How Advertising Can Defeat Extremism

During the 1964 Presidential election, Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign approached the ad agency DDB for a particular type of television ad. The result was “Daisy”, sometimes known as “Daisy Girl” or “Peace, Little Girl”. It aired just once and is credited with tarnishing Barry Goldwater’s run for the oval office. It never mentioned him by name but got the message across that, if elected, Goldwater would push America into nuclear war.

Fast-forward a few decades and we now live in world of extremes, extremists, and extremism. An extremist, by definition, “is a person who holds extreme views, especially one who advocates illegal, violent, or other extreme action”. These are polarizing times full of overwhelming debate among ever-more tribes. These fractious groups are both new and long-standing.

The Proud Boys are an example of the new. A group labelled extreme by the FBI because of misogyny, glorification of violence, and ties to White Nationalism. The growing delta between America’s Republican Party and the Democratic party represent the long-standing but deepening extremism in mainstream politics.

Gavin McInnes, leader of the Proud Boys, attends a rally. Around this time, Facebook chose to ban the group from the social media platform. (Photo by Susan Watts/NY Daily News via Getty Images)

Now negative ads in political campaigns are a given. As is psychological warfare in combat, propaganda in times of both war and peace, and even broad subversive doctrine like Russia’s Maskirovka (see more here). Both surreal and logical, hate and terrorist organizations along with extreme political, environmental and social groups borrow from the tenets of corporate branding. They employ logos, websites, run slick recruiting campaigns, blast from social media accounts, and produce sophisticated marketing materials in attempts to sway opinion and action.

Steven Heller’s book that proves extremist groups’ adoption of corporate branding.

I believe extremism exists not only because it is meant to right a real or perceived massive grievance, but because it is hoped to address uncertainty or overturn a threat. It is militant right out of the gate. There is no time or place for debate. It demands swift and vehement action. We have graduated from the revolutionary Che Guevara (whose image has graced hundreds of thousands of t-shirts) to rock throwing, mask-wearing fanatics. The latter are fascinating in that they supposedly subscribe to a specific doctrine but are loath to identify themselves among the ranks.

Communications are used for many purposes. Bill Bernbach, the “B” in the DDB ad agency, once said, “All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.”

Charles Duhigg, won the Pulitzer-prize for Explanatory Reporting. He also authored Smarter Faster Better, about the science of productivity and The Power of Habit, about the science of habit formation in our lives, companies and societies. Duhigg penned an article in The Atlantic that was the catalyst for this blog. It is in the January/February, 2019 edition and is called, Why Are We So Angry?

The following is an excerpt that details how advertising can actually address and even counter extremism. It is fascinating. Read on.

“The plan, on the face of it, seemed crazy. A group of Israeli social scientists wanted to conduct an experiment disguised as an advertising campaign. The ads would run in a small, conservative Tel Aviv suburb, where many people were religious and supported right-wing politicians. The goal was to persuade the residents to abandon their anger toward Palestinians and agree that Israel should freeze construction of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, among other concessions.

The suburb they were hoping to convert, Giv’at Shmuel, was known for being strenuously opposed to anything associated with peaceniks, liberals, or anyone who said anything good about peaceniks or liberals. A few years earlier, residents had stood along a highway to throw rocks at passing cars simply because they suspected that the drivers might be headed to a gay-pride march.

The proposed experiment ran counter to most of psychology’s conventional teachings. The best-known theory regarding how to reduce conflict and prejudice within a population was known as the “contact hypothesis”: If you can just get everyone who hates each other to talk in a controlled, respectful manner, this doctrine holds, they’ll eventually start speaking civilly. They won’t like each other. But prejudices may fade, and moral outrages will mellow.

The researchers figured that the contact hypothesis had clearly been developed by someone who had never visited Israel. Polls in Giv’at Shmuel were very clear. The residents didn’t want to spend time with Palestinians. They also didn’t want a bunch of academics lecturing them on how to become more open-minded. So the researchers came up with a clever idea. Don’t tell everyone in Giv’at Shmuel that they’re wrong. Tell them that they’re right: A perpetual war with Israel’s neighbors made a lot of sense. If anything, the people of Giv’at Shmuel ought to be angrier.

Hamas militants attend a funeral in the Rafah refugee camp.

With the help of an advertising agency, the social scientists created online ads celebrating the tension between Israelis and Palestinians, and extolling the virtues of fighting for fighting’s sake. One ad showed iconic photos of Israeli war heroes and proclaimed, “Without [war] we wouldn’t have had heroes. For the heroes, we probably need the conflict.” The ad was scored with Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries.” Another ad featured footage of a soldier with a machine gun petting a kitten and an infantryman helping an old man cross the street. “What a Wonderful World” played in the background. Its tagline read, “Without [war] we would never be moral. For morality, we probably need the conflict.” The ads, along with brochures and billboards, began appearing in Giv’at Shmuel in 2015. Over a six-week period, according to polling, nearly all of its 25,000 residents saw them.

Three days after the experiment started, the so-called Lone Wolf Intifada began, a wave of violent assaults across Israel that the researchers figured would make the people of Giv’at Shmuel even more polarized. And yet, when the researchers conducted polls in the suburb at the end of the advertising campaign, the residents who had held the most extreme views at the outset of the experiment appeared to have softened. The percentage of right-leaning residents who said that Arabs were solely responsible for Israel’s past wars decreased by 23 percent. The number of conservatives who said Israel should be more aggressive toward Palestinians fell by 17 percent. Incredibly, even though the advertisements never mentioned settlements, 78 percent more people said that Israel should consider freezing construction in the West Bank and Gaza. (Residents in nearby towns who hadn’t seen the ads were surveyed as a control; they showed no such evolution in their views over the same period.)

A year after the ads had ceased, by which time some residents had trouble recalling the specifics of the campaign, polls still showed greater tolerance. The campaign wasn’t a panacea, but it is among the most successful conflict interventions in contemporary social science.

The campaign worked, the social scientists believe, because instead of telling people they were wrong, the ads agreed with them—to embarrassing, offensive extremes. “No one wants to think of themselves as some angry crank,” one of the researchers, Eran Halperin, told me. “No one wants to be lumped in with extremists or the angriest fringe.” Sometimes, however, we don’t realize we’ve become extremists until someone makes it painfully obvious.”

Duhigg’s last line in the article bears repeating, “we don’t realize we’ve become extremists until someone makes it painfully obvious.” In that is revealed the purpose of communication. It is used to educate, inform, entertain. It is meant to drive discussion, decision and action. Paraphrasing Bernbach, it shapes or vulgarizes or brutalizes society or it can lift it to a higher level. After years of vulgarization and brutalization, it is time to reach for that higher level.

Note: the day this was posted, it was revealed that the Mosque shooting in New Zealand that took place the day before, had streamed on Facebook.

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