Study Recommends Marketing Tactics for Iraq War The war in Iraq has an image problem, and a new study suggests one solution might be to call in Madison Avenue-style marketing. The report by the Rand Corporation recommends the military use several commercial marketing concepts to help win support from the local Afghan and Iraqi people.
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Study Recommends Marketing Tactics for Iraq War

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Right now, branding war. A new study by the Rand Corporation says the U.S. military could take lessons from Madison Avenue in carrying out its mission in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report recommends the military use several commercial marketing concepts to help win support from the local Afghan and Iraqi people.

The author of the study will join us in a minute, as will a crisis management expert, to talk about the findings. We also want to hear from you. If you've been to Iraq or have relatives there, do you think advertising concepts like branding or social marketing would work?

If you work in advertising or marketing, what do you think? Give us a call. The number is 800-989-8255 or send us an e-mail to talk@npr.org.

Joining us from the studios of member station WDUQ in Pittsburgh is Todd Helmus. He authored the Rand study. It's called "Enlisting Madison Avenue: The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operation." Thanks for being with us, Mr. Helmus.

Mr. TODD HELMUS (Author, "Enlisting Madison Avenue: The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operation"): Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: Now, this study seems to build on the concept of shaping the enemy. And I wonder if you could explain what that is and how the military has used that in the past.

Mr. HELMUS: Well, it's understood, sort of, from the history of warfare that militaries have attempted to shape adversary behavior and their will to fight. And the focus has generally been on influencing adversaries in attempting to defeat them.

And there are a number of examples of attempting to shape an adversary. You can do so through - maneuver through information operations, attempting to deplete their will. There are a number of different ways.

NEARY: Now, this study seems to take idea a step further, recommending that the military can actually learn a few things from advertising. How so? What can they learn?

Mr. HELMUS: Well, there's a basic premise here. In a counterinsurgency operation, local population ultimately has a choice to make in terms of who they're going to support. They can support the local government in intervening forces or they can support the insurgents.

So ultimately, to prevent an insurgency, you have to gain support of this population. Businesses, too, attempted to earn support from consumers for their products. And so we are interested in understanding how commercial marketing practices - which are very widely implemented and understood - how those might help the military learn to connect with the civilian populations.

NEARY: Did you actually talk to Iraqis and Afghans about this?

Mr. HELMUS: No, we did not.

NEARY: You didn't. What does the study recommend?

Mr. HELMUS: Well, we looked at a number of different things. For example, we address branding, market segmentation, understanding civilian audiences. For example, it's a fundamental principle of commercial marketing that businesses, first, must understand the needs and wants of their customers if they're going to deliver products that satisfy.

Well, the U.S. military and any counterinsurgent force for that manner does a number of things. And we conduct day-to-day operations, civil affairs activities, communications, reconstruction. What we argue is that military should first seek to understand the needs and preferences of the local population to understand what their needs are and ideally incorporate those into their decision-making process, so that the actions that they take have the best opportunities of gaining support.

NEARY: It seems like that should have been understood earlier and that it doesn't need to be understood entirely in advertising terms. I have to say, for me, it's just a little almost odd to hear advertising terms like you just used - the needs and wants of the customers, or the word branding - when you're talking about a war in an occupation.

Mr. HELMUS: Well, as I mentioned, the key is to gain support of the civilian population. When we do things in individual neighborhoods and in local cities, we want to make sure that our activities are as less disruptive as possible. Ultimately, for example, when you're deciding what initiatives are you going to take in civil affairs activities or what have you, then ideally, you want to ensure that the actions that you take are going to get the best benefit possible.

NEARY: Now, you…

Mr. HELMUS: Now…

NEARY: Go ahead.

Mr. HELMUS: Go ahead.

NEARY: Well, I was going to say that you do, in fact, make a recommendation about branding with regard to…

Mr. HELMUS: Absolutely.

NEARY: Tell us what that is.

Mr. HELMUS: Well, a foundation of this research was that every action, message, and decision of a force shapes the civilian population - that not only includes our communications, about how we treat civilians at checkpoints, and the accuracy of air bombardments. This idea that everything influences is really a key concept for branding. We know, in terms of defining brands, brands are simply perceptions that people have about an object, either a product or a service. Everything has a brand identity, and the U.S. military would be no exception to that. So with that in mind, it makes sense that the military would be interested in creating positive perceptions, or you call it positive brand identity among the civilian population.

Now, the way businesses go about creating brand identities is they first determine what their core message is. Once they have a core message and they attempted to integrate that message into all actions - not only their communications, but also their product features in the interactions that customers have with their service personnel. So Volvo is branded on safety and it's a very clear message. And commercials certainly relay that message, but the product ultimately has to deliver. With that in mind, we see a couple of implementations in terms of how branding can be understood for the military. Like I said, the military has a brand in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they need to understand that everything influences that.

