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Ads to Win the Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan?
By: Jeff Louis
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"The [U.S.] military does two of three things well -- they know who they want to reach and what they want to say, but they don't know how to say it."

This is according to a former Procter & Gamble marketer and lieutenant colonel now serving in eastern Afghanistan as the chief of information operations and psychological operations for the U.S. joint task force.

While PR and advertising efforts during military conflict aren't a new idea -- most are familiar with U.S. War Bond efforts, "Rosy the Riveter,"  and dropping leaflets from aircraft -- this effort is unique in that Lt. Col. Allen McCormick tapped an in-country advertising agency. His hope is to win the hearts and minds of the people via outdoor, TV, and radio ads using Afghani cultural insights to reach Afghani citizens in the name of peace.

Although there weren't many agencies from which to choose, McCormick chose Lapis, a Kabul-based agency that could develop strategy and ads "with Afghan consumer insight and be true to Afghan culture and norms."

McCormick and Lapis have a long road in front of them, especially in a war-ravaged country with strict religious boundaries. The move of an Afghani citizen that conflicts with the Koran often results in death. Despite the country's violent past and bleak future, McCormick believes that positive messages will be more effective at reaching the people than current ones.

"A lot of messages are about countering IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and suicide bombers," McCormick said. "They use images of death and destruction. I don't need to show people that in ads -- they see enough of it."

"I wanted to show them something beautiful. The last thing they need is a billboard of a guy carrying the bloody body of his son and saying, 'Don't support suicide bombers.'"

The ad campaign, each backed by radio, TV, print, and billboards, has three themes:

  • The first, "Guardians," is aimed at improving the image of Afghanistan's army and portrays Afghan soldiers as heroic protectors based on the country's tradition in folklore. Remember, Afghanistan's mujahideen (freedom fighters) -- badly outnumbered and underprovisioned -- defeated the Soviet Union after a 10-year war ending with Soviet withdrawal in February 1989. According to AdAge: "The warrior concept was researched and found appealing to young Afghan males. In a country ravaged by war, with a certain air of cynicism, they can have a senseArmyPoster of pride and hope."
  • The second, a theme built on future self-governance, depicts images showing that the future of Afghanistan is built around the people. The tag reads, "The future of Afghanistan is in your hands."
  • The third involves the future of Afghanistan as well, but revolves around the country's children, promoting the idea of  "new" Afghans for a new Afghanistan. The executions depict images of babies, and pose questions like, "Suicide Bomber. Or Doctor?" In a dominant male society, the images show baby boys. 

The campaign, which started in January, will continue throughout the year. McCormick, however, won't be there to witness any short-term results; his tour ends next month. However, he believes the response has been positive so far, citing that out-of-home executions have disappeared.

While I applaud the effort, I question the effectiveness of what seems to be a short-term advertising campaign in a country where the audience often doesn't have a choice or the ability to see beyond the immediate sphere of influence. Liken it to advertising efforts to discourage gang activity or being raised in a cult with minimal outside influence. The jury is out on the effectiveness of anti-gang advertising, and for people raised in environments where alternatives don't exist -- or the ability to choose is strictly monitored -- the expectation of success seems to be based upon hope and little else.

Taking no action isn't the answer, either; thus, we can only hope McCormick's campaign will yield tangible results and will justify a continued sustainable effort. 



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About the Author

Jeff Louis: Media Planner, Brand Project Manager, blogger, and aspiring writer. Please leave a comment or get in touch with Jeff on Twitter. As always, thank you for reading!

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