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Can Marketing Prevent Radicalization?

Can Marketing Prevent Radicalization?

Sarah Steimer

Recent Journal of Public Policy & Marketing special issue focuses on marketing’s role in a problem that plagues today’s society

From the time that Marie Louise Radanielina Hita and Yany Grégoire began exploring the role that marketing scholarship plays in preventing radicalization, the world has seen the spread of extremism — from a terrorist attack at a Parisian concert venue in 2015 to right-wing conspiracy theorists overtaking the U.S. Capitol in 2021. What Radanielina Hita and Grégoire recognized in these movements was the ability for leaders to draw people in and keep their attention despite spreading falsehoods — which points to their mastery in marketing and communications. The scholars set out to further explore the role of marketing in radicalization by way of editing a special issue of the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, a collection of articles, commentaries, and editorials. Although social sciences scholars have long studied the topics of radicalization and extremism, marketing scholarship has been largely left out of the conversation. This special issue of the journal — Marketing to Prevent Radicalization: Developing Insights for Policies — is not only an exploratory publication, but Radanielina Hita and Grégoire challenged the authors to provide solutions for both marketers and policymakers. Their goal was to provide an initial framework for marketers to use as a map for diving deeper into the topic. Marketing News spoke with the scholars about their inspiration for the issue, why marketing should have a voice in the conversation, and how they hope the special issue motivates more scholars to explore how to stop radicalization.

Marketing News: What inspired this special issue of the journal?


Grégoire: I was in France at a visiting position in 2015 and it was at the time when there was a Muslim terrorist attack at the Bataclan. It was a major tragedy; they killed many people. I remember I was talking with a colleague about the horror of it. A lot of what’s happening in terms of terrorists and terrorism is happening online. It’s a matter of persuasion process — those people are excellent marketers. We thought, well, we should do something. I was thinking of Mary Louise because she’s an expert in health communication, so she knew a lot about the communication process of it. We just figured that we should do something new, use the lens of marketing theory to understand the marketing of those terrorist groups in order to deconstruct their strategies and prevent them from convincing people.

That was 2015, and then from there we saw that the terror is not just coming from jihadists: The terrorists come in from this idea of people being more and more polarized and doing terrible things. We thought marketing should have a voice in that conversation.

Radanielina Hita: My research interest is between consumer well-being, marketing, communications and social media. I have been looking at the use of promotion and communication in preventing bad things: My PhD was on preventing binge drinking, risky sexual behaviors and other dangerous, risky behaviors. When Yany brought up the idea of extending those research interests into incorporating the prevention of the negative effects of polarization, as a result of exposure to social media, I thought that it was fantastic. I realized that the communication process, for example, with other risky behaviors could be applied to any other types of dangerous and bad behaviors in society.

Marketing News: What were the goals for this special issue? Why bring together the articles that you did?

Grégoire: For this topic, the process was very exploratory. We didn’t know what we would get. In the editorial where we identify four different topics, that really came from the submissions that we have received. We started from a blank [slate], and we came up with that conceptualization: misinformation and disinformation; violence, hate and terrorism; discrimination and racism; and a lack of confidence in institutions. We want to give a first framework so people can start something.

Radanielina Hita: In the call for papers, we used the conceptualization of radicalization — which was broader — because we’d done a little bit of research before launching the special issue and realized that most of the things that were done in radicalization — prevention of radicalization and counter radicalization — were mostly from other social sciences and not marketing. There was a little bit from communications, but not much in terms of understanding the effects of the polarization and radicalization. We really opened up the door for getting as much knowledge as possible. We were lucky enough that we got those incredible papers that helped us to limit the possible topics in radicalization and now we have that framework.

Grégoire: We have tried to approach people from other disciplines like sociology, political science. They always thought that it was weird that people in marketing and communications wanted to talk about radicalization and terrorism. For us, it was clear that marketing has a role to play. Those organizations are excellent marketers.

Marketing News: These organizations are already doing a very good job of communicating and marketing their viewpoints. How can the field of marketing then deconstruct it in order to prevent it? What have you learned so far within this special issue?

Radanielina Hita: We first of all had to delimit the domains, and each one looked at a specific phenomenon that was related to online radicalization. For example, to address the issue of inequity, discrimination, and racism, we … also discuss the marketing and public policy implications that researchers had proposed for anyone who is working in that field. We had public policy implications on each one of these topics.

Grégoire: One of the most popular papers is on echo chambers and conspiracy beliefs. The way that people start to believe in something, we know that the first stage is seeding, and those people have bad, malevolent intentions — they will spread lies at the beginning. But then it goes in the echo chambers. People who belong to some echo chambers on social media, they really believe the information is true because they keep talking with people with the same visions. That becomes a part of their identity, to believe in the misinformation and disinformation. That persuasion process happens in two stages: seeding, where people know that they lie, versus echo, where people really believe in it. What it means for the government and people in marketing is that, depending on the stage, you need different strategies. People in the echo chamber really believe in that and it’s not about fact checking, because they will think that someone is coming from another organization and is paid to convince them otherwise. It has to come from within, from people speaking their language.

We’re learning about these systems. We learn that people doing violent terror, they find a way to rationalize it through this theory of selective moral disengagement. As a marketer, we have to work on that process to re-engage them morally and socially. These papers give us the opportunity to take more specific actions to counter radicalization.

Marketing News: What seems really unique is that not only was this special issue an introduction to the topic itself within the field, but there are actually practitioner takeaways and policy takeaways.

Radanielina Hita: We expected the authors to provide marketing implications and public policy implications because that’s why we launched this special issue: to understand what marketing scholars and public policymakers can do to help prevent radicalization. We thought that our voice would have an added value if we were able to provide some implications. And as we were writing the editorial as well, we were thinking about what other questions can still be researched by marketing scholars. We launched this about six years ago, but since then, we’ve had lots of transformative social movements, like Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, and other types of movements that have had societal impacts on branding, for example. So we speak about that a lot, because there’s brand activism and brand hijacking, things like that that managers have to think about now.

Marketing News: Now that you’ve got the ball rolling, where do you think the research in this field will go?

Grégoire: Based on the downloads, I can see that there is a real interest in marketing for this notion of echo chambers, the persuasion process, and conspiracy theories. I think the field is quite ready to embrace that research. There is already some literature on racism, so that will give momentum on discrimination and racism, which are big topics at the moment.

Something that I also believe that the special issue will give some legs to is this idea that people in the U.S. and elsewhere lack confidence in institutions and democratic norms. This is something we’re going to start studying: How can we help our citizens regain trust and confidence in institutions?

Radanielina Hita: We are hoping for more academic interest, and even from public policy makers, in recognizing that marketing and other related fields, like communications, do have a voice in this topic. We’ve seen in all the papers that the process itself, which starts online with social media, is communication. It’s persuasion, it’s marketing, and it’s branding. All of those things are legitimate questions in marketing, so we’re hoping that this will spark or reinforce the interest that some scholars already have about it, and that it’s something that people will look into more now. 

Sarah Steimer is a writer, editor, podcast producer, and yoga teacher living in Chicago. She has written for Marketing News, Chicago magazine, Culture magazine, the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette, and other outlets.