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Trading on fear

by The Guardian Sunday, Jul. 13, 2003 at 3:45 PM

Trading on fear From the start, the invasion of Iraq was seen in the US as a marketing project. Selling 'Brand America' abroad was an abject failure; but at home, it worked. Manufacturers of 4x4s, oil prospectors, the nuclear power industry, politicians keen to roll back civil liberties - all seized the moment to capitalise on the war. PR analysts Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber explain how it worked.

Saturday July 12, 2003

The Guardian

"The United States lost the public relations war in the Muslim world a long time ago," Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News, said in October 2001. "They could have the prophet Mohammed doing public relations and it wouldn't help."

At home in the US, the propaganda war has been more effective. And a key component has been fear: fear of terrorism and fear of attack.

Early scholars who studied propaganda called it a "hypodermic needle approach" to communication, in which the communicator's objective was to "inject" his ideas into the minds of the target population. Since propaganda is often aimed at persuading people to do things that are not in their own best interests, it frequently seeks to bypass the rational brain altogether and manipulate us on a more primitive level, appealing to emotional symbolism.

Television uses sudden, loud noises to provoke a startled response, bright colours, violence - not because these things are inherently appealing, but because they catch our attention and keep us watching. When these practices are criticised, advertisers and TV executives respond that they do this because this is what their "audience wants". In fact, however, they are appealing selectively to certain aspects of human nature - the most primitive aspects, because those are the most predictable. Fear is one of the most primitive emotions in the human psyche, and it definitely keeps us watching. If the mere ability to keep people watching were really synonymous with "giving audiences what they want", we would have to conclude that people "want" terrorism. On September 11, Osama bin Laden kept the entire world watching. As much as people hated what they were seeing, the power of their emotions kept them from turning away.

And fear can make people do other things they would not do if they were thinking rationally. During the war crimes trials at Nuremberg, psychologist Gustave Gilbert visited Nazi Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering in his prison cell. "We got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction," Gilbert wrote in his journal, Nuremberg Diary.

"Why, of course, the people don't want war," Goering shrugged. "Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? ... That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship ... That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

Politicians and terrorists are not the only propagandists who use fear to drive human behaviour in irrational directions. A striking recent use of fear psychology in marketing occurred following Operation Desert Storm in 1991. During the war, television coverage of armoured Humvees sweeping across the desert helped to launch the Hummer, a consumer version of a vehicle originally designed exclusively for military use. The initial idea to make a consumer version came from the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wanted a tough-looking, road-warrior vehicle for himself. At his prodding, AM General (what was left of the old American Motors) began making civilian Hummers in 1992, with the first vehicle off the assembly line going to Schwarzenegger himself.

In addition to the Hummer, the war helped to launch a broader sports utility vehicle (SUV) craze. Psychiatrist Clotaire Rapaille, a consultant to the automobile industry, conducted studies of postwar consumer psyches for Chrysler and reported that Americans wanted "aggressive" cars. In interviews with Keith Bradsher, the former Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times, Rapaille discussed the results of his research. SUVs, he said, were "weapons" - "armoured cars for the battlefield" - that appealed to Americans' deepest fears of violence and crime.

Another hostility-intensification feature is the "grill guard" promoted by SUV manufacturers. "Grill guards, useful mainly for pushing oryx out of the road in Namibia, have no application under normal driving conditions," says writer Gregg Easterbrook. "But they make SUVs look angrier, especially when viewed through a rearview mirror ... [They] also increase the chance that an SUV will kill someone in an accident."

Deliberately marketed as "urban assault luxury vehicles", SUVs exploit fear while doing nothing to make people safer. They make their owners feel safe, not by protecting them, but by feeding their aggressive impulses. Due to SUVs' propensity for rollovers, notes Bradsher, the occupant death rate in SUVs is actually 6% higher than for cars, 8% in the largest SUVs. Of course, they also get worse mileage. According to dealers, Hummers average a mere eight to 10 miles a gallon - a figure that takes on additional significance in light of the role that dependency on foreign oil has played in shaping US relations with countries in the Middle East. With this combination of features, selling SUVs on their merits would be a challenge, which is why Rapaille consistently advises Detroit to rely instead on irrational fear appeals.

