has only widened in this domain, especially with the emergence of the Islamic State, but why? [3]

Critics complain that the U.S. government has failed to provide the time, attention, and resources necessary to match the size and scope of the Islamic State's propaganda machine. [4] Others suggest the CSCC is the latest casualty in another bureaucratic turf war within the Beltway. [5] Still another line of argument questions whether the State Department is the right organization for this job [6] or whether the government should be doing this type of activity at all. [7] While the reasons for our collective ineptitude remain up for debate, the fact that the United States and the West are losing the battle of ideas to our enemies is not in dispute.

In order to explore new thoughts and frameworks for winning in this domain, the Combating Terrorism Center invited subject matter experts from outside the counterterrorism community to a special Senior Conference panel on the war of ideas. The most interesting solution that emerged from this panel was to take the model employed by the Truth campaign to stop teenage smoking and apply it to the countering violent extremism (CVE) realm.

The Truth anti-smoking campaign
The Truth anti-smoking campaign was a product of the 1999 Master Settlement Agreement, which saw the major tobacco companies settle out of court with 46 states and five U.S. territories that had sued them to recover money caring for sick smokers. Some of this settlement money helped create the American Legacy Foundation, an independent non-profit, organization in public health, which then funded the Truth campaign. [8]

Playing David to Big Tobacco's Goliath, the Truth campaign was operating at a severe disadvantage from the start. Big Tobacco was spending as much as $13 billion each year in marketing. [9] Today's average 14-year-old has been exposed to more than $20 billion worth of tobacco marketing since the age of six. [10] Knowing that 80 percent of smokers start before the age of 18, [11] the tobacco industry focused on 10-year-olds as their prime target. [12] An official document from Phillip Morris in 1981 captured this mentality. "Today's teenager is tomorrow's potential regular customer." [13] Targeting America's youth with smoking advertisements was necessary to find, in industry parlance, "replacement smokers."

In addition to massive funding, Big Tobacco owned some of the most powerful brands in the world. Tobacco companies had cornered the market when it came to empowerment and rebellion. They made smoking cool, glamorous, and sexy. Celebrities in sports, music, and film became walking billboards for the smoking lifestyle.

The ineffective anti-smoking campaign of this time was invoked primarily by parents and came across as preachy and controlling, with trite slogans such as "think, don't smoke." Public service announcements (PSAs) encouraged parents to watch their children to prevent them from smoking. Rather than stemming the tide of teenage smoking, these early anti-smoking ads actually had the inverse effect—in the end, teenagers smoked more. [14]

Faced with these dire circumstances, the advertising firms of Arnold Worldwide and Crispin Porter & Bogusky came to the American Legacy Foundation with a bold idea. The Truth campaign was going to "un-market" tobacco. Advertisers who had spent their entire careers selling things would now try to "un-sell" them. It was the first time this approach had ever been tried, but if advertising caused the problem of adolescent smoking, their thinking went, then advertising could be the solution.

"Out-branding" Big Tobacco
The plan was to create a brand that was more rebellious than tobacco brands, and to ultimately "out-brand" Big Tobacco. They needed to find a way for the Truth campaign to be empowering and rebellious, not preachy, boring, and controlling like previous PSAs.

To do so, the Truth campaign ironically ended up exploiting the same research used by the British-American Tobacco Company in the 1950s on the psychological needs of adolescents that helped inform their advertising. [15] According to this research, all children go through what is called the "age of assertion" around ten years of age. [16] At this point, the brain is developed enough where the child wants to assert control and make his own decisions. Parents and children often have conflicts at this age because kids want to start making their own decisions and parents are unwilling to relinquish this decision-making authority. The tobacco industry therefore concluded that 10- to 12-year-olds were the perfect targets for their advertising.[17]

Big Tobacco also identified the psychological need of teenagers to take risks, rebel, fit in, remain independent, self-express, and be respected. The cigarette met all of these needs. [18]

If the anti-smoking campaign aimed to take tobacco away, it needed to replace it with something, not just to fill the void, but something that would also satisfy psychological needs. To do so, Truth aimed to replace cigarettes with the ultimate youth icons—rebellion and the ability to control your own decisions. The Truth campaign needed to be a cooler brand than tobacco, expose the lies and manipulation of the tobacco industry, and remain as far away from adults as possible. It needed to be made by kids for kids.

Instead of telling teenagers that smoking would kill them, turn their teeth yellow, and cause their breath to stink, the campaign provided unmistakable visuals of what that looks like. For example, instead of simply reporting the statistic that 400,000 people die every year from tobacco-related illnesses, the first TV ad featured teenagers dumping 1,200 paper-filled body bags outside the headquarters of a major tobacco company in New York City representing one day of the annual death toll. [19]

In a follow-on TV ad, 1,200 students wearing white shirts numbered 1 to 1,200 marched outside another major tobacco company headquarters in Kentucky. At a predetermined time, all 1,200 fell down "dead" simultaneously. The campaign filmed the stunt from multiple angles including from a helicopter. [20]

Because this occurred before the dawn of social media, the campaign exploited unconventional methods to spread their message, draw attention to the lies of Big Tobacco, and make teenagers feel empowered and rebellious. Truth material prominently placed in skateboarding magazines invited readers to cut out signs that were to be stuck in dog feces in order to highlight the fact that both the feces and cigarettes contain poisonous ammonia.