Second of all, when we entered Iraq, we did so with - for lack of a better word - a reputation of force of might. It was a very effective brand developed during the Cold War and it helped to stop the Soviet advance and to protect the nation. But now that operations require winning hearts and minds, the military and the U.S. government needs to develop a core message that can reach these populations. We'll still have to use force, but that message cannot be - but force of might cannot be your only message.

NEARY: Okay. Let's bring Eric Dezenhall into the conversation now. He's the head of Dezenhall Resources. They're a crisis management company here in Washington, and his most recent book is "Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management is Wrong." Eric is with me here in studio 3A. Good to have you with us.

Mr. ERIC DEZENHALL (CEO, Dezenhall Resources; Author, "Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management is Wrong"): Thank you.

NEARY: Now, I know you've looked at this study. I'm just curious. What's your reaction?

Mr. DEZENHALL: I thought it was fascinating, but I'm a skeptic. I think my experience - I make my living, communicating with hostile audiences. And my experience has been you can only spin a public that wants to be spun. And, you know, in American culture, we've developed this evangelical belief in the spin-doctor, this notion that anything can be spun. And my problem with the marketing model of communications is it tends to assume a relatively neutral audience. If you're sitting at home and you're watching TV and Cindy Crawford comes on with a Pepsi, you know, you're not necessarily coming into that with intense political baggage.

What I find, you know, in the damage control area, is you're not communicating with a remotely neutral audience. You are communicating with an audience that not only doesn't want to be educated by you, that you're communicating with an audience that often wants to kill you. You know, the issue is not whether or not there aren't lessons to be learned in the branding world - I think that there are. My problem is I think that, you know, I get these calls from people - a chemical company spills a chemical and, oh, let's bring in the PR people. Well, what exactly do you think we can do? You know, at some level, they want you to cleanup…

NEARY: At some point, when the situation is so bad, there's not much that can be done.

Mr. DEZENHALL: Well…

NEARY: Is that what you're saying?

Mr. DEZENHALL: And that the communication's discipline has limitations.

NEARY: Right. Okay. Let's take a call. Let's go to Dan. He's calling from Syracuse. Hi, Dan.

DAN (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Go ahead.

DAN: Yes. I was in Iraq for a year as a civil affairs soldier and spent a lot of time going out talking to people and being out in the community. But I think that the idea that we need to use marketing techniques is a good one because there's only so much that soldiers can do to get the message out and to put out our partyline. But when you hear it from a guy with a gun and body armor, it doesn't come off quite the same as if you see something on television or through the media because, you know, even in the poorest households, everybody had a satellite television, because that was the easiest way to communicate. And I don't feel like we're really using that resource to the best of our abilities. So I think there's potential here. It's not panacea. It's not going to fix everything, but it definitely should be a tool in our tool chest.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your comment, Dan. Todd Helmus, though, I'd like you to respond to that because I'm not sure that's exactly what you are talking about. It seems to me, part of what you're talking about is that even members of the military need to be inculcated with this idea of a brand that is a kinder, gentler kind of brand than the one we've been using thus far.

Mr. HELMUS: Exactly. The goal of our work was not to identify or necessarily promote a fancy communications campaign, but ultimately, to recommend changes in U.S. force presence that make them less disruptive and more acceptable to civilians. We think that soldier-civilian interactions are actually a key component to this. We ideally would want these soldier-civilian interactions to be such that they help to earn local support. And it's partly what soldiers say when they're on patrol to local civilians, but more importantly how they act toward those civilians and the types of operations that they conduct to ensure that they're at least disruptive as possible.

NEARY: Yeah. And I'm just wondering, Eric Dezenhall, do you think that some of what we're discussing here could have been used early on? I mean, as we're even planning to go into Iraq that you could have…

Mr. DEZENHALL: Well…

NEARY: …made use some of these concepts?

Mr. DEZENHALL: I guess where I come at it is you need to understand what you can accomplish through communications and what you can't. I mean, historically, wartime propaganda is about frightening your enemies and rallying your friends. It's hard to do anything else. And I think that as a general rule, if you win the war, you're going to get good PR. If you're losing, you're going to get bad PR. And the problem with this war is we are losing - or put differently, we are not winning, and I just don't think that we have an audience that is receptive to communications when what they're trying to figure out is whether they're going to survive the day.

NEARY: I just want to remind our listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

We're going to go to Hank now in Oakland, California. Hank, go ahead.