Other products and causes have also exploited fear-based marketing following September 11. "The trick in 2002, say public affairs and budget experts, will be to redefine your pet issue or product as a matter of homeland security," wrote PR Week. "If you can convince Congress that your company's widget will strengthen America's borders, or that funding your client's pet project will make America less dependent on foreign resources, you just might be able to get what you're looking for."

Alaska senator Frank Murkowski used fear of terrorism to press for federal approval of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, telling his colleagues that US purchases of foreign oil helped to subsidise Saddam Hussein and Palestinian suicide bombers. The nuclear power industry lobbied for approval of Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as a repository for high-level radioactive waste by claiming that shipping the waste there would keep nuclear weapons material from falling into the hands of terrorists. Of course, they didn't propose shutting down nuclear power plants, which themselves are prime targets for terrorists.

The National Drug Council retooled the war on drugs with TV ads telling people that smoking marijuana helped to fund terrorism. Environmentalists attempted to take the fund-a-terrorist trope in a different direction, teaming up with columnist Arianna Huffington to launch the "Detroit Project", which produced TV ads modelled after the National Drug Council ads. "This is George," a voiceover said. "This is the gas that George bought for his SUV." The screen then showed a map of the Middle East. "These are the countries where the executives bought the oil that made the gas that George bought for his SUV." The picture switched to a scene of armed terrorists in a desert. "And these are the terrorists who get money from those countries every time George fills up his SUV." In Detroit and elsewhere, however, TV stations that had been only too happy to run the White House anti-drugs ads refused to accept the Detroit Project commercials, calling them "totally inappropriate".

September 11 was frequently compared to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, with White House officials warning that the war on terror would be prolonged and difficult like the second world war, and would require similar sacrifices. But whatever those sacrifices may entail, almost from the start it was clear that they would not include frugality. During the second world war, Americans conserved resources as never before. Rationing was imposed on petrol, tyres and even food. People collected waste such as paper and household cooking scraps so that it could be recycled and used for the war effort. Compare that with the headline that ran in O'Dwyer's PR Daily on September 24, less than two weeks after the terrorist attack: "PR Needed To Keep Consumers Spending."

President Bush himself appeared in TV commercials, urging Americans to "live their lives" by going ahead with plans for vacations and other consumer purchases. "The president of the US is encouraging us to buy," wrote marketer Chuck Kelly in an editorial for the Minneapolis-St Paul Star Tribune, which argued that America was "embarking on a journey of spiritual patriotism" that "is about pride, loyalty, caring and believing" - and, of course, selling. "As marketers, we have the responsibility to keep the economy rolling," wrote Kelly. "Our job is to create customers during one of the more difficult times in our history."

Fear also provided the basis for much of the Bush administration's surging popularity following September 11. In the week immediately prior to the terrorist attacks, Bush's standing in opinion polls was at its lowest point ever, with only 50% of respondents giving him a positive rating. Within two days of the attack, that number shot up to 82%. Since then, whenever the public's attention has begun to shift away from topics such as war and terrorism, Bush has seen his domestic popularity ratings slip downward, spiking up again when war talk fills the airwaves. By March 13-14 2003, his popularity had fallen to 53% - essentially where he stood with the public prior to 9/11. On March 18, Bush declared war with Iraq, and the ratings shot up again to 68% - even when, briefly, it appeared that the war might be going badly.

Only four presidents other than Bush have seen their job rating meet or surpass the 80% mark:

· Franklin Delano Roosevelt reached his highest rating ever - 84% - immediately after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

· Harry Truman hit 87% right after FDR died during the final, crucial phase of the second world war.

· John F Kennedy hit 83% right after the colossal failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

· Dubya's dad, President George HW Bush, hit 89% during Operation Desert Storm.

