Marketing for Militarism
From the Series: Book Forum: Guerrilla Marketing
Alexander L. Fattal’s Guerrilla Marketing (University of Chicago Press, 2018) is a rich study of the ways in which the Colombian military utilizes advertising agencies to target guerrilla fighters, in the hopes of demobilizing them. The book explores the intersections of consumer marketing and counterinsurgency, looking specifically at the ways in which kinship, the nation, humanitarianism, and consumer/citizen are branded. By drawing our attention to the myriad ways in which marketing and militarism work in tandem, Fattal makes the broader point that it is becoming impossible to study power without undertaking a study of the “media worlds” (Ginsburg, Abu-Lughod, and Larkin 2002) in which power functions. Branding, Fattal argues, is a mode of governance in the twenty-first century: “propaganda was no longer an ancillary dimension to the armed conflict but rather a central axis” (68).
As Fattal demonstrates, the United States funneled more than US$2 billion in aid to Colombia from 2000–2004 through a program known as Plan Colombia. The majority of this funding was dedicated to boosting the capacity of the armed forces, including professionalizing the propaganda effort. The Colombian case of branding the military and using the logics of marketing and media has turned it into a “success case” used by the United States in its efforts to implement similar programs in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Significantly, two U.S. ambassadors to Afghanistan from 2000 to 2016, were re-stationed from Bogota to Kabul, and Colombian communications specialists were sent by the United States to Afghanistan in consultancy roles.
By paying attention to media production in the service of the military and the role of foreign aid, Fattal offers us a way to understand the logics of U.S. empire in the twenty-first century. Although U.S. policies in the Middle East and Latin America have overlapped for decades, Fattal asks us to pay attention to how can we understand the intersections of cultural production and warfare across space. In this vein, Fattal’s book is not only important for those who study Colombia and Latin America, nor just for those who are anthropologists of media, but also for those who work on questions of the state, militaries, the "war on terror,” and the Middle East more broadly.
In my own research on the military and cultural production in Iran, I also found a similar drive to re-brand the Iranian Revolutionary Guard via media. The use of media by militaries and states is nothing new. However, the new media technologies of the digital age that allow for the wide dissemination of media in the pockets of citizens in even remote areas of a country poses new questions for researchers to explore. What does it mean when a military tries to “sell” itself to its population, sanitizing the violence at the heart of its organizational mission? How do states attempt to brand themselves for tourism, foreign aid, and trade opportunities, and why does this matter in our understandings of power, capitalism, and media? And, how do sectors of the population, who have long been stigmatized, like former FARC guerrillas in Fattal’s case, have a chance to live beyond these representations when the media world in which they are embedded is as vast and pervasive as national media projects tend to be? These are all questions that require us to look deeply at the various nodes of intersection between states and media. In so doing, as Guerrilla Marketing demonstrates, we come away with more nuanced understandings of militaries, states, media, and violence.
Ginsburg, Faye D., Lila Abu-Lughod, and Brian Larkin, eds. 2002. Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain. Berkeley: University of California Press.