Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Thinking About This War

I read this today from Seth Godin blog.

This is the first war that's a marketing war.

The New York Police Department just released a report on Jihad and terrorism. [It seems as though the NYPD has taken the document down. Not sure why....Here it is.] It's controversial, particularly among people who haven't read it. I'm going to skip over some of the ethnic generalizations and focus on other parts of the document... I think there are some fascinating implications for marketing in this document, so here's my riff (those who wish I would just write about selling soap should skip to my next post).

How come there are no longer any famous bank robbers?
During the heyday of bank robbery (from Butch Cassidy to John Dillinger), banks were a great option for criminals. After all, that's where the money is.

The FBI realized that they didn't just have a crime problem. They had a marketing problem. Bad guys knew that robbing banks paid. In response, the FBI did a few things. First, they focused on catching every single bank robber. And second, and more important, they built Alcatraz and promoted it like crazy.

Alcatraz marketed a concept. "Bank robbery is a really bad idea." Combine that with some big arrests, marked bills, silent alarms, video cameras and some movies and TV shows and the act of robbing a bank shifted from easy to dumb. There's no doubt that Dick Tracy and the FBI TV series did more to stop bank heists than bullets ever did. The money might have been in the banks, but smart crooks looked elsewhere to commit their crimes.

No ads were purchased, but marketing was done nonetheless. Stop for a minute and think about that. The FBI did this on purpose. They marketed to criminals. They spread an ideavirus.
Some people saw the post 9/11 world as an enforcement problem. With enough guns and wiretaps (along with a modern Alcatraz), the idea was that a similar sort of anti-crime marketing could be effective. Catch every single terrorist and put them in a high profile jail. I don't agree with this perspective. There's still a marketing problem, but it's a different one.
As the NYPD report points out, fundamentalist terrorism is an ideavirus. It spreads (via mass media) but unlike bank robbers, Jihadists and others are far more immune to the idea of law enforcement. In fact, unlike the bank robbery meme, the ideavirus that leads to this behavior is actually enhanced and further spread by traditional enforcement tactics and martyrdom.
The NYPD report frequently mentions the Internet as an enabler and connector, but monitoring and regulating the internet isn't going to be effective in stopping the problem. If the RIAA can't stop file sharing, imagine how difficult it will be to hinder the spread of text online. The medium is far too permeable. If we shut down all media, including the Internet, we could slow the virus, but even that wouldn't stop it--and no one is willing to pay that price.

The best way to counter an ideavirus, any ideavirus, is not by challenging the medium in which it spreads. It didn't stop pirate radio or salacious TV shows or online porn. What has always worked the best is countering one ideavirus with another one. To use the same medium to spread a different, better, more powerful ideavirus. You don't counter racism by making the act of uttering racist statements against the law. You do it by spreading an idea (racism is hateful, wrong and stupid) that keeps the racist from expressing his ideas because all his friends will shun him if he doesn't.

If you want moderate ideas to spread in a community, promote the people who are spreading those ideas. Make them heroes. Amplify their message and help it spread.

Hamas leverages and extends its power in Palestine by providing health care in neighborhoods. That's the message that gets through to the people on the ground. Every action a group (any group) takes tells a story. What's that story? Does it spread? When it spreads, how does that story affect the conversations that people have with each other? If the NYPD is right (and I think their analysis of how this meme spreads is right) then the most important thing our government can do is discuss what sort of ideavirus they are working to spread. And then take action. And spread the right story in the right way.

What's the story? What is the TSA 'saying' in their work at LAX? What is the brave soldier saying as she does her stint in Takrit? What does the NYPD or the school district or the local hospital say as they interact with immigrants in their daily lives?

I guarantee you I don't know the answer. I don't know where we should send troops and how long we should stay there. I don't know who to arrest and what to look for. But I do know this: it's a marketing problem, the most important one we face. By and large, the marketing is being done by people who don't see that we have a marketing problem. Understanding the words and concepts behind the ideavirus is the critical next step in spreading the right message to the people who need to hear it.

I sat in my office six years ago, looking south along the Hudson and watching our world change. I don't think anyone could have predicted then where we'd be now. I'm hopeful that by looking forward, we can market our way to better place. Thousands of brave people have sacrificed for our safety and peace of mind. I'm grateful to them. The next step is to get smart about strategy and marketing.

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