To Battle Isis' Message, We'll Need Slickly Produced Content That's Just as Compelling

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Credit: Michael Morgenstern for Ad Age

One of the great deceptions foisted on our society is that people around the world are anxious to embrace democracy and our way of life if only they are given the opportunity.

That line of thinking has gotten us into a lot of trouble over the years, and now we are at it again, naively thinking that we need to tell our story in fresh new ways to counter the ISIS terrorists who are spreading such violence and mayhem throughout the world.

It's easy to postulate that ad guys, who are so adept at telling brand stories, can turn the tide against the evil forces of chaos and repression. And it's not like we haven't tried.

Charlotte Beers was CEO of Oglivy & Mather before she took on the task of producing propaganda videos to sell a "new" America to disenchanted Muslims around the world in the wake of Sept. 11.

But as Ms. Beers completed her first year as Undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs in 2002, we reported that there were "mixed reviews over whether she has accomplished the goal of improving the nation's image beyond its borders."

In an interview with our publication when she was leaving her post after 17 months due to a serious health condition, Ms. Beers contended that her success should not be judged on how well the U.S. was perceived abroad, but how well the State Department was doing at simply reaching the target audience.

"The questions have been asked, the training done, the inter-agency public-policy coordinating committee established and the major steps taken in integrating all of this in the State Department." But she didn't say anything about the effectiveness of the message.

The current occupant of that office, Richard Stengel, acknowledges that "the ultimate battle is not on the military battlefield, it's in the information space." But he doesn't seem interested in seriously enlisting ad people in the current war of ideas. (Maybe the former editor of Time magazine has more faith in the editorial side.)

I recently wrote about Les Wolff's contention that the Ad Age audience could develop a marketing strategy to counter "this growing force of evil." Our readership, Les said, "encompasses some of the greatest and brightest people in the world, and who better to counter this flood of extremism?"

My feeling is that ISIS isn't concerned with convincing the general populace that their cause is just. In fact, the more heads they lop off and the more people they burn in cages, the easier it is for them to recruit new members.

In a review of several books on the ISIS phenomenon, James Traub, writing in The Wall Street Journal, explained the group's horrific acts with the observation that "beheading British and American prisoners enacts a deeply satisfying drama of vengeance and power-reversal to those who feel crushed by, and in, the West."

Maajid Nawaz, who was recruited by a revolutionary Islamic group, told The New York Times "that the recruiters are adept at manipulating world events to present what I call the 'Islamic narrative' -- that the world is at war with Islam, and only a caliphate will protect Muslims from the crusaders. I was seduced by the ideology and drawn to its alternate subculture."

After my first ISIS column ran, I got an email from Stephen Feldman, CEO of Feldman Integrated Marketing, challenging my notion that advertising wouldn't change minds in such a standoff: "An industry that spends over $500 billion per year to inform, educate, persuade and sell cannot change any minds?"

Mr. Feldman suggests we try a couple of live TV "space bridge" events similar to what Phil Donahue and Vladimir Pozner did in 1985 at the height of the cold war. During that series of international telecasts, participants on both sides could see each other and ask each other questions. "Of course update the format to allow tweets and email," he added.

The problem is that ISIS is very, very good at turning out highly professional video work. They are adept at using the right music to evoke the right mood and their grizzly executions take on an almost ethereal feeling.

Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at New York University, told the Times that the group's influence was much bigger than the numbers suggest.

Just as a celebrity's Twitter message is often rebroadcast by other sites and new media, the violent imagery put out by the Islamic state receives wide distribution beyond its initial audience.
"The thing that is scary about ISIS is that they have clearly taken content production to a new level of quality beyond other terrorist groups," Mr. Galloway said.

So how do you combat this degree of sophistication? One way, strange as it seems, might be humor aimed at showing how ludicrous the ISIS appeal is. "SNL" recently did a skit parodying a Toyota commercial depicting a father seeing his daughter off -- only in the "SNL" version the daughter was leaving to join ISIS. The father and daughter are sitting in the car talking, when the girl's ride arrives. "You be careful, OK?" the dad says. "Dad, it's just ISIS," the daughter replies. The slogan at the end of the commercial reads, "ISIS: we'll take it from here, dad."

But the best way to combat the ISIS media offensive comes from Jonathan Hoffman, who was formerly the president of experience design at Starcom MediaVest, part of Publicis Groupe. I met Jonathan at a Sandage symposium put on by the College of Media at the University of Illinois. His thinking is that ISIS is attracting teenage boys and girls with "a potent mix of slickly produced danger and romance."

"Fold in just enough ideology to ignite their innate anti-authoritarianism and general disaffection, but not so much that it bogs down in educational dogma, then add to this expert storytelling technique and a virtuosic mastery of new media craft and you've got a magnet with almost narcotic strength," Jonathan emailed me.

The solution is to find a way to make the opposite values equally compelling. No easy task, because bad is just cooler to teens.

Jonathan's idea is to build content that conveys "a story equating the courage, strength and cool of iconic 'non-violent' heroes" such as Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize with modern, lesser known ones. Combine that with a powerful music track created by a global artist in collaboration with a young Muslim star, and an emotional script.

"In and of itself, this would probably be reasonably effective as an anti-ISIS sentiment tool. Ideally, though, it would be used to send an invitation to thousands of other young people of all faiths to come together and make their own better more authentic versions."

Jonathan feels strongly that "there needs to be a competing message to accompany and illuminate the alternative path. If it can be created, we are obligated to try."

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this column stated that Jonathan Hoffman is president of experience design at Starcom MediaVest. While he previously held that title, he is no longer with the company.

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