A few days ago, American PSYOP publicly announced its involvement in the fight against Daesh in a spectacular way: the rarely-used leaflet bomb. The leaflet dissemination was first reported in USA Today by Tom Vanden Brook, who is known within the community for his often highly critical, but usually salient, reporting on American influence operations. In this case, Mr. Vanden Brook seemed to reserve judgement, although some analysis of the potential efficacy of this product is certainly warranted.

PSYOP is about much more than leaflets and comic books. It is, at its most fundamental, about shaping behaviors. Leaflets can be used in pursuit of this goal, sometimes to great effect, often times not. The surrender leaflets used during Desert Storm are the pinnacle of success for that delivery platform. As anyone comparing those leaflets to today’s can tell, the PSYOP Regiment has come a long way in its visual production capabilities:

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Desert Storm
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Today

The design team on this leaflet did an amazing job. The story it tells is immediate, visually stunning, and compelling. Generally, this leaflet speaks to a fear of death, informing potential male recruits that they will be fed into a meat grinder by nefarious Daesh executioners. There are some more subtle allusions and possible messages at work here, such as undermining the likelihood of glory in combat. Unfortunately, without access to the concept designs or the pre-test data, it is difficult to be certain of any of the more obscure possibilities.

The problem is with the story itself. Before this leaflet reached the design stage, ideally a team of PSYOP personnel invested an untold amount of time in research and analysis, crafting the message so that it would be clear and cogent. But, was it the right story to tell? The concern is that, while a fear of death is a powerful motivator to Western audiences, it carries less weight with the leaflet’s intended audience, who earnestly believe in the afterlife and that the physical realm is just a doorway to paradise.