Can the same techniques used to sell corn flakes, ketchup and power drills be used to sell the Iraq policy to the public and extend the U.S. occupation long into the future? The Bush administration and the Pentagon think so.
Madison Avenue To The Rescue
As more Americans called for an end to the U.S. occupation, the Pentagon secretly ordered a report on ways to extend it long long into the future with the help of "Madison Avenue" marketing techniques--the same techniques used to sell breakfast cereal and hardware products to the American public.
Now available for the public to read, (Enlisting Madison Avenue: The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operation, PDF File 1.37 MB), the report was prepared by the Rand Corporation and cost the American taxpayer $400,000 dollars.
On the heels of a deadly July, with more and more U.S. soldiers killed while Iraqi government officials prepare themselves for a month long vacation, the Rand report opens with a line that suggests the exact opposite of what Americans want (emphasis mine):
Counterinsurgency (COIN) and other stability operations are prominent in the contemporary operating environment and are likely to remain so in the future.
Such a stunning and cynical opening line can mean only one thing: rather than looking for ways to get out of Iraq, bring our soldiers home, and redeploy the military for smarter national security--the Pentagon is ignoring the will of the American public altogether and seeking ways to re-brand the occupation.
If ever there was a piece of writing that should enrage Americans, this report is it.
In chapter after chapter that discusses the importance of "shaping" public perceptions as a technique for selling U.S. military operations to unwilling Iraqis.
Just Like Ketchup and Corn Flakes!
Although written for top Pentagon officials, the Rand report draws widely on marketing studies of Kellogg, Heinz and McDonald's. In one section, the report explains why re-branding is so important for maintaining "market leadership"--a paragraph that seems either ironic or unimaginably cynical given the broad context of the bloody meat-grinder of the Iraq occupation--a context where our soldiers, the Iraqi people, and American military families are "suffering" at almost unimaginable levels:
The slow pour of Heinz ketchup once embodied the brand's positioning of the ketchup as having a thick, rich consistency. Possibly reflecting a new societal focus on speed and efficiency, Heinz still maintains that its ketchup is "thick and rich," but the positioning now focuses more on its new upside-down squeeze packaging that is "always ready when you are." Similarly, McDonald's suffered a tired brand identity, increasing concerns from a health-conscious marketplace, and a saturated fast-food market. It countered this slump with new health-conscious menu items and a hip positioning, reflected in the tagline, "I'm lovin' it TM." In highly competitive markets, adaptation is always a key to success in maintaining market leadership.
(Enlisting Madison Avenue, p. 74)
Applying this logic, the key to "success" in Iraq is to stop worrying about the suffering of people and worry about the suffering of a brand identity.
What follows these surreal discussions of condiments and fast food is a long pitch for the need to re-invent the "tired" brand identity of the entire U.S. military:
Since before World War II, the U.S. military has developed a brand identity based on a force of might. Like all good consumer brands, it was incredibly focused and clear. It served the strategic purpose, like consumer brands do, of imprinting a clear identity on the minds of its intended target, the nation's adversaries. It similarly served as a guiding light for training and corporate behavior and as a reassurance for a second audience, the U.S. public.
More recently, however, the military has been embroiled in numerous smaller conflicts, from Somalia to Haiti and Bosnia. Currently, U.S. and allied forces are engaged in COIN operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many U.S. adversaries in these regions have seen the truth behind the brand: The United States cannot be defeated in open-terrain, force-on-force combat. Instead, the new modus operandi is to retreat into complex terrain, don a civilian cloak, and steadily inflict losses that weaken U.S. public resolve. Deftness of touch in interacting with civilians, applying focused combat power, and collecting HUMINT have become the requirements of the day. Addressing these requirements with brute force has hindered operational success in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Some may hope that such operational trends are only a blip on the historical screen and that a U.S. brand focused solely on the application of superior firepower may again carry the day. This is unlikely to be the case.
Like consumer products positioned and branded for a day gone by, so too is the U.S. military brand identity now--at least in part--out of date. A new and more effective U.S. military brand identity is critical to the success of stability operations for several reasons. We posit that engendering positive indigenous attitudes toward U.S. military presence is important in that it will encourage support of the U.S. military, make U.S. forces more approachable to civilians, and enable more effective and trustworthy communications. The perceptions that people hold about the U.S. military (or the U.S. military brand identity) will prove crucial in molding relevant attitudes. Importantly, an effective brand identity also internally guides corporate actions and communication. It is similar to a commander's intent, imbued from boot camp to combat and beyond.
Developing a coherent external and internal branding strategy presents a formidable challenge to the U.S. military. First, what is needed today is a military with an image and capability that addresses both ends of the operational spectrum--and everything in between. The same infantry battalion that fights tooth and nail to establish a foothold in enemy-held urban territory must further conduct kind-hearted and culturally attuned stability-and-support operations while being prepared for the administration of restrained violence directed at insurgents. It is a duality, hard and soft, that does not fit easily into any clear operational concept or brand-like ethos.
(Enlisting Madison Avenue, p. 74-76)
How Are We Doing?
In the end, the report issues 11 specific recommendations about clarifying the brand identity of the military and operations in Iraq--delivered, curiously, in language that is staggeringly unclear.
One recommendation for example, seems to be suggesting the need for the Pentagon to conduct focus groups and feedback surveys in Iraq to figure out the best ways to communicate with locals, but this is the actual wording:
Listen to the voice of the civilian: Monitor outcomes. Businesses frequently conduct surveys to monitor satisfaction levels. Customer advisory boards and complaint lines provide additional avenues for customer feedback. Coalition forces can use these techniques to gauge attitudes toward U.S. force actions and to determine ways to modify efforts to increase popular support. Civilian satisfaction should be monitored from multiple perspectives, including surveys, town hall-style meetings, and civilian advisory boards.
(Enlisting Madison Avenue, p. 174)
So, what would this recommendation look like if it were actually applied? Maybe, after an operation to sweep enemy forces out of a village, the Marines can send people through the town with customer feedback cards titled, "How Are We Doing?" Mail in this survey and your name will be entered in an iPod giveaway contest.
While this marketing report is unlikely to bring about changes in Iraq, and even less likely to make the occupation more successful, it is a snapshot of the profound disconnect between the Bush administration and the American people.
Just knowing that this report exists will enrage the American public. Rather than changing the policy, the administration seems determined to keep selling us the same burger, while trying to make us feel better about swallowing it.
(cross posted from Frameshop)