Paul Rutherford's latest book examines how the 2003 war against Iraq was packaged and effectively sold to various publics. It probes the tightly knit relationship between marketing, politics, and popular culture, and how modern marketing techniques transformed the Iraq war into a branded war – a commodity, 'spectacle,' and form of 'infotainment' that has significant implications for democracy.
Weapons of Mass Persuasion is, above all, a book about communication – namely the power of communication (language, advertising, marketing, public relations, mass media, etc) to create a particular reality and to refashion war as a public good. Rutherford illustrates how the Iraq war became a 'co-production of the Pentagon and of newsrooms, processed and cleansed so that it could appeal to the well-established tastes of people who were veteran consumers of popular culture.' Indeed, the production theme runs strong throughout the text. The 'propaganda show' brilliantly illuminated by Rutherford comes complete with a carefully penned 'war script' (premised on the notion of a 'clean' war for the public good); a trailer and slogan (the infamous 'shock and awe' campaign); a marketing hook (embedded journalists); a screening of the latest technology (smart bombs and stealth machinery); and a preferred Hollywood ending (namely, 'victory'). 'Iraq the movie,' as Rutherford tags it, was supported by both the publicity machine of the mass media and a star system which comprised the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Colin Powell. Journalists, Rutherford tells us, even 'came to call the whole affair Mr. Rumsfeld's War, as if he were the director and the producer of a movie.'
The overall 'war script,' Rutherford explains, was easily sold to an audience raised on action/adventure films such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Rambo. James Bond pictures, moreover, indicated 'what would work on the audience, how war could be positioned so that it was made palatable, even enjoyable, to a large body of spectators.' And when the audience enjoyment (and news headlines) inevitably started to flag, Rutherford shows how the narrative could be revivified with stories of dramatic rescue such as that of Private Jessica Lynch. While the Rambo-style rescue proved largely a fiction, it effectively 'served to buoy a populace worried by signs that Iraq was turning into a quagmire.'
Of course, 'marketing war' through propaganda, media agenda setting, and information control is hardly new. Harold Lasswell's 1927 Propaganda Technique in the World War outlines precisely the same techniques of managing social communication in the First World War – from the strategic use of reporters and advertising theory to the importance of viral communication. Newspaper men, Lasswell explains, prove talented in telling 'tales in terse, vivid style' and thus can 'seduce' the public with their stories, [End Page 640] while the literature on advertising provides indispensable information to the 'working propagandist' on how to effectively persuade. Propaganda, moreover, works like a virus – a powerful strain can infect an entire public. Indeed, all of these techniques detailed by Lasswell could have come straight from the pages of Rutherford's book.
One key difference from the First World War, however, is that the Iraq war was a 'real time' war, one in which television plays a starring role. And Rutherford finds this televised 'real time' war – the twenty-four-hour news coverage – most troubling. The 'moving images of television are the most seductive, the voice of television the most authoritative, the content of television the most difficult to critique,' Rutherford warns, and tv's seductiveness thus proves a threat to democracy itself.
While Rutherford masterfully outlines the marketing of war, the book stumbles when providing the solutions available to resist the weapons of mass persuasion. The prime solution for consumers, Rutherford affirms, is to 'turn off the tv,' to 'resist the full impact of marketing by seeking out alternative sources of news, especially on the Internet.' Perhaps television images are more seductive. Yet there is no guarantee that the internet or even print news provides a more accurate representation of events. Furthermore, this television turn-off strategy (which Rutherford admits might...