September 2, 2007

A blast from the past

By Warren Pease

A little background
With the Iraq disaster bankrupting the country, both morally and financially, and Iran next in line for a little tough love, it might be a good idea to revisit how in hell this country got started on this path to unapologetic imperialism, naked resource grabs, the PNAC ideal of "full-spectrum dominance," the fear and loathing of much of the planet and the gradual devolution of George W. Bush from useless blithering idiot to soul-shriveled, blood-drenched sociopath.

Below is an article I wrote in the week after 9/11/01 in which I attempted to equate the processes involved in selling a consumer product with those used to gain public consensus a war – in this case, the infamous "War on Terror," which has accomplished virtually nothing except to provide the US oligarchy with the perfect replacement for the cold war, used as it was as the excuse for insane military budgets and the further enrichment of armaments makers.

The war on terror is also the new social control mechanism keeping the serfs in line, the mass media compliant (not that the latter is a particularly hard sell for these lapdogs) and justifying the rampant violations of the Constitution and international law by BushCo deemed "necessary" to combat this new threat. And best of all, by definition it can never end. It's the wet dream of the military/industrial complex come true.

As I watched the lies and phony rationales unravel during the run-up to the Iraq invasion, and feel dread and anger as many of the same unsubstantiated accusations are now hurled at Iran, it seemed a good time to review the influences of salesmanship and marketing on a population already socialized to accept the outrageous claims of advertising and, rather than apply critical thinking skills to make an informed purchasing decision, simply respond by buying the product.

Same with a political "product," whether an "on message," fully scripted automaton of a corporate candidate, an Orwellian named initiative like the "Healthy Forests Act," which rewarded BushCo pals in the timber business by allowing increased logging on federal land using the old "reducing the fuel load" excuse (go here for details), or a "preemptive" war of aggression against a non-threat. Design the right ad campaign that most will obey.

But as usual, mass media lags far behind the public. As the same "experts" who trumpeted the pre-emptive attack on Iraq now advocate a pre-emptive attack on Iran vital to our national security, as the administration rolls out the mighty right wing echo chamber with its reliable shills calling for more bombs and civilian carnage, as the world cringes yet again at the atrocities the US government is willing to commit to control oil reserves, generate ever more obscene petrochemical industry profits and gain military hegemony throughout the region – this time the public reaction is a far cry from the obnoxious chest-thumping, self-congratulatory American boosterism and the viscerally irritating cheers of USA! USA! USA! that dominated the US public response to the Iraq invasion. 

This time, Americans seem increasingly disgusted by the unending wars that have barred the country from any claim to moral authority and, instead, washed the country's reputation down history's sewer. In only six and a half shameful years under BushCo, the US is now acknowledged by the international community as the most deadly, powerful, dangerous, feared and detested rogue state in the world.

The public sees US bridges collapsing and dead innocents, watches coverage of New Orleans two years after Katrina was abandoned by the federal agencies whose job it used to be to make communities whole after natural disasters, hears the cost of the Iraq occupation has exceeded the one TRILLION dollar mark – and they see BushCo's mad rush to roll out its latest product, the attack on Iran coming soon to a TV screen near you, and they realize they're about to be victimized, conned and lied to yet again.

And many understand that their idea of America has been obliterated by the war profiteers, the inhuman program of genocide in Iraq, the indiscriminate bombing of civilian population centers – which has thus far murdered between 655,000 (The Lancet, 10/11/06, Iraqis only) and 833,000 non-combatants (Unknown News, July 2007, Afghans and Iraqis combined), many of them women and children. 

So will PR and marketing trump distrust and disgust? Will Americans rally once again around their "war president?" Will anti-war protesters once again be scorned and marginalized? Will Bush's popularity rise out of the 23 percent hole it's in now and soar again as it did subsequent to 9/11 and the Iraq invasion? 

Or will the American public finally respond with a unified, furious, resounding "NO! Not one more bomb dropped or drop of innocent blood shed in my name and enabled with my tax dollars." And then hit the streets in sufficient numbers that even this myopic administration can't help but notice that the path to war with Iran may end with the final sledge hammer blow that obliterates the GOP and keeps it and its neo-con fanatics out of power for decades – preferably for centuries.

We'll find out soon enough. Cheney's been yammering about a big product rollout after Labor Day. According to a high-level source at one of the leading neo-con think tanks that infest the DC area, "XXX (the source's institution) has instructions from the Office of the Vice-President to roll out a campaign for war with Iran in the week after Labor Day (with a big kickoff planned for 9/11). It will be coordinated with the American Enterprise Institute, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, Commentary, Fox and the other usual suspects. It will be a heavy sustained assault on the airwaves, designed to knock public sentiment into a position from which a war can be maintained. Evidently they don't think they'll ever get majority support for this--they want something like 35-40 percent support, which in their book is plenty."

So, there you have it. The people that marketed Osama bin Laden as the world's leading evildoer. The people who flattened Afghanistan but somehow missed capturing a 6' 5" Arab who directs his worldwide network of loyal followers with a laptop from a cave, along with Mullah Omar, the rabid cleric who stole the only operating motorcycle and the last tank of gas in Afghanistan and snuck across the border, confounding the entire US intelligence apparatus.

