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The Islamic State's Propaganda War: Advertisers and Marketers Weigh in on the World's Angriest Ad Campaign

Advertising execs break down the Islamic State's sophisticated marketing campaign and propaganda war against the West.
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Healing the Chests of the Believing People is a July 4th summer blockbuster offering by the Islamic State (IS). The 10 minute video chronicles the fate of 25 Syrian soldiers as they are led from Tadmur Prison to the ancient Palmyra Amphitheater where, in front of the black flag of IS, they are executed by what appears to be a group of teen-age soldiers.

IS knows that this video, along with other recent death cult recruiting video classics like: Punish Them Severely to Disperse Those Who Are Behind Them, A Message Signed with Blood To the Nation of the Cross, and Healing the Souls with the Slaughtering of the Spy (Part 2, no less) will inspire people to join their cause of revolutionary social change (of the bloody jihad variety) — just like thousands of other Westerners already have.


Videos like these represent just one piece of IS's global marketing campaign, which also consists of monthly magazines, documentaries, and nasheeds [audio messages], as well as online forums, blogs, postings on the ever-ubiquitous social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and even their own short-lived Arab-language app, The Dawn of Glad Tidings, that, once downloaded, automatically posted tweets by IS to a user's personal Twitter account.

Welcome to the propaganda war with IS — a war that is central to their defeat, and a war that the US isn't winning.

Related: Islamic State Releases New Footage Showing Scenes From Massacre of 1,700 Iraqi Troops

But how does IS sell their message? How does it get people from comfortable backgrounds in the US and Europe to give up everything and join a movement so infused with violence and brutality?

The answer ultimately resides with the kinds of marketing strategies used by advertising agencies all over the world. In the most basic terms, IS is selling an idea the very same way a company would sell a product.

According to the last National Counterterrorism Center estimate released in February, almost 3,400 Westerners have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside IS. While some of these people would have found their way to the fight no matter what, it would be incorrect to assume that most have joined IS simply to satiate some kind of religious blood lust.


"Today people buy based on social conversation," Brett Landry, creative director for DarkHorse Marketing, told VICE News. "Brands find success by placing themselves within the social conversation in meaningful or fun or shocking ways."

Nowhere has this strategy been more successfully executed than in the horrifying media campaign run by IS's publicity wing, al-Hayat Media Center.

The videos and images of beheadings, burnings, crucifixions, and mass executions have simultaneously revolted and enticed viewers, becoming a core component of their marketing strategy. Those who are attracted to these kinds of graphic media are initially drawn in by the production value, which is extraordinarily high compared to Al-Qaeda and other jihadist-produced propaganda of the past.

In contrast to al Qaeda's videos, which were shot on shaky handheld cameras, IS uses sound design, special effects, rehearsed sequences, and multiple-angle scenes, as well as high-tech 5D cameras and professional editing teams.

The sensational videos take the viewer directly inside the war being waged by IS, much in the same way a video game or action movie would. This has allowed IS to situate themselves at the center of a worldwide conversation on religion, politics, and war, in a way that is entirely unencumbered by traditional communication strategies — particularly those that would rely exclusively on mainstream media to spread their message.


"The burnings, beheadings, and torture are really hard to look at, but we're not the [target] audience," Jason Smith, creative director for Magnetry, an advertising agency in Phoenix, told VICE News. "The brutality works in their favor because it proves their effectiveness. The darker the images, the more obvious the void or lack of someone preventing them."

"The brutality works in their favor because it proves their effectiveness. The darker the images, the more obvious the void or lack of someone preventing them."

Marketing these atrocities has a two-fold propaganda value: IS is not only defining exactly who they are, but who they are not, as well, which resonates with a select group of people who equate extreme violence with power. More importantly, the brutality automatically narrows down the viewing audience, allowing the message to specifically target those who might be susceptible to radicalization.

Additionally, IS propaganda is produced in a way that allows it to be packaged for broadcast media and online video forums like YouTube, LiveLeak, and Vimeo. This ensures that at least some of the content will be replayed on mainstream news outlets, regardless of the subject matter.

Because of this, IS has developed a very effective and low-cost type of advertising campaign reliant on something called "earned media." Earned media is about generating buzz — getting other people to talk about and push your agenda and story. This kind of marketing strategy fundamentally relies on the viral tendencies surrounding online "word of mouth" and comes in the form of mentions, shares, reposts, views, and third-party broadcasts, and acts as a force multiplier for any IS media project.


"The sole focus of an earned media campaign is to reach the maximum amount of viewers with the minimum amount of effort," Landry told VICE News. "The US and world media are feeding on the content, and that's huge earned media for ISIS…The more it's talked about, the more free advertising they get."

Using social media sites like Twitter contributes to the earned media campaign of IS by providing platforms to spread videos, documentaries, audio messages, and other propaganda products, and allowing users to interact and engage with those products instantly and continuously.

While there are no exact numbers available with regard to internet penetration by IS, according to the ISIS Twitter Census, released by the Brookings Institution in March 2015, at any one time, there are between 46,000 and 90,000 active IS Twitter accounts, each having an average of 1,004 followers who produce approximately 2,219 tweets during the account's lifetime.

