A marketer’s perspective: ISIS propaganda and why it works

It is shocking that so many young Westerners leave their homes to join caliphatethe Islamic State. Why would they want to belong to such an obviously murderous and vicious group of people?!

From a marketing perspective it makes sense. The answer is simple:  advertising.

Advertising works. We all know that.

We also know that advertising often lies or “sells” based on half-truths.  And it is how one can sell a damaged product.

The fundamental rules of advertising are:

  • know your message,
  • know your audience and
  • speak your message clearly, in a way your audience can understand.

The Islamic State does exactly that, following all the rules of psychology, selling ideas from over a thousand years ago in slick multi-media packaging.

The Islamic State spreads their message over the internet in the form of videos, social media such as Twitter and their publication called Dabiq. Remember that name, it will come up again.

The most recent video titled “No Respite” was released November 24th. It is a stunning, highly produced commercial, targeted specifically for America.

Ever since I was a child I have analyzed advertisements. I always thought it interesting to see what was being sold, if it worked, how, and if didn’t work, why not. Now, as a professional marketer I see both the techniques used to build this ad, recognize its potential impact and the danger in ignoring, dismissing or not understanding the power in this (and other) IS propaganda-ads.

“No Respite” is intended to hold up a mirror to the American people, explaining why Islamic State values will triumph over America and the West. It is an invitation and a warning to choose the “right” side in this ultimate, prophesied battle. Many will laugh off the scare tactics of the video, saying: “I don’t believe in their prophecies and the computer game style of the video doesn’t impress me.” Big mistake.

If that was your reaction the video isn’t directed at you. There is a different target audience that the messaging will reach, with great impact.

Advertising Rule 1: Know your message.

In the video IS set the scene, explain their actions and detail their future goal, based on the message of Islamic prophecy. They know their message very well, say what they mean and take actions that embody their intentions. They are completely congruent in their messaging. Congruency is important because it creates credibility, even when the subject matter is negative.

Advertising Rule 2: Know your audience

The style of the video is designed for a very specific demographic: 16 to 30 year olds, mostly male Americans. Millennials.  The same audience Hollywood targets.

Catch that audience and you have a blockbuster hit.

Visual style: To someone older the video might look cartoonish and a bit ridiculous. But when you have grown up playing computer games, Mortal Combat, World of Warcraft and Call of Duty your perspective is different. Given the style and the now common video game phenomenon where the player can choose to be the “good” or the “bad” character, the criminal or law enforcement, it is easier to disconnect from the real world, seeing IS not for the actions we have seen on the news but as the heroes in their own story, the heroes of the story detailed in “No Respite”.

Content presentation: The content is directed at both believers (Muslims) and non-believers willing to listen. This is much more than a “scare tactics” video. It’s a recruitment ad.  And there are just enough truths presented to be highly compelling to the target audience.

“This is our Caliphate” begins the video, showing a gigantic IS flag flying over an unnamed city probably in Iraq or Syria. The message is clear, it was prophesied that Muslims would conquer and create a Caliphate and now IS is doing it. Their territory is greater than Great Britain, eight times the size of Belgium, and 30 times the size of Qatar.

Success breeds success.  The very fact that IS has succeeded thus far will bring them more followers.

The Islamic State video states with pride that it is entirely about Islam. “It is a state built on prophetic methodology, striving to follow the Koran and Sunna,” a clear message to all who have said “it’s not about Islam.” The narration then changes to a derisive tone: “It’s not a secular state built on man-made laws whose soldiers fight for the interests of legislators, liars, fornicators, corporations and for the freedoms of Sodomites.”  These messages are directed at young people who understand that the world doesn’t work right, that governments are corrupt, politicians lie and politics are played for power rather than based on values and universal truths. The message is for the young who understand that the system is broken – and it offers a way to fix all the problems i.e. living in the Caliphate under sharia law.

In contrast to the moral corruption and divisiveness of Western society, the Islamic States puts forth the idea of a group united in one goal (Jihad), upholding values dictated by God (Allah).