The same bunch that babbled about bringing Iraq freedom and liberation and the heady aroma of democracy – while creating more than four million refugees, fomenting a sectarian civil war, causing the needless deaths of more than 3,700 American GIs and the maiming of many thousands more, killing at least 655,000 civilians, presiding over the destruction of the country's infrastructure, crippling the US military possibly for decades, stealing billions in Iraqi aid money, fattening the profits of war profiteer like Halliburton, infuriating the entire Arab world, and placing a virtual skull and crossbones in the middle of the American flag to signify our toxic presence in the world today. 

And now, Iran awaits the same benefits of liberation and the blessings of democratic self-rule, delivered by B-52s and a fleet of smaller tactical bombers. As Rumsfeld once famously said, "Democracy is messy." So it is, if the US has anything to do with it.

So, without further ranting, here's a little trip down memory lane.


War on Sale: Buy Now while Supplies Last
September 17, 2001

The public is galvanized as if Hitler and Tojo had returned from hell to finish the job of pulverizing America and installing a fascist state run by the Japanese emperor. Polls show nearly universal sentiment to kick ass and take names – and the names don’t really matter. We’ll lash out at any wog in a pinch, even the guy we bought fresh fruit from two weeks ago at the corner market. There’s blood lust in the land and it must be satisfied.

Which is hardly surprising. We live in a country in which our primary duty is stoking the engines of commerce by consuming the fad du jour as defined by pop culture and branded by TV advertising. So when the major cable and broadcast networks run 24/7 advertising for a single product – in this case, a US war against Islamic terrorists – it shouldn’t be too shocking that more than 90 percent of American consumers respond with wild approval.

In the hours and days immediately following the atrocities of September 11, Americans were subjected to what amounts to an endless branding campaign, featuring some of the most powerful images ever seen on television. Relentless, sustained, moving and graphic, television pounded home the message that America had been horribly violated and that it must exact revenge. Within minutes, a suspect was named and a strategy articulated.

Employing basic marketing techniques, the networks first defined the problem and then sold the solution. The problem was international terrorism, personified by Osama bin Laden and his shadowy band of Islamic fundamentalists, and the only solution proposed – at least the only one not immediately dismissed as quixotic or unworkable – was massive military response.

By defining the solution along such a narrow continuum, network advertising virtually assured that Americans would buy the Bush administration’s product. Throw in the testosterone quotient – manly American men doing manly things to unmanly brown-skinned cowards in far away places we can't identify on a map – and the administration had a real hit on its hands.

The Widget Wars
But simply substitute "widgets" for "war" and see what happens. Beginning at 9:00 A.M. EDT on September 11, industrial giant Glutco Inc., the company that manufacturers and distributes the world’s finest widgets, bought non-stop advertising on all major television networks. Within hours, imbued with THE MESSAGE, Americans roared their approval for Glutco widgets, left their jobs and homes and drove directly to the nearest mall. They didn’t need proof that Glutco’s widgets were superior; most of them didn’t even want or need widgets. But the clarion call of saturation advertising won’t be ignored.

Shelves emptied in minutes; trucks were lined up at the loading docks to deliver more widgets; those also sold out. Even though the campaign had been planned for months, mighty Glutco’s distribution system was unable to keep pace with demand. Americans simply couldn’t get enough widgets. Special edition widgets showed up on eBay at preposterous prices, then were bid up several times over. Widget collectors found themselves cast as instant celebrities, being asked weighty questions on national television by a pandering media.

Daily newspapers and weekly magazines kept the public salivating. Publishers happily saw their pages eaten up by lucrative, image-intensive Glutco advertising. Entertainment trade rags reported a couple of made-for-TV movies in the works; marginal actors and off-key singers kept themselves in the public eye for another 15 minutes by shilling for Glutco widgets; even Glutco’s chief competitors expressed reluctant admiration for their adversary, since the heightened popularity of widgets had expanded the market for their products as well.

True, the campaign was the most expensive marketing move in history, but it really wasn’t much of a gamble. After all, if American adults will fight over the last Cabbage Patch doll, even though the Cabbage Patch brand is marketed directly to kids on Saturday morning cartoon shows, it was reasonably predictable that they’d respond with manic fervor to a non-stop harangue by analysts and experts, blow-dried anchors and "on the ground" reporters. Even with the sound off, the images were just too compelling to ignore.

And the numbers proved the premise. Consumers bought more than $40 billion worth of widgets in the first week alone. Many ran their credit cards up to the limit and many more said they’d make any sacrifice to buy more widgets in the coming months. They took second mortgages on their houses; they spent their kid’s college funds; they looted their retirement accounts; those with disposable income bought bigger SUVs to carry more widgets. And Glutco’s major shareholders smiled the satisfied smirk of the seriously rich.

And so it goes in pop culture America, where the invisible hand of the market occasionally pops into public view, where allegiance is bought and sold like a used car and where operators are always standing by.


Comments? Email the author at and we'll have a grand old time piloting the keyboards of destruction and firing misplaced modifiers and dangling participles into the blogosphere.

Note:  A version of this article entitled "War on Sale" appeared at in mid-September, 2001.

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