HANK (Caller): The conversation reminds me that movie "Thank You for Smoking," which is sort of offensive. I think people understand the truth and you can't just sell them a bill of goods and expect them to swallow it. So I want to ask the gentleman who published this report, if he's trying to sell, you know, American goodness or if he is trying to cover a war?

NEARY: Well, I don't think he's covering. He's not…

HANK: Cover - okay, cover up a war.

NEARY: Okay.

HANK: I mean, it's a war. The people in Iraq know what's happening to them. They're not really going to buy a good message or friendly office - a friendly military men because they understand what's going through them. And so, is this, you know, the Bush administration have the best minds behind this project and they've been working for five years to try to sell it through the TV sets in Iraq. But people know the truth eventually.

NEARY: Well, we should make it clear that this was a - this study was paid for by the Pentagon. The Pentagon paid $400,000 for this study, am I correct, Todd?

Mr. HELMUS: Mm-hmm.

HANK: Well, on top of how many millions has the Pentagon already spent trying to make it look, you know, put a silk purse on a pig, like it's just - this conversation really points out the immorality of the public relations industry. Would he like to comment on that?

NEARY: Todd Helmus, what was - Todd Helmus…

Mr. HELMUS: Well, absolutely. You know, again, I want to emphasize that this report is not about fancy communications. It's about understanding how soldiers interact with local population, about the types of operation that we conduct to insure that they are as least disruptive as possible.

HANK: But soldiers…

Mr. HELMUS: Now the…

HANK :…have one goal and that is to shoot people.

Mr. HELMUS: Well, that's a great point, and let me introduce my - another point that we make. In branding, businesses attempt to synchronize their brand identity, in part, through culture. Every employee has to understand what their brand stands for and what their on-and-off brand behaviors are. What we suggest is at the military, ultimately, if we're going to be conducting stability operations - and we're doing them now, and if we do them in the future - then we need to build an internal culture that values its role in earning civilian support.

It's true that for the past number of years, the military has been trained to put steel on a target. But ultimately, in addition to being effective with their firearms, they also have to be effective in communicating with the local civilians in interacting with them. But they have to appreciate that if it's going to be successful.

NEARY: But why do you call that a brand? I mean, isn't that that you're training soldiers to hold on to certain values even when they're in the midst of a war and you're may be training soldiers to have a cultural sensitivity and understanding? I just don't understand why that's put in an advertising term like branding. I don't understand that. I'll be really honest with you. I just don't.

Mr. HELMUS: No, that's fine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELMUS: And ultimately, we may have been able to come up with some of -many of our same observations by studying psychology or sociology or what have you.

NEARY: Okay.

Mr. HELMUS: It just so happened that we looked at marketing in part because some of the examples that we use in our report and understanding the marketing industry is very salient. But - ultimately, culture is key to building a brand identity.

As I mentioned before, the way we understand businesses build brands is they first identify a core message. Now, the military could've identified at a positive core message to begin with - and we did attempted to do that. But ultimately, if the culture of your organization is not attuned to manifesting that message on a very real level, you're going to have a hard time with success. So the idea that we could all of a sudden change our military force that was otherwise prepared for conventional military operations on a whim's notice to interact with civilian population is a tall order.

NEARY: Eric Dezenhall, you were saying that there are limits to communications. But is there anything that the military could do at this point, really, to win the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq?

Mr. DEZENHALL: At this point, I would say no. I don't believe it is a communications discipline. Look, there are certain cases in my business - and I charge money to do what I do. Certain cases I don't take because there's nothing I can do. The communications discipline doesn't apply.

I mean, if you look at the - one model look at militarily is the Israelis. The Israeli's understand they can't have both their homeland and have the world love them at the same time, because in order to have their homeland, they have to kill people. And it doesn't look good when tanks roll over a home where terrorists are hiding amongst, you know, people who are perfectly innocent. So they have to make a choice. And I think one of the problems that Americans have is we want to have things both ways. We want to win wars, but we don't want to hurt anybody's feelings. And I don't know that it's doable.

NEARY: Todd Helmus, just briefly, what happens with this report now? Is the Pentagon going to incorporate some of these things in training or what?

Mr. HELMUS: Well, they will certainly study the concepts that we've identified. Those will go to concept developers, experimenters, war gamers, and others who will try and evaluate at what level this fits in the doctrine.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for being with us, Todd.

Mr. HELMUS: Thank you.

NEARY: Todd Helmus is the author of "Enlisting Madison Avenue: The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operation." And Eric Dezenhall also joined us. He is the CEO of Dezenhall Resources. That's a crisis management firm here in Washington, D.C.

And this is TALK OF THE NATION in Washington, D.C. I'm Lynn Neary.

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