Picture this: It’s Valentine’s Day weekend and for the first time the world is seeing a media phenomenon that is about to make big news. In slick footage using the best production values available, violent images flit across the screen. Transfigured by high definition digital images, an old movement gains new popularity. Audiences see in it a new taboo being challenged, and the feeling is thrilling. They decide to try out this old thing made new.
That paragraph can describe two vastly different phenomena — but the reasons it applies to both are telling.
On the one hand, it can describe 50 Shades of Gray, which was a Valentine’s weekend show of force for the sex industry, enticing audiences to try sex toys and bondage.
It can also describes the ISIS video of the beheadings of Christians in Egypt, a Feb. 15 show of force for ISIS and a recruitment tool.
Don’t get me wrong: The sexual habits of affluent Westerners on the one hand and the violent march of Islamicist radicals on the other are not comparable in scope, moral gravity or in the kind of concern they demand from Christians.
But they both tell a story about the power of media in modern life.
In “Terror Inc.: How the Islamic State became a branding behemoth” Alyssa Bereznak tells the story of how Isis has mastered the use of modern forms of media to spread its message of hate.
The article shows the triumph of marketing in the 21st century. When we are presented with new ideas, we don’t subject them to a truth test — we subject them to an image test. Writes Bereznak:
“It’s been less than a year since IS burst onto the stage, seizing large amounts of territory and shocking the world with its brutally violent tactics. During that time, the group has evolved into a highly sophisticated multimedia organization, boasting slick social media strategies that could give major corporate marketing teams a run for their money. IS knows how to package its extremist ideology in the form of well-produced videos, attractive graphics, polished magazines and strategic online posts. It’s also strikingly savvy at spreading them online, tailoring their presentation and message to media sites like Twitter, YouTube and Vine. The messages are hypercustomized in language, tone and content to reach as many people possible and ultimately go viral. As Marshall Sella recently wrote in Matter, IS is ‘an entire brand family, the equivalents of the Apple logo’s glow … terrorism’s Coca-Cola.’”
The grainy, wordy videos of Osama Bin Laden had their effect but kept Al Qaeda a fringe movement. The sharp and shiny (and technologically manipulated) ISIS videos are attracting thousands — including thousands of Westerners — to the ISIS brand.
Likewise, S&M was never more than a fringe thing when it existed behind black curtains at video stores or in the shameful secret corners of the Internet. But now that it exists as a Vintage Books marketing campaign and a Universal Pictures release, a new S&M products industry is taking off as never before.
While consensual sex and mass murder are far from morally equivalent, both show how modern marketing techniques can sell even shocking forms of violent extremism and domination.
Their effectiveness come not just from the skill of the sellers, but from the learned habits of the customers.
Neil Postman’s prophetic Amusing Ourselves to Death noticed in the 1980s what television commercials were doing to truth claims.
“By substituting images for claims, the pictorial commercial made emotional appeal, not tests of truth, the basis of consumer decisions. The distance between rationality and advertising is now so wide that it is difficult to remember that there once existed a connection between them. Today, on television commercials, propositions are as scarce as unattractive people. The truth or falsity of an advertiser’s claim is simply not an issue. A McDonald’s commercial, for example, is not a series of testable, logically ordered assertions. It is a drama — a mythology, if you will — of handsome people selling, buying and eating hamburgers, and being driven to near ecstasy by their good fortune. No claim are made, except those the viewer projects onto or infers from the drama. One can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it.”
So here we are in the year 2015, after decades of training our brains to respond to “cool” more than “true,” loving the awesome lie more than the awkward truth.
One group is flocking to an S&M movie in droves and watching in horror as a Middle Easterners gather in violent hordes. The other is flocking to ISIS after seeing them on Vine, Twitter and YouTube and watching in horror as Westerners descend further into sexual decadence.
Both are products of the same culture.
A well-informed, morally trained, reflective people are free to follow their best interests, and can see through the glamor of evil.
An entertainment-addicted, image-conscious, attention-challenged people is no longer free.
We are at the mercy of the awesome.