The Key to Countering ISIS? Understanding Its Marketing Effectiveness

By the Fall of 2014, the White House admitted a collective failure to address the ISIS propaganda juggernaut. In contrast to earlier contentions that it was only a lack of equivalent volume that stymied US efforts, Obama stated that the US was still in search of an effective counternarrative.

During a December 2015 meeting, Obama doubled down on his efforts: He set up a (small) task force and hub in the State Department, martialing social media executives' support, and noted that some in the advertising community were "interested" in helping with the effort.

Stop there: To many in the communications world, this proposition might be more than interesting - it's an incredible opportunity to use our tools in a domain that matters. And these tools are formidable. The combination of Hollywood's creative muscle, advertising innovation, and marketing science drive even the most level-headed of us to devote our time and money to causes that benefit us only indirectly, if at all. Can we use this combustive set of capabilities for the forces of good?

To answer this question, my students at the University of Pittsburgh's Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business watched one of the few ISIS recruiting videos that can be found online. An understanding of consumer behavior allowed them to identify elements of the message that might explain its power: strong identity-based appeals, promises to meet esteem, social belongingness and self-actualization needs, attention-grabbing visuals, a fluently processed English-speaking narrator, production values that cue high source credibility. From there, we began to discuss how these elements and arguments could be countered - and my students generated a lot of creative and research-based suggestions.

But, we know it's not this simple. As with any marketing effort, the discussion quickly turned to the fact that all our ideas could go awry if we don't understand our audience. Blind to the geopolitics, social norms, and expectations in the Middle East, we could easily translate what we know in ways that could be not only useless but dangerously counterproductive.

Perhaps, we thought, we could see the way that the deep political and sociological knowledge of the Department of State took shape in their counterpropaganda. The primary publicly visible campaign, called "Think Again Turn Away" has been tweeted over 11,000 times and has nearly 26,000 followers, has over 11,000 Facebook fans, and offers a group of videos on YouTube. Despite its good intentions, this campaign has been widely criticized for presenting misinformation, making weak arguments, courting extremist trolling, and generally failing.

These efforts may present an alternate blind spot. The missing piece here may involve a lack of psychological and behavioral insight associated with motivation and consumption. In fact, comments by Major General Michael Nagata, Special Operations commander for the Middle East's forces, implicated such a deficit: "We have not defeated the idea...we do not even understand the idea."

So, advertisers, marketers, and social scientists can develop powerful messages, but lack the context to effectively do so in the case of ISIS. Meanwhile, government may fail to develop successful counternarratives without using psychological and behavioral science that could shed light on what's working, suggest ways to change attitudes, and support desired behaviors effectively.

What can we do?

The suggestion to join forces may be aversive to some. Social scientists tend to be more liberal than conservative, and many in the advertising and communications industries may balk at working with the military-industrial complex. But we have an opportunity here. The behavioral economists' ability to enhance government effectiveness provides an excellent template for the application of science in the human interest.

Behavioral economics is but only one tool from which we can draw. We also have rich research and industry experience in shaping consumption, self-control, emotions, identity, goal-directed behaviors, responses to scarcity, power, and an understanding of the interplay of culture and communication, among other topics. If we enlarge the range of theory that can be applied to the public good, we can inform a broader range of human behaviors -possibly even beginning to untangle and address the complex constellation of cognitions and emotions that underlie an individual's decision to support ISIS.

Thus, this situation presents a call to a new type of public-private partnership, one that will require learning on multiple sides. On the marketing, advertising, and social science side, we need to understand how the world works outside our labs, focus groups, and target segments. It'll take time and effort, but we can't afford to be ignorant of the world in which we communicate or to make the mistake of approaching it with glib, superficial understanding that leans on stereotypes more than historical comprehension.

And policymakers must recognize that nudges are an incredible start and have done a lot of good in the world. If we are willing to build on a mutual approach, we have an arsenal of behavioral tools that can be combined in ways that offer hope for the magnitude of force needed to push against the complex, compelling narratives presented by ISIS.