Information Warfare: Mad Men Go To War

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April 20, 2010: For the last four months, the United States has unleashed a new weapon against the Taliban; mass market advertising. Using radio, newspapers and magazines, television, billboards and posters, the new campaign stresses security, reconstruction and children. The security ads try to improve the image of the security forces, depicting them as warriors protecting all Afghans. The reconstruction ads emphasize how everyone benefits from building the economy and government, and how everyone must pitch in. The third group of ads stress the importance Ifor the future of the country) of raising and educating children.

To make it all work, the U.S. hired a local advertising firm (one of the few in the country) that was started eight years ago by four Afghan siblings (three brothers and a sister) who returned from Australia (where they grew up and already had careers as lawyer, investment banker, stockbroker and marketer) to help rebuild Afghanistan. The company they founded, the Moby Group, became a media conglomerate that has grown to 700 employees (in fifteen locations in Afghanistan, plus one in the U.S. and one in Dubai). The Moby Group was able to combine Western marketing techniques with a deep understanding of Afghan culture. Thus the ads look odd to Westerners (the billboards look like 1940s movie posters), but get the message across to Afghans. The Moby group also owns radio and TV stations, so they knew the local media well. With a population that is over 60 percent illiterate, radio and TV are important, and even the billboards and posters are designed to sell a message to viewers who cannot read the text.

The advertising campaign also has to take into account tribal and ethnic differences, as well as some serious national problems (corruption and drugs). The American military personnel (the "client") working with the Moby Group (the "agency") have several key personnel who are reservists with civilian jobs in marketing and advertising. Thus client and agency can speak the same language. Keeping score is done though the marketing firms that have been conducting opinion surveys for years, and even the Taliban and drug lords pay attention to the results.

This is not the first time the United States has used advertising in this part of the world. Back in 1984, the United States began offering rewards of one to seven million dollars for information leading to the capture of terrorists, and lesser amounts to those who provided evidence against a terrorist or provided good information about a planned terrorist act. Various forms of advertising were used to get the word out. By September 11, 2001, five major terrorists had been captured because of this program. Over $6 million was been paid out to in over 20 cases. Some 42 percent of the informants requested security protection and another 42 percent sought relocation for themselves and family members to another country or region to avoid of retaliation.

Advertising the rewards was not as easy as it sounds. The FBI undertook several advertising campaigns in Pakistan, using matchbook covers, posters and other media to remind people in the tribal territories that rewards of up to twenty-five million dollars are being offered for prominent al Qaeda members. In addition to the cash rewards, "relocation (to another country, for the tipster and immediate family) is available". At least half a dozen al Qaeda big shots have been caught this way, and rewards paid. The proliferation of cell phone use in the tribal areas (on both sides of the border) is expected to make it easier for tipsters to make contact.

 

 


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