Another guerilla marketing technique had skate punk readers leave magazines open on bookstore racks to the same spread, effectively serving as free billboards. Yet another tactic instructed participants to navigate to internet sites with anti-smoking advertisements on the screens of every device in an Apple store.

Not surprisingly, the Truth campaign received industry accolades, [21] but more importantly, it helped cut teen smoking by 52% in the United States in the years after the effort. Although nobody at Arnold Worldwide and Crispin Porter & Bogusky would claim sole credit for this achievement, there have been several academic studies that attempt to show the campaign had a significant and independent effect on reducing adolescent smoking. [22]

Lessons for CVE programs
While teenage smoking and radicalization and recruitment by groups like the Islamic State might seem to have little in common, the psychological dynamics at play when trying to combat these phenomena are quite similar. A closer inspection suggests the lessons from the Truth campaign can help improve the West's ability to compete in the CVE war of ideas, particularly in the eyes of young adults.

First, the psychological needs of teenagers are universal and know no boundaries. They hold true from Bayonne to Beijing. The youth flocking to wage jihad with groups such as the Islamic State often display a need to rebel from their parents' generation and a need to fit in with a peer group. Some become foreign fighters to rebel against their families, their state regimes, or the West in general. It is no surprise that many of the foreign fighters who flock to Syria and Iraq do so to feel empowered, enfranchised, and respected.

Second, the U.S. government has called upon Madison Avenue to improve its global brand in the CVE space before, [23] but the Truth campaign is a different animal. Previous attempts to incorporate Madison Avenue-style branding into the U.S. government's public diplomacy took a conventional advertising approach that tried to sell America and our value system to the masses in the Middle East, with lackluster if not counterproductive results. [24]

A counter-industry campaign like Truth, on the other hand, aimed at dissuading future foreign fighters would not aim to sell a Western alternative to the Islamic State. It would instead attempt to "un-sell" what the Islamic State and other groups are advertising. This is not to say that this will be easy, but that the U.S. government has never approached (to our knowledge) the advertising professionals in the private sector that specialize in this kind of advertising. It should.

Third, a critical component of the Truth campaign was that it was perceived to be a campaign made by kids, not middle-aged and established advertising executives. It was intended to be seen as being made by kids for kids, even if seasoned and advertising professionals were actually tapping into the vibe of the younger generation to execute the campaign. Everything from the language, look, style, and feel of the advertisements in both print and video gave the impression that Truth ads were made by teenagers. For the commercials, the footage often appeared to come from hand-held cameras of questionable quality. The clips were choppy, blunt, and sometimes frantic. They contained a hip, acerbic, and occasional dark sense of humor that appealed to younger audiences, and far less so to older viewers and readers. After all, that was the point. The Islamic State's propaganda is appealing for the same reasons—it is credible and young people can relate to it, even more so than the propaganda produced by their al-Qa`ida predecessors.

In fact, it is this aspect of the Truth campaign—the requirement to keep adults as far away as possible from the message—that may be the most important takeaway for those in the field of CVE strategic communications. [25] When the corporate office managing the Truth campaign starting receiving numerous complaints from parents and teachers about the various in-your-face and off-putting advertisements, the "suits" could not understand why the campaign's creative team was so delighted. To the Truth team, the fact that their advertisements did not appeal to adults and authority figures was an unmistakable measure of effectiveness. Receiving complaints from adults wasn't a problem to be fixed; it was a sign of success.

The work that the State Department's CSCC has done to engage with the enemy in social media is noble, but being a government entity, its message by definition lacks the authenticity and genuine credibility that is required to influence fence-sitters in the current war of ideas. Prospective jihadis do not look to the U.S. government for career advice. Commenting on this core problem facing CSCC, one former CIA agent quipped, "It's like the grandparents yelling to the children, 'get off my lawn!'" [26]

Regardless of how witty, hip, and edgy its message may or may not be, the CSCC and its products will be perceived as the counterterrorism equivalent of the old school anti-smoking PSAs. As a case in point, the CSCC's recent "think again, turn away" campaign is eerily similar to the ineffective anti-smoking slogan of "think, don't smoke."

The way forward
As evidenced by the unprecedented number of foreign fighters flowing into Iraq and Syria, our adversaries are beating the West in the propaganda domain. Fifteen years ago, Big Tobacco held a similar position of advantage when it came to teenagers and smoking. Federal and state public service campaigns were as unsuccessful in the anti-smoking domain as the U.S. government's efforts are in the CVE domain.

It took the private sector to adopt a risky counter-industry approach to "un-sell" and "out-brand" Big Tobacco with a campaign that appeared to have been made by young adults for their peers. The U.S. government would be wise to elicit the support of private sector advertising firms to execute a similar counter-industry approach aimed at jihadis.

