From the Series: Book Forum: Guerrilla Marketing
In 2011, the Colombian Ministry of Defense partnered with a prominent Colombian consumer marketing firm to plan its second annual Christmas campaign. It was an expensive and heavily coordinated affair, replete with a parade, musical performance, and the release of thousands of glowing plastic balls into the Orteguaza River. The military spent tens of thousands of dollars on “Operation Rivers of Light,” Alexander L. Fattal tells us in the second chapter of Guerrilla Marketing (University of Chicago Press, 2018), an “operation” at once military and commercial, targeting the FARC Marxist guerrilla rebels (88). The military hoped that such highly mediatized spectacularity, inflected by the props of humanitarianism and playing on the story of the national family, would not only transform these rebels into pliant consumer-citizens but therein advance the larger state project of Colombia nation branding in the (ostensible) post-conflict moment.
Fattal’s Guerrilla Marketing is many things: a cultural history of Colombia’s propaganda war, including the media strategies of its armed groups; an ethnography of the lives of former FARC guerillas; and an account of the Colombian state’s turn to marketing logics and commercial style branding in an attempt to conduct its counterinsurgency more effectively—this in years when the promise of a so-called peace process had broken down. In Fattal’s words, Guerrilla Marketing is a story of “how military power, a state function, is refracted through the commodity form” (80).
Fattal’s richly detailed ethnography—dizzyingly so, at times—foregrounds the question of how statecraft is transformed through the neoliberal injunction to “brand yourself.” As we know, it is a global injunction, one that functions at multiple scales—from that of the individual (of which the selfie may be its most poignant form), to that of the state. The Colombian state would take injunction very seriously in the early years of the twenty-first century (beginning in 2008, Fattal argues), turning to marketing firms, logics, and heavily choreographed spectacles as a way to succeed in counterinsurgency where more classic forms of both military intervention and “peace negotiations” had failed. Consumer marketing, they hoped, would provide a means of winning hearts and minds—both of the FARC and of the global publics who subsequently consumed these spectacles in media form. His work brings us to the site of these spectacles—amazing the reader, over and over again, of how this then–Harvard Ph.D. student had this kind of access, behind the scenes, to the theater of statecraft. But Guerilla Marketing is perhaps most powerful offstage, in the corporate boardrooms and over brunch where, in the hands of the consumer marketing firm Lowe/SSP3—a transnational advertising firm based in London—the script for Colombia’s heavily mediatized and consumer-oriented counterinsurgency was being drafted by ad executives, in collaboration with the state.
And not only in Colombia. In Israel, where I conduct my research, the injunction “brand yourself” has long been taken seriously by state actors; indeed, they laud their “pioneering” work in this regard. On the social media feed of the Israeli military, or in conversations with state officials, the echoes of Fattal’s work abounds: in the military’s narrative of humanitarian necessity, in marketing of the consumer good life as a strategy of political distraction (“Start Up Nation!”), in the labor of mediatized spectacle to draw national and global eyes from the scenes and histories of state violence in an effort to attract international tourist dollars and foreign investment. At play in these examples, as in the Colombian case, is an entangled “convergence of marketing and militarism.” Fattal’s story of this convergence helps us fine-tune our telling of neoliberal military machines.