These accounts not only further disseminate IS propaganda, but allows recruiters to connect with potential volunteers in near real time, which has helped the IS brand reach a diverse global audience.

"There are units of specialized recruiters operating around the clock from internet cafes in Iraq and Syria, interacting on an individual level with prospective recruits," Henry Tuck, program coordinator for Extreme Dialogue at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told VICE News. "Content is expertly tailored to specific audiences in multiple languages, with propaganda aimed at women, converts to Islam, and even certain professions."


The US and world media are feeding on the content, and that's huge earned media for ISIS…The more it's talked about, the more free advertising they get.

IS's marketing success, however, is based on more than just the creation and distribution of propaganda. Their flags, balaclavas, and black-clad execution teams have made them instantly recognizable as the face of global jihad and modern terror. This branding is consistent, visceral, and appeals to those who process images and symbols on an emotional, as opposed to rational, level.

"There's clearly a visual identity associated with ISIS," Anna Bedineishvili, a strategic planner at Pereira & O'Dell, a marketing agency in New York City, told VICE News. "They use dramatic scenes of beheadings and bloodbaths that are shocking, yet very memorable."

The signature violence gives potential volunteers a sense of agency within a movement that appears unstoppable — invincible, even. For those who might feel marginalized in a world that appears constantly adversarial, this kind of symbolism remains a potent source of publicity for IS.

"To many young men who feel like their current life is purposeless, this tells them that they can do something," Bedineishvili said. "They can be someone and play a meaningful role in a glamorized apocalyptic battle."

IS more than delivers on these opportunities, which establishes legitimacy for potential volunteers and is essential to their brand loyalty. IS propaganda sources can then leverage these experiences by developing their own news and editorial content, some of which is as polished as anything one might find on BBC, CNN, or al-Jazeera.


"When you put a 'real' news story from, say, the BBC next to one from ISN (Islamic State News), they feel remarkably similar," Magnetry's Smith said. "Not only does that lift their legitimacy in some way, but it also robs legitimacy from the BBC…Who is to say which content is legitimate?"

IS's monthly online magazine, Dabiq, a term that refers to the coming Islamic apocalypse, might look completely benign sitting on a magazine rack, and its publication in English is clearly an attempt to target a western audience. For a time, copies were even sold on Amazon, though the listings were eventually removed.

Related: The Islamic State's Head Songwriter Has Reportedly Been Killed in an Airstrike

"[Dabiq] conveys some credibility and hints that ISIS might be a civilized place," Jeff Vitkun, a freelance copywriter for some of the world's largest advertising agencies, told VICE News. "Their design is better than the average small-town American newspaper."

Within its pages are news items, interviews, and feature articles that cover everything from modern-day slavery to battlefield communiqués to living sincerely as a Muslim. A reader might just as easily find an editorial supporting the beheading of a journalist as a religious discourse on how to take care of your weapons according to Islamic law.

This creates a robust conversation through various narratives, which can connect to compelling content that draws attention to living and fighting under IS. Advertisers call this a "brand ecosystem," and as more content gets generated across multiple media channels, the product eventually compels its own influence.


IS has used this kind of strategy to brand itself as the one truly incorruptible force that can avenge the grievances of Muslims everywhere. This has tremendous marketing value when you take into account the political and military failures that have beleaguered the Middle East in recent years.

Another theme that is central to IS's brand but that is often overlooked, especially in the West, is the idea of camaraderie. While most people will typically fixate on the violence and brutality, potential volunteers are finding a different message, one that appeals to a community of like-minded individuals looking to be a part of something greater than themselves.

"[Look] at images of ISIS members smiling, hugging, hands up in the air with glee, and general camaraderie," Brooke-Luat, strategy director for 72andSunny, a marketing agency in Los Angeles, said in an interview. "ISIS is trying to combat any notion that it is a group of barbarians out in the desert by positioning itself as sophisticated, well-funded, organized, and even charitable."

Littered throughout their propaganda materials are the pictures and testimony of young men and women who have arrived in IS territory from all over the world. Eventually, this softer side of IS makes the brutality and violence seem secondary to the idea of creating a new and revolutionary society.

Related: Why Are the Media So Impressed by the Quality of Islamic State Films?


This effectively undermines any counter narrative that can only portray IS as a group of bloodthirsty religious zealots.

To combat the messages coming from IS, Major Geneva David, a spokesperson for CENTCOM, said that the truth is one of the best weapons. "Amplifying factual information regarding these areas is an important aspect of establishing a counter narrative to ISIL's propaganda and disinformation campaign," David told VICE News.

But how the US hopes to gain legitimacy with this message remains to be seen. The US would be wise to understand the strategies used by IS and reacquaint itself with the art of modern propaganda. Far from being isolated occurrences, western citizens will continue to be recruited with greater frequency.

Terrorists now inhabit a world where all the tools of contemporary marketing and advertising are at their disposal. This allows for an intoxicating call-to-arms aimed at those who believe that volunteering for IS is a once-in-a-lifetime experience — moreso since those targeted are being attracted to a cause that has only two possible outcomes: victory or death.

Follow Landon Shroder on Twitter: @LandonShroder

Watch The Islamic State (full length)