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My recent essay in Advertising Age prompted quite a response, most of which was petulant and angry. I could have made my case more convincingly, but even with that said the comments revealed a shocking ignorance of recent history, and a willingness to replace reason with bluster.

My point was simple: It’s a bad idea for the US military to use faux blog posts and other dishonest efforts to counter the lies that extremists propagate in open chat rooms (think Facebook, only in Farsi), because it won’t work (we’ve seen it fail when companies try to do it), and because there are better ways to sway public opinion while respecting our own principles (i.e. tell them the truth). I wrote that I was surprised that my fellow marketers hadn’t spoken out on this, though the reaction I got could be one of the reasons why they haven’t uttered a peep.

The comments about my essay made three broad complaints:

  1. All’s fair in war, and it was naive of me to think otherwise.
  2. We won the Cold War through similarly devious uses of public communication.
  3. I had no expertise or right to suggest a different approach for our government.

Again, I take responsibility for much of their confusion, as I must not have made my position clear enough. But I suspect that a good number of them didn’t read my piece, which says something both about their biases and initiative, and the limitations of using tools like comments following blog posts and calling it a “conversation.”

I want to address each point:

All’s Fair in War

Duh. I understand that the point of fighting a war is to kill your enemies until they give up or exist no more, and that there’s nothing fair or polite about doing it. Enemies should be lied to, tricked, and misled if it means more of them will die (and fewer of us). A good number of comments made this point as if it wasn’t a given. I should have stated it more clearly.

But my essay wasn’t about fighting a war, just as the military program I questioned isn’t about enemies. The $2.76 million program (out of a $200 million psy ops budget, which is a bit over 1%) is intended for public forums in which the military wants to sway people to favor America. So this has nothing to do with lying to our enemies, but instead lying to potential friends. It’s a virtual hearts-and-minds program in which we plan to fight lies with different lies. Do we need our military managing faux online personas to deliver such pro-American propaganda? I think there are better ways to do it, most notably by delivering genuine pro-American information instead of working secretly to jinn it up (the military’s contract specifies “excellent cover and powerful deniability”). The whole point of a public forum is to get the public involved, and last time I checked there were 300 million-plus real people here who might be willing to pitch in.

How We Won the Cold War

I can’t take responsibility for commenters’ misunderstanding of history. Our military didn’t win the Cold War, but rather fought the Soviets and their minions to a stalemate that was as necessary as it was enduring. Mutual assured destruction (MAD) meant that neither side could outfight the other, and that’s one of the reasons why the war went on for more than generation. What eventually toppled the USSR was its inability to provide for the economic and intellectual fulfillment of its people. They spent themselves into collapse trying to keep up with us — “Star Wars” being either a brilliant propaganda move or just an insane idea, though it doesn’t matter since the outcome was the same — and they could no longer cover-up the shortcomings of life under their rule.

What helped make the triumph of our political system impossible to deny by anyone other than an appartchik, as evidenced by things like stocked supermarkets, was communications between the peoples of the US and USSR, such as the student and professional exchange programs that functioned as a nascent social media of its day. It was the awareness of the truth gained through such activities, which spoke truths that were more powerful than the best propaganda lies propagated by the Soviets, that helped win the war; in fact, we didn’t win it as much as they lost it or, better put, we made their failure inevitable through a number of different means, military, economic, and psychological. Lying to the world about our way of life, or in any way purposefully deceiving any of the proxies which we hoped to recruit to our side, wasn’t one of them. To declare otherwise is nothing more than the bluster of a fist-pump.

It’s None of My Business

The personal attacks were the toughest parts of the comments for me, only because it showed such shallowness and anger. My guess is that the angriest complaints came from folks who didn’t bother to read my piece but chose instead to shout some preconceived opinion. As I discussed in my first book, this is a common behavior in the social space: Comments comment on comments, not substance, and certainly with no intention of understanding, let alone persuasion. The people who accused me of failing to understand the issues or claimed I had no right to offer an opinion revealed the shortcomings of the format of blog comments as much as their own failure to understand the debate. Their opinions may have come from the right place of patriotism, they were arguing about the wrong things.

It’s a simple, sad fact that our government has waged a piss-poor campaign to communicate brand America within the countries in which our enemies are found, converted, and inspired, and I hold both Democratic and Republican administrations responsible. I also blame my fellow marketers for not volunteering our time and expertise — remember, we still lead the world in the creation of commercial and entertainment content — and it was to these readers of Advertising Age to whom I complained in my essay. We have been all but silent, both in defense of the media on which we presume to build our own fates, and in offering support on how our government could use it better.

Our war against terrorism threatens to last as long as the Cold War, if not longer, but I firmly believe that we can win it if we find ways to communicate who we are and what we stand for. A campaign that presumes to do so in the court of public opinion as part of our military’s psy ops activity isn’t the right strategy. The way to attract more people to our thinking isn’t to lie better or more often than our enemies.

We should go surreptitiously lie to the bad guys and then kill them in the ways that wars must be fought. We’ll convince everyone else of the righteousness of our cause by publicly telling them the truth.

(Image credit: What are you really saying?)

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