It seems to be a law of history that times of war and national fear are accompanied by rollbacks of civil liberties and attacks on dissent. During the civil war, Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus. The second world war brought the internment of Japanese-Americans and the cold war McCarthyism. These examples pale compared with the uses of fear to justify mass killings, torture and political arrests in countries such as Mao's China, Stalin's Russia or Saddam's Iraq. Yet these episodes have been dark moments in America's history.

Although the Bush administration took pains to insist that "Muslims are not the enemy" and that it viewed Islam as a "religion of peace", it was unable to prevent a series of verbal attacks against Muslims that have occurred in the US following 9/11 - with some of the attacks coming from Bush's strongest supporters in the conservative movement. "This is no time to be precious about locating the exact individuals directly involved in this particular terrorist attack," wrote columnist Ann Coulter - now famously - two days after the attacks. "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren't punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That's war. And this is war."

Of course, Coulter's column does not reflect the mainstream of US opinion. But it offers a telling illustration of the way that fear can drive people to say and do things that make them feel brave and powerful while actually making them less safe by fanning the flames of intolerance and violence.

Shortly after Coulter's column appeared, it resurfaced on the website of the Mujahideen Lashkar-e-Taiba - one of the largest militant Islamist groups in Pakistan - which works closely with al-Qaida. At the time, the Lashkar-e-Taiba site was decorated with an image that depicted a hairy, monstrous hand with claws in place of fingernails, from which blood dripped on to a burning globe of planet earth. A star of David decorated the wrist of the hairy hand, and behind it stood an American flag. The reproduction of Coulter's column used bold, red letters to highlight the sentence that said to "invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity". To make the point even stronger, the webmaster added a comment: "We told you so. Is anyone listening out there? The noose is already around our necks. The preparation for genocide of ALL Muslims has begun ... The media is now doing its groundwork to create more hostility towards Islam and Muslims to the point that no one will oppose this mass murder which is about to take place. Mosques will be shut down, schools will be closed, Muslims will be arrested, and executed. There may even be special awards set up to kill Muslims. Millions and millions will be slaughtered like sheep. Remember these words because it is coming. The only safe refuge you have is Allah."

Corporate spin doctors, thinktanks and conservative politicians have taken up the rhetoric of fear for their own purposes. Even before 9/11, many of them were engaged in an ongoing effort to demonise environmentalists and other activist groups by associating them with terrorism. One striking indicator of this preoccupation is the fact that Congressman Scott McInnis (Republican, Colorado) had scheduled congressional hearings on "eco-terrorism" to be held on September 12 2001, one day after Congress itself was nearly destroyed in an attack by real terrorists. (The September 11 attacks forced McInnis temporarily to postpone his plans, rescheduling his hearings to February 2002.)

On October 7 2001, the Washington Times printed an editorial calling for "war against eco-terrorists," calling them "an eco-al-Qaida" with "a fanatical ideology and a twisted morality". Conservatives sometimes used the war on terrorism to demonise Democrats. The then Democratic Senate majority leader Tom Daschle was targeted by American Renewal, the lobbying wing of the Family Research Council, a conservative thinktank that spends most of its time promoting prayer in public schools and opposing gay rights. In newspaper ads, American Renewal attempted to paint Daschle and Saddam Hussein as "strange bedfellows". "What do Saddam Hussein and Senate majority leader Tom Daschle have in common?" stated a news release announcing the ad campaign. "Neither man wants America to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."

William J Bennett, Reagan's former education secretary, authored a book titled Why We Fight: Moral Clarity And The War On Terrorism. Through his organisation, Empower America, he launched Americans For Victory Over Terrorism, a group of well-connected Republicans including Jack Kemp, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Trent Lott. "The threats we face today are both external and internal: external in that there are groups and states that want to attack the United States; internal in that there are those who are attempting to use this opportunity to promulgate their agenda of 'blame America first'. Both threats stem from either a hatred for the American ideals of freedom and equality or a misunderstanding of those ideals and their practice," he stated.

