The war of the words

Posted by on Jan 19, 2006 in Messaging

The appearance of a new message from Osama bin Laden—another scratchy cassette tape with an uncanny ability to cut through the daily global communication noise—reminded us of a somewhat incredible paper we ran into a year ago on the web.

This is the Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication. Commissioned by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, the report poses the problem of US policy in the Mid East in terms of marketing and brand management. You might have read about it before in a piece Sydney Blumenthal wrote in Salon in late 2004.

When we read it the first time we were taken aback, and maybe betrayed our own innocence when we asked “Is the clash between Islam and the West the sort of thing you should apply a marketing solution to?” The report plows ahead confidently. The Muslim world, it tells us, has to be understood as an audience to win in a war of ideas. The paper, written by some team of consultants well-versed in the principles of marketing communication, recommends going through all the classic steps to win the propaganda battle—research, segmentation of the Muslim “market,” trying out various positioning alternatives, developing a communication channel strategy, shaping policies to reinforce brand promises, and so on.

In the process of digging into real “customer needs” the report pulls no punches: “Today we reflexively compare Muslim ‘masses’ to those oppressed under Soviet rule. This is a strategic mistake. There is no yearning-to-be-liberated-by-the-U.S. groundswell among Muslim societies — except to be liberated perhaps from what they see as apostate tyrannies that the U.S. so determinedly promotes and defends.” Or: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies.”

At any rate, the report was clearly ignored by its target audience. Assuming you even want to think about this struggle in marketing terms, it finds the administration has merely paid lip service to communication strategy at home, and as a result has needlessly damaged the “American brand” abroad.

Anyway, it’s a long paper—about 80 or 90 pages. But disturbing and thought-provoking if you give yourself an evening to chew on it.