Advertising as a Weapon of War

February 8, 2009 at 6:05 pm 1 comment

(This is a satirical piece I wrote shortly after the Republicans were obliterated in the 2006 elections, losing control of both houses of Congress. Nevertheless, I dare say there remains some sound advice here for President Obama today. Perhaps once he has healed the economy, organized our communities and lowered the seas, he will see fit to act on my plan to use advertising to take the starch out of our enemies, Islamic terrorists who are bent on our destruction (not, I hasten to add, the many peace-loving, law-abiding, tolerant Muslims who wish to join hands with us and sing folk songs.)

25 November 2006

Dear Mr. President:

I do not write to console you over the catastrophic results of the midterm elections. With all due respect, sir, this is no time to feel sorry for yourself. I write to urge you to hitch up your trousers at this decisive moment in history and seize an opportunity to strike a thunderous blow against Islamic fascism. A blow that will not require our soldiers to drop one bomb, fire a single shot or shed a drop of blood. Better still, this blow will simultaneously raise the level of discourse in American politics for years to come. My idea is simple but unquestionably brilliant. Point Karl Rove at the enemy.

Allow me to explain.

As you doubtless recall, you were once a believer in advertising as a weapon in the war on terror. In October of 2001, you named Charlotte Beers, the only person who has chaired two of the top ten advertising agencies in the world, Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. In that role she masterminded an advertising campaign called “Shared Values” that was intended to sell the United States to Muslims across the Middle East. On the off chance you hadn’t noticed, it failed.

The idea was to pitch the United States of America like a product—one that comes equipped standard with freedom, democracy and tolerance—to the Islamic world. The theory seems to have been that if the people who hate us just understood our product better, they would buy it.


Beers made a fundamental error. She used a product branding strategy when what was called for was a political strategy. Why did she make such an obvious mistake? After all, when you’re talking about international terrorism, the clash of civilizations and the like, you’re talking geopolitics, plain and simple. Candidly, sir, I think it’s because she was unwilling to embrace the unpleasant truth about what consistently works in political advertising—namely, attacking. Attacking savagely and without remorse. Attacking to embarrass, humiliate and shame your opponent. Attacking with half-truths, insinuations and outright lies if that’s what it takes to win. In short, the kind of stuff Karl Rove arguably does better than anyone who has ever lived.

The kind of political advertising I’m talking about makes us wince. We are ashamed that in 2006 in the United States of America it passes for political discourse, and we should be. I hasten to add that I don’t blame Mr. Rove for this. This type of advertising exists because no one can advance an intelligent political argument in thirty seconds. About the only thing one can do effectively in that amount of time is to launch an assault. Though we would all like to see modern political advertising rise to the level of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the medium makes it a virtual impossibility. Rove did not create the ideological bias of the medium; he simply exploited it better than anyone.

The essence of my proposal is this: Instead of using this terrible weapon of political advertising against each other, let’s use it against our enemies. Our objective shouldn’t be to get Muslims to buy into the American way. We tried that; it didn’t work. Our objective should be to get Muslims not to buy into Islamic fascism. And we should do that by employing ridicule, insults and every filthy, rotten, dirty trick we can imagine.

Suicide bombers are revered as martyrs in much of the Islamic world. Why not launch a campaign that belittles them, questions their manhood, shames their families, and indicts them as despicable murderers?

Terrorists are hailed as heroes from the streets of Beirut to the lawless frontiers of Pakistan. Let’s metaphorically pull their pants down and embarrass them in front of their supporters, question their faith, heckle them without mercy, transform them into objects of scorn.

No, this proposal isn’t “politically correct” (a stupid and deceptive phrase if ever there was one), and I recognize that it will make many people uncomfortable. I can hear them asking, “shouldn’t we be taking the high road? Isn’t this just sinking to the terrorists’ level?” Let’s remember precisely what their level is. It’s indiscriminately killing civilians. Anyone who believes that is morally equivalent to running a nasty ad campaign is not to be taken seriously.

As for taking the high road, if you’re going to do that, you have to rely on tools like persuasion. If you’re going to try to persuade someone of something, you’d do well to make sure they are open to considering other points of view. I’m not sure many of our enemies meet that criterion. Take, for instance, the late Hussein Massawi, former leader of Hezbollah who, in a moment of admirable candor, explained his position with regard to pretty much all of western civilization:

“We are not fighting so you will offer us something. We are fighting to eliminate you.”

Maybe I’m missing something, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for negotiation in that stance.

There’s another reason we should be attacking our enemies with ferocious ads instead of wooing them with puffery about what a jolly place America is. Ultimately, Islamic fascists don’t draw much of a distinction between us and any other western nation. The truth is, Mr. President, if you were to appoint Jacques Chirac Secretary of State, it wouldn’t make any difference to them.

Don’t believe me? Consider what the spokesman for the Islamic Army of Aden said after his organization launched a suicide attack on the French oil tanker Limburg on October 6, 2002:

“We would have preferred to hit a U.S. frigate, but no problem because they all are infidels.”

No problem, indeed. We have a weapon we can deploy against this gentleman and other like-minded people. People who deserve to feel its full fury far more than John Kerry and Max Cleland ever did or ever will. Do what is right, Mr. President. Launch Karl Rove against Islamic fascism like a giant round stone from a catapult before the United Nations moves to outlaw him and his dark art. Not only the legacy of your presidency but the very future of the west depends on your decisive action.


Your advertising buddy, Scott Johnson

P.S. If you need me to recommend some freelance writers to help Rove out with the campaign, let me know. There are plenty of surly ones out there who would like a shot at this gig, and I’m positive we could get them to give us a discount off their usual rates if they think they can get a book piece out of it.

Entry filed under: Advertising and Marketing. Tags: , , , , .

Abolish Your Interactive Department The New Demand-Side Economics of Media

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Mathias Jahn  |  February 10, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Point Karl Rove to the enemy? How will he be launched? Is he cruise missile- or loose cannon-style? Maybe he works like nuclear deterrent (threatening, while hoping for the best)?

    Thanks for the elaborate proposal. It would work, in my opinion. But it also fires back (ask the danish cartoonist who drew Mohammed with a bomb as a turban…)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


February 2009

%d bloggers like this: