Terrorism and marketing

Firstly, rather than cutting and pasting large amounts of text, here are a couple of links to papers I have written on future technologies that can be used by terrorist groups, mad scientists or anyone else wanting to cause trouble. They are a couple of years old, but mostly still valid.

Click to access backlash.pdf

Click to access threats.pdf

Click to access madscientists.pdf

Terrorism is diversely motivated. Feelings of oppression or political disenfranchisement are common excuses, as are religious zeal, xenophobia and other forms of hatred. Those are the oldest justifications and go back millennia.

Terrorism makes culprits instantly famous, and gives them a feeling of power and importance far and above what they could otherwise attain. One of the reasons terrorism was so persistent in Northern Ireland even after most of the original political and religious reasons had evaporated was because nobodies could suddenly be someone once they carried an armalite rifle. They were all too aware that when they put it down, they would be nobody again. In that sense it achieves dual goals of status seeking and self actualisation, and that is often as important to individual terrorists as the cause they back, probably more so.

But terrorism can also be a form of marketing, and this I believe is the biggest problem we face from it in the future. Marketing is growing in importance, but is very expensive, and many organisations struggle to make their messages heard within the budgets available to them. So there is a growing temptation to bend the rules, and some are succumbing. Marketing is losing what’s left of its innocence and the boundary into terrorism-land is blurring.

When it come to getting attention for a message, there is a sliding scale all the way from simple innocent marketing at one extreme to 9/11 at the other. Starting with conventional marketing, shock tactics magnify the message significantly, albeit at a price. For example the use of FCUK is a pathetic attempt to raise awareness by shocking and offending people. It attracts some people but alienates many more. The company might argue that the ones it alienates aren’t their target group anyway. Benetton used similar techniques in their 90s campaigns and achieved similar results, alienating many and winning a few. They didn’t use actual violence, and fell short of advocating or glorifying it, but actually, the deliberate offending of people to grab attention is just a mild form of terrorism – it creates mental distress instead of physical pain, it is really only degree that is different.

Unless you draw a huge distinction between mental and physical distress, the low end of violent terrorism is just one stage further along the scale than using deliberate offence. It is really just a relatively cheap but highly effective way to draw attention to any cause, however undeserving. Given that, I do wonder how much French Connection and Benetton contribute to terrorism by demonstrating effective use of deliberate offence. Offence is a cheap and crude substitute for talent. By comparison, Compare the Market’s Meerkat campaign is sheer brilliance that offends no-one but wins huge support and awareness.

Marketing exploits any new platform that it can, but as old platforms such as TV and newspapers go out of favour (people tend to skip ads) and as people seem oblivious to most web ads, the game is gradually getting more vicious. This is obvious at the grubby end of web advertising. Hijacking of web browsers is common now to force adverts into your field of view. Many otherwise high quality sites often force adverts and use cookies to track browsing – they used to just use cookies to remember who you were so they could save you logging on afresh, but now they collect a lot more. Only slightly further along, some websites use web browsers to infiltrate PCs with more dangerous forms of malware and harness them in denial of service attacks.

Similarly, some sites put spyware and ad-ware on to PCs to force adverts of capture marketing information (it isn’t just bank details that are valuable). It is hard to see much difference between the nastier kinds of marketing abuse and milder forms of terrorism, other than intent. Marketers use sometimes quite nasty techniques to gather data and better push their products, often hiding them well from users. Terrorists use similar functions to hijack PCs for illicit spamming, spying or DOS attacks. The boundary between marketing and terrorism is becoming blurred. That is not good news.

With people exposed thoroughly to such ethics from business and government alike, it isn’t very surprising that they think in similar ways when they want to further a specific cause. Grabbing attention is the aim. Marketing gives them the tools. And if the temptation exists to modify those tools or use some of the less benign ones, it doesn’t take such an enormous shift of attitude now to make that transition. And so we saw last year the use of the web to push for democracy in the Middle East and also to market the riots in London, because marketing it certainly was. We  see attempts to boycott companies and pressurise governments with mass email campaigns, to market demonstrations. You draw the moral  line somewhere along that line according to your own preferences, but it is a very long thin wedge. We all make our line at different places now. And when the marketing doesn’t quite achieve enough, maybe a slightly more violent demo might work better to grab more headlines, or maybe a bomb or a shooting or kidnapping a scientist’s daughter or something.

So, where next? We have the web and the media, mobile phones. Augmented reality will present many new opportunities for marketing. AR is a marketer’s dream. I can hardly type AR without getting excited at all the ways it will improve our lives. But it also will allow threats and coercion and overlays from less scrupulous agencies. It will enable bullying. It will allow people to be digitally marked out, exposed, made vulnerable to anyone looking for them in order to harm them. It will greatly enhance boycotts and demonstrations and make the work of pressure groups so much easier. It stretches very well from the benign to the malign. And when it comes to enhancing the violent side of terrorism, it will help a lot there too, assisting in coordinating the maximum damage and effect, as well as reporting. Positioning systems enabling easy linking of what is happening to where it is happening, and that increases effectiveness too. Of course, any technology that allows adverts to be placed in someone’s field of view also makes it easier to show a terrorist exactly where to put a device.

It is highly likely that some pressure groups and attention seekers will use the seedier marketing tools and these can be expected to get steadily more powerful and potentially harmful. As they progress gradually to the more extreme end, they will also want to maximise the impact of any violent measures they undertake, using whatever clever marketing available to make sure they get the best spin in the media and the biggest overall impact.

We need marketing but it will always be the case that it will give extra power to would-be terrorists, and as it progresses, we should remain aware of this and try to avoid some of the areas where benefits might be outweighed by the problems.

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