Washington Times reporter Ellen Sorokin used terrorist-baiting to attack the National Education Association, America's largest teachers' union and a frequent opponent of Republican educational policies. The NEA's crime was to create a "Remember September 11" website for use as a teaching aid on the first anniversary of the attack. The NEA site had a red, white and blue motif, with links to the CIA and to Homeland Security websites, and it featured three speeches by Bush, whom it described as a "great American". In order to make the case that the NEA was somehow anti-American, Sorokin hunted about on the site and found a link to an essay preaching tolerance towards Arab- and Muslim-Americans. "Everyone wants the terrorists punished," the essay said, but "we must not act like [the terrorists] by lashing out at innocent people around us, or 'hating' them because of their origins ... Groups of people should not be judged by the actions of a few. It is wrong to condemn an entire group of people by association with religion, race, homeland, or even proximity."

In a stunning display of intellectual dishonesty, Sorokin took a single phrase - "Do not suggest any group is responsible" (referring to Arab-Americans in general) - and quoted it out of context to suggest that the NEA opposed holding the terrorists responsible for their deeds. Headlined "NEA delivers history lesson: Tells teachers not to cast 9/11 blame", her story went on to claim that the NEA simultaneously "takes a decidedly blame-America approach".

This, in turn, became the basis for a withering barrage of attacks as the rightwing media echo chamber, including TV, newspapers, talk radio and websites, amplified the accusation, complaining of "terrorism in the classroom" as "educators blame America and embrace Islam". In the Washington Post, George Will wrote that the NEA website "is as frightening, in its way, as any foreign threat". If, as Will insinuated, even schoolteachers are as scary as Saddam or Osama, no wonder the government needs to step in and crack the whip.

Since 9/11, laws have been passed that place new limits on citizen rights, while expanding the government's authority to spy on citizens. In October 2001, Congress passed the ambitiously named USA Patriot Act, which stands for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism". In addition to authorising unprecedented levels of surveillance and incarceration of both citizens and non-citizens, the Act included provisions that explicitly target people simply for engaging in classes of political speech that are expressly protected by the US constitution. It expanded the ability of police to spy on telephone and internet correspondence in anti-terrorism investigations and in routine criminal investigations. It authorised secret government searches, enabling the FBI and other government agencies to conduct searches without warrants and without notifying individuals that their property has been searched. It created a broad new definition of "domestic terrorism" under which political protesters can be charged as terrorists if they engage in conduct that "involves acts dangerous to human life". It also put the CIA back in the business of spying on US citizens and allowed the government to detain non-citizens for indefinite periods of time without trial. The Patriot Act was followed in November 2001 by a new executive order from Bush, authorising himself to order a trial in a military court for any non-citizen he designates, without a right of appeal or the protection of the Bill of Rights.

As if determined to prove that irony is not dead, the Ad Council launched a new series of public service advertisements, calling them a "Freedom Campaign", in July 2002. "What if America wasn't America? Freedom. Appreciate it. Cherish it. Protect it," read the tag line at the end of each TV ad, which attempted to celebrate freedom by depicting what America would look like without it. In one ad, a young man approaches a librarian with a question about a book he can't find. She tells him ominously that the book is no longer available, and the young man is taken away for questioning by a couple of government goons. The irony is that the Patriot Act had already empowered the FBI to seize book sales and library checkout records, while barring booksellers and librarians from saying anything about it to their patrons. It would be nice to imagine that someone at the Ad Council was trying to make a point in opposition to these encroachments on our freedoms. No such point was intended, according to Phil Dusenberry, who directed the ads.

In response to complaints about restrictions on civil liberties, the attorney general, John Ashcroft, testified before Congress, characterising "our critics" as "those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists - for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil." Dennis Pluchinsky, a senior intelligence analyst with the US state department, went further still in his critique of the media. "I accuse the media in the United States of treason," he stated in an opinion article in the Washington Post that suggested giving the media "an Osama bin Laden award" and advised, "the president and Congress should pass laws temporarily restricting the media from publishing any security information that can be used by our enemies".