“We are the soldiers that demolished the idols of Nationalism,” IS explains. They know that people around the world were horrified at their demolition of ancient artifacts and relics. Here they explain that they did so not because they are barbarians but because they are upholding a noble cause – unifying nations under one banner. They made the Sykes-Picot boundaries irrelevant because the borders that artificially divided the Middle East in to separate countries never should have been drawn – there is only one Nation, the Nation of Islam.

America’s own President has been explaining for years that there is no such thing as American exceptionalism.  For the young people of America that is the only President they have ever known, they don’t know the America older people remember. If there is no exceptionalism it isn’t a far stretch to agree that there is no pride in Nationalism.

The ad builds on the power of the Black Lives Matter movement: “There is no difference between an Arab and a non-Arab, a black man and a white except through piety.” That, they explain, is what is so wonderful about Islam – all can be united. To an America divided America on race issues, this is an appealing message. It’s essentially what Dr. Martin Luther King preached: “Judge a man by the content of his character, not the color of his skin.” Again the message is correct, it is the solution offered that is the problem.

The Islamic State is portrayed as a place that is just (sharia law), a good place to raise children and a place where soldiers that join will benefit from the war. Spoils of war include sex slaves but that is only implied because that is not palatable to the American people. IS knows the audience very well.

The video goes on to explain that there is no way that America will be victorious over them as American soldiers cannot stomach the war (referring in graphic detail to the numerous deaths of suicides of US soldiers). They refer to facts being “cooked” regarding American success (another example of the government lying to you) going on to explain that America cannot afford the war – America pours enormous amounts of money into sophisticated weapons, missiles etc. while the Islamic State is using cheap bullets and winning.

The implication is obvious – give up now. Join the winning side. And to those who don’t they issue the taunt: “Bring it on! The flames of war will finally burn you on the hills of Dabiq.” Remember that name? Dabiq is a small village in Syria where Islamic prophesy says there will be the final battle that results in Islam conquering the West. It was in Dabiq that the Islamic State beheaded the American aid worker Peter Kassig.

Here they show that all IS actions are done for a reason, according to a very specific plan. THEY have a plan.

“Bring it on! Plot against us and show us no respite. Our ally is the greatest. He is Allah and all glory belongs to him.”  The closing verse from the Koran gives the same message – the time when the non-Muslims call together their allies and show “no respite” will be the time when Islam and Allah will triumph.

Simon Sinek explained in his milestone TED Talk: “People buy not because they need what you make but because they believe what you believe.” The Islamic State knows their “Why” very well and they present it to the audience as an invitation to also believe their “why”. Many will not but some will.

In a world that is shallow and empty of greater purpose the appeal of uniting for a greater cause is highly attractive. Unity, equality and a high standard of unwavering moral values is a compelling promise. It doesn’t matter that this is not the reality offered in the Islamic State. This is advertising. There are enough grains of truth within this ad to be effective.

We all know advertising works. Even when the product being sold is damaged.

I suggest waging a counter-campaign, not against the Islamic State but rather to reach the audience they are competing for, to prevent their “customers” from buying the damaged goods, the way of life, IS is selling.

Watch the young people, particularly the men, in America or any other Western country. Watch the young people in your home, in your community. Are they angry? Are they drifting?

Now is the time to take action. Help them find a better “product”. Help them find something greater than themselves they can identify with. Gather together like minded people and take action to bring positive change to your community. The results need to be obvious and immediate so that they can be felt. The young people need to feel their purpose, otherwise they are in danger of drifting to a negative purpose.

If you can, create a church or synagogue group that takes action to better the community. Take them to serve the elderly, bring them their groceries, fix things in their homes… take them to mentor younger children, giving them role models. If you can join a faith based group. If not, create a group based on humanity, on healing the planet. Volunteer at the Humane Society. Create road protection societies that keeps the streets and parks clean.

Purpose is key. Committing to something greater than oneself is fundamental to feeling value.

I suggest a swift, hard hitting counter campaign to the propaganda marketing sweeping the world – before the competition converts our young people to being their “customers.”


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