The two men chatted about the government’s long-running effort to counter extremist ideology in the U.S. During the Cold War, Senator Joe McCarthy warned of widespread Communist subversion at home. But nowadays, anti-extremism looks different: the main source of radicalization is ISIS, whose supporters have found special success using online tools to recruit young people to join them.
Government agencies have long collaborated with community groups to counter terrorist propaganda online, producing tools like the FBI’s “Don’t Be a Puppet” website, which warns teens against being sucked in by “radical ideologies.”
So when Jeffrey introduced himself to Carlin in San Francisco, counterterrorism officials saw a unique opportunity: to enlist some of the world’s most accomplished message-crafters in the fight against extremism.
The Vanity Fair summit wrapped up on October 7, and later that month, Jeffrey received a call from the Justice Department. He was told that a small team of government officials wanted to visit New York to meet with advertising executives about techniques to counter violent extremism. He had one week to assemble a Madison Avenue dream team.
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Jeffrey made some calls. By the time the government officials arrived on November 3 and made their way to the Lexington Avenue headquarters of J. Walter Thompson, about two dozen advertising and marketing executives were waiting to greet them.
Carlin brought Marc Raimondi, the national-security spokesman for the Justice Department; and Jen Easterly, the senior director for counterterrorism on President Obama’s National Security Council.
The seniority of the government participants indicates how seriously officials took the project. “Jen Easterly is not somebody that you easily get out of the White House,” said one administration official who was not authorized to speak about the meetings. “For her to come up shows the importance that her office placed on this.”
And the advertisers’ ranks were just as exceptional. “Bob had assembled the Legion of Superheroes of the Madison Avenue crew,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. More than a decade of serving as worldwide CEO of J. Walter Thompson had furnished Jeffrey with a wide network to draw on.
The government visitors were “very, very candid,” Jeffrey said. Easterly told the group that the White House was struggling to counter the violent propaganda coming from ISIS. The participants discussed youth radicalization and, in broad strokes, what might be done to fight it.
The advertisers approached the question of how to counter violent extremism in the same way they would tackle a high-profile client’s project: with extensive research to determine a target audience, their motivations, how to reach them, and how best to change their minds. But this project was unlike any work they’d done for corporate clients, whose preferences and ideas are key to determining the direction of a communications campaign. Here, the government was not the client, simply the supplier of information. At the end of the meeting, the advertisers were asked to prepare a list of further questions for the government. But after the meeting came to a close, contact between the two groups slowed to a trickle, until events overseas jolted them into action.