At MSNBC, a cable TV news network, meanwhile, a six-month experiment to develop a liberal programme featuring Phil Donahue ended just before the war began, when Donahue's show was cancelled and replaced with a programme titled Countdown: Iraq. Although the network cited poor ratings as the reason for dumping Donahue, the New York Times reported that Donahue "was actually attracting more viewers than any other programme on MSNBC, even the channel's signature prime-time programme, Hardball with Chris Matthews". Further insight into the network's thinking appears in an internal NBC report leaked to AllYourTV.com, a website that covers the television industry. The NBC report recommended axing Donahue because he presented a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war ... He seems to delight in presenting guests who are antiwar, anti-Bush and sceptical of the administration's motives." It went on to outline a possible nightmare scenario where the show becomes "a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity".

At the same time that Donahue was cancelled, MSNBC added to its line-up Michael Savage, who routinely refers to non-white countries as "turd world nations" and who charges that the US "is being taken over by the freaks, the cripples, the perverts and the mental defectives". In one broadcast, Savage justified ethnic slurs as a national security tool: "We need racist stereotypes right now of our enemy in order to encourage our warriors to kill the enemy."

In addition to restricting the number of anti-war voices on television and radio, media outlets often engaged in selective presentation. The main voices that television viewers saw opposing the war came from a handful of celebrities such as Sean Penn, Martin Sheen, Janeane Garofalo and Susan Sarandon - actors who could be dismissed as brie-eating Hollywood elitists. The newspapers and TV networks could have easily interviewed academics and other more traditional anti-war sources, but they rarely did. In a speech in the autumn of 2002, Senator Edward Kennedy "laid out what was arguably the most comprehensive case yet offered to the public questioning the Bush administration's policy and timing on Iraq", according to Michael Getler, the Washington Post's ombudsman. The next day, the Post devoted one sentence to the speech. Ironically, Kennedy made ample use in his remarks of the public testimony in Senate armed services committee hearings a week earlier by retired four-star army and marine corps generals who cautioned about attacking Iraq at this time - hearings that the Post also did not cover.

Peace groups attempted to purchase commercial time to broadcast ads for peace, but were refused air time by all the major networks and even MTV. CBS network president Martin Franks explained the refusal by saying, "We think that informed discussion comes from our news programming."

Like all good TV, the war in Iraq had a dramatic final act, broadcast during prime time - the sunlight gleaming over the waves as the president's fighter jet descended from the sky on to the USS Abraham Lincoln. The plane zoomed in, snagged a cable stretched across the flight deck and screeched to a stop, and Bush bounded out, dressed in a snug-fitting olive-green flight suit with his helmet tucked under his arm. He strode across the flight deck, posing for pictures and shaking hands with the crew of the carrier. He had even helped fly the jet, he told reporters. "Yes, I flew it," he said. "Yeah, of course, I liked it." Surrounded by gleaming military hardware and hundreds of cheering sailors in uniform, and with the words "Mission Accomplished" emblazoned on a huge banner at his back, he delivered a stirring speech in the glow of sunset that declared a "turning of the tide" in the war against terrorism. "We have fought for the cause of liberty, and for the peace of the world," Bush said. "Because of you, the tyrant has fallen, and Iraq is free." After the day's festivities, the Democrats got their chance to complain, calling Bush's Top Gun act a "tax-subsidised commercial" for his re-election campaign. They estimated it had cost m to orchestrate all of the details that made the picture look so perfect.

In the end, though, the spin doctors agreed that these were images that would stay in the minds of the American people. It is impossible, of course, for anyone to predict whether the Bush administration's bold gamble in Iraq has succeeded or whether, as Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak warned at the peak of the war, "there will be 100 Bin Ladens afterward". But in the wake of this conflict, we should ask ourselves whether we have made the mistake of believing our own propaganda, and whether we have been fighting the war on terror against the wrong enemies, in the wrong places, with the wrong weapons.

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Amerika Yakov Smirnoff Sunday, Jul. 13, 2003 at 3:47 PM
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