Ads that hype the conflict may help solve it: study

Israeli psychologists create video spots promoting the Israeli-Palestinian struggle in bid to boost support for peace

Workers replacing a Labor Party campaign poster with a Likud one in Jerusalem, Jan. 30, 2009.  (photo credit: Yossi Zamir /Flash90)
Workers replacing a Labor Party campaign poster with a Likud one in Jerusalem, Jan. 30, 2009. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir /Flash90)

A video marketing campaign that promotes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as essential to Israeli pride may make viewers more willing to compromise for peace, according to a recent psychological study.

With Israel at war with Hamas, polls show national pride is soaring among Israeli Jews, and faith in peace prospects is in the gutter. The psychologists behind the study say this is not surprising: Nationalism can “freeze” people in conflict-supporting thinking.

The campaign, a series of short videos, aims to “unfreeze” such thinking using a kind of reverse psychology. By showing Israeli Jews that they need the conflict to sustain things they are collectively proud of – from a strong army to national unity — the videos seem to cause them to reevaluate their nationalistic view of the conflict and to consider other perspectives, according to the psychologists.

In the small, longitudinal study, hard-line and centrist Israeli Jews who saw the videos tended to blame the Palestinians less for the conflict, to be more willing to compromise for peace, and even to vote for more dovish political parties, compared to their peers who did not see them. The psychological changes were still apparent a year later.

“Instead of challenging people, we say, OK, we agree with your views. But let’s take them to the extreme,” said Eran Halperin, a psychology professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya in July, who led the study and helped develop the videos. “What happens is they identify the absurdity of their position and reconsider it.”

The Fund for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace commissioned the videos and branded them as a marketing campaign called “The Conflict.” The fund is raising money with the goal of massively expanding the campaign, which is for now limited to an associated website and YouTube.

‘We need the conflict’

In making the videos, the psychologists’ working theory was that members of a society in conflict develop a simplistic shared narrative to cope with their difficult reality. They say media, education, marketing, and other societal forces reinforce their narrative, in which their society is moral and the rival is depraved.

A problem, they say, is that members of such societies tend to freeze on a way of thinking based on their narrative, which leaves them stubbornly hostile to the rival and blind to opportunities for peace – even if the conflict becomes less severe. Israelis and Palestinians are both caught up in this perception.

‘At first, people reacted negatively, but then they had to admit: Maybe this is me.’

Existing psychological methods to unfreeze conflict-supporting thinking are focused on presenting information to society members that complicates their narrative. But members of societies in conflict, especially those who lean toward the political right, are known to avoid and ignore information that challenges their convictions.

To overcome this problem, the Israeli psychologists, with the help of advertisers, produced six approximately 30-second Hebrew language videos designed to put Israelis face-to-face with their nationalistic beliefs. The method, which the psychologists dubbed “paradoxical thinking,” was inspired partly the success of treatments that encourage people to confront the objects of their phobias.

A typical video opens with blue words on white background: “Without it, we wouldn’t have the strongest army in the world.” As 1960s Israeli army marching music plays in the background, the video then cuts between images of Israeli fighter jets, battleships, tanks, and troops in action, accompanied by huge explosions. At the end, the words, “For the sake of the army, it seems we need the conflict” appear, again blue on white, followed by an Israeli flag-like “The Conflict” logo and an invitation to search for the brand on Facebook. (It’s not there yet).

“We created a mirror to hold up to Israeli society,” said Atara Bieler, a freelance creative strategist who helped with the videos. “At first, people reacted negatively, but then they had to admit: Maybe this is me.”

During Israel’s 2013 national election campaign, the psychologists showed this video and five others on themes like Israeli unity, war myths, and Shabbat dinner conversation – to 81 Israeli Jews. Before and after watching the videos online, participants in the study were asked questions about their political views.

From the brain to the ballot box

Hard-line and centrist participants who saw the videos tended to blame the Palestinians less for the continuation of the conflict and to be more willing to evacuate some Israeli settlements in the West Bank for the sake of peace, compared to a control group that watched only typical television commercials. Dovish Israelis apparently didn’t need convincing.

Data analysis provided a potential explanation: Watching the videos unfroze participants’ commitment to the Israeli narrative of the conflict, which led them to blame the Palestinians less, which in turn led them to be more willing to compromise for peace.

Most strikingly, hard-line and centrist participants who watched the videos were more likely to vote for the major dovish parties, Meretz and Labor, and less likely to vote for the major hawkish parties, Habayit Heyehudi and Likud, when the election came around.

Israeli soldiers display the flag near the Gazan border, Aug. 1, 2014. (photo credit: Albert Sadikov/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers display the flag near the Gazan border, Aug. 1, 2014. (photo credit: Albert Sadikov/Flash90)

Even a year later, during US-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, hard-line and centrist participants were still more willing to compromise on major issues like settlements, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and dividing Jerusalem.

The results indicate the paradoxical thinking method can work, but more research is needed, the psychologists say.

The Fund for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace is using the results to raise money for a media campaign, which would include TV, radio, print, and Internet ads as well as billboards.

“Years of promoting peace have failed,” said Yitzhak Frankenthal, the executive director of the fund, who has been a prominent peace activist since Hamas militants kidnapped and killed his son, then an Israeli soldier, in 1994. “We decided to try branding the conflict instead. None of us could believe how well it worked.”

Asked if he was concerned about provoking a counter-campaign, Frankenthal, said the hard-line campaign never stops. His campaign, he said, would offer Israelis a new perspective.

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