Thursday, August 8, 2019

Alexander L. Fattal's "Guerrilla Marketing"

Alexander L. Fattal is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego. He is also a filmmaker. His research and creative work focus on questions of representation in Colombia’s armed conflict.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Guerrilla Marketing: Counterinsurgency and Capitalism in Colombia, and reported the following:
From page 99:
As the concert began, the minister of defense boarded a helicopter to La Gabarra to deliver the symbolic humanitarian aid. Citing lack of space in the helicopter, Marcela explained to the journalists that only one photographer could travel with him. The flood assistance was reduced to a photo op, raising the question: who is assisting whom in this “humanitarian” exchange? The more substantive exchange during the minister’s brief appearance in La Gabarra was of bullets. As his helicopter elevated to return to Tibú, the local police station took fire from the FARC’s Thirty-Third Front. Nobody was injured, but the skirmish left a few more pockmarks in the building’s facade. The FARC was sending its own message.

Marcel Mauss’s classic book on the gift and the literature it has spawned have provided anthropologists with an analytic framework for understanding humanitarian aid as an expression of power relations. In this line of critique, gifts given in the wake of an emergency or during or after a military confrontation assert a soft form domination over the receiver of the aid (be it a person, organization, or institution). Such a critique could be applied to the military’s distribution of token flood relief kits. The act places the military in the position of ameliorating the effects of recent inundations of roadways that have left the residents cut off from critical markets and struggling to access basic provisions. By showing its disposition to combat natural disaster, the military seeks to articulate its primary war-waging function with its ancillary role as an armed relief agency. One logical conclusion of this armed humanitarianism is that the FARC is but another disaster and the local population, which is receiving the ministry’s flood-relief kits, is symbolically subordinated to the military and interpellated as military collaborators.
As it so happens this page makes two key points in Guerrilla Marketing: first, massive media spectacles and military interventions are increasingly intertwined; and second, this convergence is often intended to represent militaries as humanitarian actors. Page 99 engages with the anthropological literature on “the gift” of humanitarian aid, which has argued that such assistance is often an expression of power relations. Elsewhere on page 99, I describe the hollowness of this particularly utilitarian gift exchange and question its efficacy.

Page 99 comes from Chapter 2, Operation Christmas, a pivotal chapter in the book. Operation Christmas was the name that a marketing firm that has stewarded the brands of Mazda and RedBull in Colombia gave its campaign to demobilize FARC and ELN guerrilla fighters during the holiday season. The idea was to “attack the heart” of guerrillas when they might be missing loved ones back home. This is a theme throughout the book — intimacy as a battleground, both in the media war and the physical war, two realms that I insist cannot be neatly separated. In fact, one of the big takeaways from the book is that we need to think about propaganda as something that is the centerpiece of warfare in the twenty-first century.

We see this in Colombia time and again. The cover of the book comes from the 2013 version of the Christmas campaign. That year the military-marketing partnership came up with the slogan, “Before being a guerrilla, you are my child.” The campaign featured photographs culled from the archives of guerrillas’ mothers that showed their sons and daughters as babies. In all of the efforts to “attack the heart,” this assault was the most direct.

At the other end of the binding, the book’s epilogue focuses on the FARC doing some marketing of its own at a giant conference/party in which it tried to rebrand itself as a political party in anticipation of the changes set up by the 2016 peace accord. Those who are following news out of Colombia know the conflict [and the “brand warfare” that goes along with it (see pages 11–23)] continues even as the country has been struggling to implement the historic agreement. Unfortunately, Guerrilla Marketing remains highly relevant to post-peace accord Colombia. Further afield, I hope that the case study will help shed light on the murky realm of propaganda in the early twenty-first century.
Learn more about Guerrilla Marketing at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue