Monday, April 7, 2003


If you've found the polls showing a 70% approval rate for the War a disconnect with your own anecdotal experience you're not alone. But in the realm of "we tend to talk to ourselves," they may nonetheless be accurate. They also may not be of long term significance, something the Bush people should take to heart. There seems little doubt that many Americans buy into Hail to the Chief in times of war, regardless of party. That, and a visceral impulse not to endanger the troops, can influence poll responses. But, perhaps as much as anything else, high approval numbers reflect successful and consistent marketing.

From its first days, the Bush team has tried to stay on message and, in doing so, control the conversation. Marketing, pejoratively called propaganda in times like these, is routinely used as a wartime weapon, regardless of the players. It was used heavily in both World Wars and in all succeeding conflicts. Any dispassionate observer would have to say that those in charge this time have executed particularly well since the bombs began to drop in Iraq. Language is a key component of any marketing message and the words employed are never accidental. Notice the two critical terms: the Regime and the Coalition. Notice also the virtual disappearance of WMD, weapons of mass destruction from the core rhetoric.

Before the war, the Administration went through an extended period of fluid language. The argument changed daily and the marketing effort was disjointed to say the least. You'll remember, in addition to WMD, arguments like Iraq is thwarting the UN and international community, is threatening their neighbors and is harboring terrorists. Regime Change was a recurring theme but, particularly when there were hopes of obtaining UN approval, it was soft peddled, portrayed as a secondary objective or necessary result, sometimes hardly mentioned. This isn't to say it wasn't heard or that the ideas about a new Iraq as some kind of democratic beacon in the region were not put forth. It simply wasn't central.

Fast forward and Regime Change has become the War's singular objective. So referring to the enemy, whether Saddam himself or his most straggly paramilitary, one always hears the briefers talk of the Regime. And who are we? We are the Coalition even though everyone knows that it's a coalition of 1 to .00005. I don't mean to sell the valiant British troops who are dying in the desert short, but the numbers make this largely a US venture with a US command. Coalition is a marketing device to suggest that, even absent the support of the vast majority of the world, we aren't going it alone.

So current polls no longer evidence concern for our having moved without UN sanction as they did pre-war and, significantly, respondents no longer feel that ridding the world of the WMD threat is central. They feel Regime Change does the trick. From a practical standpoint, this terminology, it would appear, immunizes our leaders from blame should we not uncover those heralded cashes of biochemical-terrible. And you say marketing doesn't matter. When it comes to winning the hearts and minds of our own people, marketing is everything.

It's also carries a huge risk. Branding — using terms in this way is a form of branding — is ultimately only successful when it can be backed up by substance. If all goes well as a result of this single focused Regime Change, the branders may be sitting pretty. If our short term willingness to constrict the coalition hasn't destroyed our ability to interact effectively with the global community, the bet will have paid off. These are big ifs. If, on the other hand, the aftermath of this conflict brings the unintended consequences that many of us fear and that has played such an important role in our difficult decision to oppose War before and during, then all bets are off. As a partisan, I'm with John Kerry and would like to see a Regime Change at home in 2004, but not for that reason. The cost to the world will be far too high.

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