U.S. Military Goes Native in Afghanistan Ad Push

Former P&G Marketer Lt. Col. Allen McCormick Turns to One of Few Local Agencies Around for a Positive Campaign Built on Cultural Insight

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Outdoor, TV and radio ads starring cuddly babies and folkloric warriors are spreading across Afghanistan, a country that's seen so little advertising that finding a local agency was one of the first hurdles of mounting a campaign. But the U.S.-backed push is using insights into traditional Afghan culture to try to encourage a war-ravaged population to help build a more peaceful nation.

The soldier-marketer behind the effort, Lt. Col. Allen McCormick, is deploying the marketing expertise he gained at Procter & Gamble and other U.S. companies to target Afghan citizens.

Afghan Army poster

Afghan Army poster
"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," said Mr. McCormick, who is chief of information operations and psychological operations (PSYOP) for the U.S.'s combined joint task force in eastern Afghanistan.

Despite the often dismal situation in the country, Mr. McCormick was interested in seeking a more positive alternative to the messaging already being used by the military and other operators in theater.

"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.'"

A partner
But before dealing with the messaging, Mr. McCormick had another challenge: finding a local agency that could develop strategy and ads "with Afghan consumer insight and be true to Afghan culture and norms."

He found Lapis. "Traveling by helicopter throughout a combat zone in body armor to hear a response to an RFP is a big change from New York, Chicago or L.A.," Mr. McCormick said.

The Kabul-based agency, owned by Moby Group, was started in 2002 by a family of four siblings who returned to Afghanistan and filled the country's media gap themselves by opening a wide range of businesses -- TV and radio stations, a production company, an ad agency and a record label -- in which they had no prior experience but are now the market leaders.

Afghan Army poster

"Our real mission is to develop Afghan capabilities," said Mr. McCormick, who spends much of his time visiting local villages with the Afghan army.

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

The first, called "Guardians," is intended to improve the image of the Afghan army by forging an almost romantic connection with the country's long folkloric tradition of warriors who protect their people.

"It creates an emotional and iconic imagery that's easy to understand, in almost a movie poster format," said Cyrus Oshidar, the creative lead for the campaign at Lapis. "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 sense of pride and hope."

Focus groups thought the traditional warrior figure didn't look strong enough, so the ad was reshot, Mr. McCormick said.

The second theme is governance, illustrated with images of hands holding objects, from bricks to ballots, to help rebuild Afghanistan with the tagline, "The future of Afghanistan is in your hands."

The third and final part, which involved a widespread casting call for cute babies, is "New Afghan, New Afghanistan."

Afghan Army poster

Each of six different ads features a baby, with his name, birth date and province, and a welcoming message. The copy makes clear the responsibility to raise children well and the stark choices faced in a war-torn country. One ad, celebrating the birth of Massoud Sanjeer, is headlined: "Suicide Bomber. Or Doctor?"

"It's a very tribal country, but a common thread is love and passion for children, especially sons," Mr. McCormick said. One lesson he learned was that in the completely male-dominated Afghan culture, the babies all had to be boys, and the ad copy focused on males.

Ads started breaking in January and all three themes -- security, governance and development -- will be running by this month and will continue until later in the year, although McCormick returns to the U.S. in May when his one-year tour of duty ends. An active-duty officer earlier in his career, he stayed in the reserves after leaving the military and working as a marketing manager at Revlon, at creative agencies and in game development, and at P&G.

Although it's too early for formal post-testing, he said initial response to the ads has been favorable, and many vanish from billboards to be put up in peoples' homes.

For Afghan siblings, an unlikely rise to media moguls

The four Mohseni siblings, founders of Afghanistan's 700-person Moby Group, didn't set out to be media moguls back in 2002. After growing up in the West, they planned to return to Afghanistan as venture capitalists, but the businesses they wanted to invest in didn't exist. So they had to start them.

The Mohsenis -- former investment banker Saad, administrator Jahid, lawyer Zaid and their only sister, Wajma, who had worked in marketing -- opened radio and TV stations, playing songs that hadn't been heard during the five years music was banned under Taliban rule until 2001."We were the only ones playing music," said Moby Group CEO Jahid Mohseni.

Potential advertisers needed an agency, so the Mohsenis started Lapis, and then a production company that produces 14 hours a day of programming and TV commercials. Few people have internet access, so they opened cyber-café chain AndeshaGah.

"TV ads used to cost $1 for a 30-second commercial," said Jahid Mohseni. "We've created the market, in terms of the ad side." Ad rates have risen considerably, but discounting is widespread.

Stepping up
Their most daring venture is "Afghan Star," the "American Idol"-like hit show Moby created five years ago. At first, Afghans found it strange to put people who couldn't really sing on TV. For many who texted a vote for their favorite performer, it was the first vote they ever cast. (They also learned that if their candidate loses, they're not supposed to seek revenge.) The first season, contenders who were eliminated lost their tempers -- and saw their tirades broadcast on TV. "Contestants are more PR savvy now," Mr. Mohseni said.

The show airs on Moby's Tolo TV, and wins up to an 80% audience share. There are no TV ratings in Afghanistan, Mr. Mohseni said, but a show's popularity can be roughly gauged by how many people are in the street, rather than at home potentially watching TV, which reaches about 60% of the population.

Each season's finale is an eagerly awaited concert in a country with little entertainment. Last year Moby's Kaboora Production company co-produced a documentary called "Afghan Star," focusing on a single season of the show and four young contestants, including a woman who risked her life by dancing on stage.

The documentary was a winner at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009, and Saad Mohseni, executive producer of the "Afghan Star" TV show, told Jon Stewart in an interview on "The Daily Show": "It's a form of rebellion ... this is how you make a stand, by singing."

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