Two caveats are required, however, to establish proper expectations. It is unrealistic to assume that a trendy hashtag campaign or slick advertising are going to convince current jihadis to lay down their arms and stop waging violence. In fact, even the Truth campaign's creators realized that it was going to be more effective to stop future smokers rather than persuade current smokers to quit. [27] Nor is it realistic to suggest that a counter-industry campaign alone would be sufficient to persuade jihadi "fence-sitters" to choose a non-extremist path. Also, although this kind of approach showed promise in affecting teenage behavior, it may be less effective against an older demographic of foreign fighters are drawn. This kind of counter-industry approach must be a part of a more comprehensive CVE plan that improves how we identify, interdict, and ultimately prevent future extremists from choosing violence. But in the battle of ideas with jihadist groups such as the Islamic State, the United States needs all the help it can get, and a counter-industry approach will likely improve our efforts in this domain.

The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

[1] John Hughes, "In Battle for Hearts and Minds, Iraqi Insurgents are Doing Well," Christian Science Monitor, June 20, 2007.
[2] Richard Holbrooke, "Get the Message Out," Washington Post, October 28, 2011.
[3] Mark Mazzetti and Michael R. Gordon, "ISIS is Winning the Social Media War, U.S. Concludes," New York Times, June 12, 2015; Ayaan Hirsi Ali, "A Problem Heaven: Why the United States Should Back Islam's Reformation," Foreign Affairs, July/August 2015, p. 36.
[4] Greg Miller and Scott Higham, "In a Propaganda War Against ISIS, the U.S. Tried to Play by the Enemy's Rules," Washington Post, May 8, 2015; Eric Schmitt, "U.S. Intensifies Effort to Blunt ISIS' Message," New York Times, February 16, 2015; Mazetti and Gordon.
[5] Ibid., Miller, Higham, Schmitt.
[6] Philip Seib, "Counterterrorism Messaging Needs to Move From State to CIA," DefenseOne, October 27, 2014.
[7] Ibid., Miller and Higham.
[8] See M. Farrelly, K.C. Davis, J. Yarsevich, M.L. Haviland, J.C. Hersey, M.E. Girlando, and C.G. Healton,Getting to the Truth: Assessing Youths' Reactions to the Truth and 'Think. Don't Smoke' Tobacco Counter-Marketing Campaigns (Washington, D.C.: American Legacy Foundation, 2002).
[9] Michael Sebastian and John McDermott, "Is Big Tobacco Back as a Big Advertiser?" AdAge.com, June 10, 2013.
[10] Terry F. Pechacek, Best Practices for Comprehensive Tobacco Control Programs (Diane Publishing, 1999), p. 22.
[11] Data calculated from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, Department of Human Health and Services, Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
[12] Pete Favat, Presentation at West Point Senior Conference 51, April 20, 2015, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, NY.
[13] M. Johnston, H.G. Daniel, and C.J. Levy, "Young Smokers Prevalence, Trends, Implications and Related Demographic Trends," Philip Morris Companies, Inc., March 31, 1981, Bates No 1000390803/0855, pg. 1.
[14] Ibid., Farrelly, et al.
[15] Favat presentation, Senior Conference 51.
[16] Ibid. Favat.
[17] Ibid. Favat.
[18] Ibid. Favat.
[19] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4xmFcrJexk.
[20] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJTCWtcAews.
[21] Jeff Naff, "Top 15 Ads of the 21st Century," AdAge.com, 2015.
[22] James C. Hersey, Jeff Niederdeppe, W. Douglas Evans, James Nonnemaker, Steven Blahut, Debra Holden, Peter Messeri, and M. Lyndon Haviland, "The Theory of 'Truth': How Counterindustry Media Campaigns Affect Smoking Behavior Among Teens," Health Psychology. 24: 1, 2005, pp. 22-31; David F. Sly, Richard S. Hopkins, Edward Trapido, and Sara Ray, "Influence of a Counteradvertising Media Campaign on Initiation of Smoking: The Florida 'Truth' Campaign," 91:2 (February 2001): pp. 233-238; W. Douglas Evans, Simani Price, and Steven Blahut, "Evaluating the Truth Brand," Journal of Health Communication 10:2 (2005), pp. 181-192.
[23] Todd C. Helmus, Christopher Paul, and Russell W. Glenn, Enlisting Madison Avenue: The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operations (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp), 2007; Brigitte L. Nacos, "Al Qaeda's Propaganda Advantage and How to Counter It," Perspectives on Terrorism 1:4 (2007).
[24] Nacos, "Al Qaeda's Propaganda Advantage and How to Counter It."
[25] Recent news that the State Department is funding an initiative to get younger audiences not affiliated with the U.S. government involved in producing social media campaigns to counter violent extremism is a positive sign, but the effectiveness of these programs remains to be seen. See Justine Drennan, "Making 'Countering Violent Extremism' Sound Sexy," ForeignPolicy.com, June 4, 2015.
[26] Miller and Higham.
[27] "Top Ad Campaigns of the 21st Century," AdAge.com.

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