Did Those ‘Support Israel/Defeat Jihad’ Ads Have to Be Such a Big Deal?

One difference New Yorkers might notice when subway service is finally fully restored? According to an MTA spokesperson, the controversial advertisements that urged readers to support the civilized man in his war against the savage should now be gone. The posters, which were placed in several New York City subway stations such as Grand Central and Times Square, concluded their four-week run on October 21st. “But there’s always some lag time getting them down,” the spokesperson added over the phone. One can only hope that any remaining ads were washed away in the storm.

For Pamela Geller, writer, activist and force behind the 46- by 30-inch ads, the marketing campaign accomplished what she had hoped it would: it got people to notice. “I intended to raise awareness of the nature and magnitude of jihad activity, and have done so,” she wrote in an email.

Since the campaign’s arrival in late September, the shock value and racist undertones of the posters have been reported in daily newspapers, nightly news broadcasts and websites like this one — right here, right now — effectively magnifying the poster’s image and spreading Geller’s message well beyond its initial trajectory. Although the ads were only placed in 10 subway stations across Manhattan, the end result was more like a billboard on each street corner in every borough.

How many new devotees, financial donations, or sympathetic nods of the head the coverage garnered for Geller’s cause is uncertain, but considering that the attack on the US Consulate in Libya had just occurred a couple weeks prior to the campaign’s launch — not to mention the anniversary of 9/11 — for those already thinking about reaching out to a figure such as Geller, the thought must have been all the more tempting. What is certain, however, is that many who were once unfamiliar with Geller and her ilk are now slightly less so. But did it have to be this way?

The ads, which at various times have also appeared in San Francisco, Washington DC, and elsewhere, drew their inspiration from an Ayn Rand quote. In the same email, Geller explained that the poster’s words and design didn’t take long to create cause she had a clear view of what she wanted to communicate.

At first, though, the ads came very close to never communicating with any New Yorker at all. As reported by The New York Times, the MTA had initially rejected the ads, stating that they were demeaning. It took a Manhattan federal judge to decide that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority had violated the First Amendment rights of Keller and her group, even though the judge admitted that the MTA had “reasonably read” the ads as equating Muslims with savages. Keller called the ruling “a victory for freedom-loving people.”

As executive director of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, Pamela Geller is a champion of freedom. Her desire to raise awareness on the “nature and magnitude of jihad activity” presumably stems from the perceived threat this activity poses to freedom. Indeed, all the websites listed on the ad — atlasshrugs.com, sioaonline.com (Stop Islamization of America), jihadwatch.com — aim to defend liberty by rather belligerently documenting individuals who’ve committed crimes in the name of Islam, pointing out Obama’s failings in the Middle East, criticizing those critical of the war on terror, and other stuff of the sort. In August, Geller’s group posted ads at Metro-North Railroad stations that read, “19,250 Deadly Islamic Attacks Since 9/11/01 (And Counting)” followed by “It’s Not Islamophobia, It’s Islamorealism.” Geller, it should be noted, was also instrumental in the movement to stop the Islamic community from building a cultural center and mosque near the World Trade Center site about two years ago.

Geller’s Defense Initiative paid the MTA a reported $36,000 to have their “Support Israel/Defeat Jihad” ads displayed in various subway stations, then, under court order, the MTA put them up. Anticipating angry protest or possibly worse, the NYPD beefed up security as the remixes and vandalism soon followed. In one incident caught on video, an Egyptian-born US columnist named Mona Eltahawy is shown spray painting one of the ads pink, while saying she’s simply exercising her own right to freedom of speech. She was later arrested and charged for criminal mischief and making graffiti.

In a New York Times videocast, movie critic A.O. Scott defended Eltahawy, calling her act democratic, whereas his colleague and interlocutor, David Carr, condemned it as censorship. “I don’t want people protecting what I’m going to see or read,” said Carr. “Put up your own poster.”

In response to the vandals defacing her ads, Geller wrote in an email: “Their fascist thuggery will not prevail over my freedom of speech. They keep insisting that the ad calls all Muslims savages. Yet we’re always told that moderate Muslims detest the jihad terrorism that is committed in the name of Islam. So they should be standing with me.”

A valid point, perhaps, but by Geller openly supporting an organization named Stop Islamization of America and publishing ads that state “It’s Not Islamophobia, It’s Islamorealism,” these are things that have likely deterred even the most liberal of Muslims from backing her up.

Eventually, perhaps on Carr’s advice, other groups began putting up posters of their own to counterbalance Geller’s controversial message. Rabbis For Human Rights — North America bought space for an ad that asked readers to “Choose Love” and “Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbors.” Sojourners, a Christian group, placed a bright orange ad that simply read, “Love Your Muslim Neighbors.” A poster from United Methodist Women declared, “Hate speech is not civilized. Support peace in word and deed. #mysubwayad.” Even the city’s Commission on Human Rights got involved, putting up subway ads that read: “From many countries, one city.”

All the subway ad-war hoopla hoisted Geller’s campaign into the public consciousness. But, again, back to the initial question: Did it have to happen this way?

It seems that those who were opposed to the American Freedom Defense Initiative’s ads and the ideas they represented were left with a choice: either speak up or ignore it. Neither was attractive. The former would create publicity for Geller; the latter, however, just seemed unnatural. Wrong, even. It was nearly the same played out situation as when, say, a conservative organization decides to loudly rebuke a new film for glorifying sex or drugs or whatever, only to create a story for news outlets to latch onto, thus inadvertently imbuing the movie with a rebellious, status quo-smashing reputation that tends to attract certain crowds. It’s the marketer’s non-secret: Controversy sells.

Branding expert, Joeri Van den Bergh, co-author of 2011’s How Cool Brands Stay Hot, believes that successful ad campaigns thrive on people causing a stir, and languish when given the silent treatment.

“It is indeed a good strategy to get conversations started by fueling them rather than ignoring them,” wrote Van den Bergh in an email. “If you are not part of the daily conversation, you are not part of life anymore. Attention spans are a lot shorter today and you need to earn the attention of people by either offering services or valuable social currency such as a discussion subject.”

Perhaps that’s obvious, but the not-talking-about-it part isn’t easy. Is silence even possible in a 24-hour news world, where media companies are always hungry for content (even if there’s nothing significant to share) and everything non-significant will be shared on Twitter, anyway? Will bad behavior ever not be the next hour’s status update? Perhaps mass murders and terrorists attacks fall into a different category, but do we have the collective willpower to ignore a 46- by 30-inch advertisement sponsored by an organization that most would label as extreme? Or is talking about it always the better approach? Either way, one thing seems clear: marketers will continue to exploit viral-friendly controversy for personal gain until it no longer becomes profitable.