Countering Viral Marketing

If you stop to think about it, the September 11 attacks and the anthrax direct mail drops, coupled with careful on-the-scene propaganda management in heavily Muslim countries, constitute a powerful form of marketing. The closest experience Western marketers have to this is what we call “viral marketing” — the use of local contacts and intimate market knowledge to build stronger relationships than those developed through more impersonal media.

I compare the evil acts of terror to familiar marketing principles not to discount the horror of the terrorism. I make this comparison because I believe marketers have relevant expertise to counter the terrorists’ message.

The killing of Americans through anthrax letters isn’t itself a useful end to the terrorists. Instead, the terrorists perceive that the communication of horror — not disease — through the country, along with the polarization of overseas opinion accomplished through viral marketing, will eventually lead to the adoption of their policy goals.

To counter propaganda spread in this way, we should consider using viral marketing in response.

Sophisticated Infrastructure and Experience

Casual Western observers of the frequent Middle Eastern terrorist bombings might not be familiar with the normal procedures for terrorist groups exploiting terrorist acts. The standard protocol works in this order:

  1. A specific threat is made, giving a policy desire and a target.
  2. The terrorism act is committed, in America for example.
  3. A fake or noninvolved terrorist organization temporarily takes credit for the act.
  4. Careful assessments are made of the public’s reaction to the act, both in America and in terrorist constituent countries in the Middle East.
  5. A grass-roots, viral propaganda campaign is launched to frame the issue behind the terrorism.
  6. Once public opinion swings to blame America for the act — even if it was an act overtly against America — the real terrorist organization takes credit for the act. Often the first group taking credit will then withdraw its initial statement.

In this fashion, the terrorist group gets the most propaganda value out of its act. If the public reacts negatively to the act, the real terrorists stand aside. Only once the viral marketing campaign kicks in and reaction swings against the US, do the terrorists take explicit credit.

The 1996 Dhahran bombing in Saudi Arabia demonstrates this pattern. Lebanese Hizballah ordnance was set off in a tanker truck, killing 19 Americans in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. At first a group called the Legion took responsibility. Propaganda was spread that the attack was in response to the Saudi capture and torture of Abdullah al-Hufaizi, a religious hard-liner. With this sympathetic cause in mind and with demands for the removal of the US forces that kept the Saudi monarchy in power, the Hizballah al-Khalij then took final and formal credit for the bombing.

Countering these propaganda efforts requires more than the normal government communications response. Condemning terrorism and broadcasting our point of view through the Voice of America constitutes simple, beneficial, and probably insufficient response. America needs to open up a communications channel directly with the region’s people.

Our Weak Link

America wields the world’s greatest media assets. Our broadcast, film, and Internet media dominate the world’s media culture. But to rely solely on these would be to suffer from the failure of our weakest link: We tend to lack intimate knowledge of and relationships with the Muslim peoples.

Our predicament is a fairly typical “category leader” marketing position. We have the power and money to dominate the share of voice, but we so far lack the strength of connection that smaller, more nimble entities can exploit in the market. To put it in other terms, the American government can no better out-viral market the terrorists in Egypt and Saudi Arabia using mass media strategies than the Quaker Oats company could out-viral market the Snapple company in the early ’90s.

Quaker Oats eventual purchased Snapple for billions of dollars, thinking it would just buy the market. Likewise, America has curried the cooperation of key Arab states’ governments by funding billions of dollars a year in military aid. But, not surprisingly, both solutions proved only temporarily successful in the face of unavoidable market forces.

Quaker Oats’s subsequent marketing efforts for Snapple spoke in the voice of Quaker Oats, not the in the hip tone of the Snapple market. The market fled to other brands, such as Nantucket Nectars and similar offerings. Quaker held on to the official Snapple brand but not the market.

Likewise, over the course of years of hostile acts in the Middle East, the US enjoyed official ally status with key countries in the region, but the countries’ populations have turned against the American brand. The very fact that we sponsor the ruling regimes has become a strong negative message to the Middle Eastern peoples.

Disintermediating the American Message

This calls for a very difficult solution. America needs to communicate directly and effectively with the Middle Eastern peoples to undercut popular support for the methods — if not the goals — of the terrorists. Letting the governments speak for our interests will not do.

In Afghanistan, we see this being done successfully when we distribute sacks of grain with the American flag printed wide across the burlap. It will take closer involvement, greater proximity, and much more personal risk for us to affect this counterterrorist viral marketing campaign.

It will take nontraditional media, personal appearances, local sponsorships, event marketing, and all the other below-the-line types of communications that large advertisers, agencies, and governments tend to do poorly. Marketers, particularly those with real experience in Muslim markets, can help to make our embrace of Muslim cultures more of a success.

Obviously this is a complex issue that can’t be covered in one article, so over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring the different aspects of a potential role for marketers. In the meantime, send me your thoughts.

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