I am writing a comprehensive marketing and communications plan for an NGO that is helping to reach some of the most difficult pockets of children in adversity around the globe. According to some estimates there are approximately 200 million children in the world who are not reaching their full developmental potential because of food insecurity, disease, persistent poverty and violence.
100 million children under 5 are malnourished. Source: Care.
The organization is doing incredible work in the field. And as I’m writing the document, the words that emerge are those that many communications professionals would deploy. Terms like in the field and deploy. And others like execute, surveillance, base, strategy, engagement, approach, altitude, agency, lines of attack, campaigns, groundwork, guard, intelligence, logistics, reinforcement, delivery, advancement, phases, planning, bleeding edge, escalation, and my all-time favourite, targets.
(Heck, even man overboard is a term most used by military vessels.)
The incongruence between the militaristic language of the document and the sensitivity of the subject matter in this case is profound — and concerning, at least to me.
As communicators, we are tasked with helping our clients create holistic, thoughtful, and relevant plans that are meaningful to audiences and that will sustain organizations. We want our plans, reports, and language to be sturdy, humane, and purposeful.
And yet we are trained in a language steeped in a few thousand years of military escapades, colonialism, and subordination. The act of marketing can be seen as an extension of military campaigns in the same way that sports is a facilitated extension of war. Walter Benjamin, the great philosopher and cultural critic, wrote “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”
In many civilian communities, militarized language denotes a level of seriousness that could not be conveyed as effectively in other ways. Thus, the Clinton headquarters in the 1992 presidential campaign was the “War Room”; Arkansas’s system of substitutions in college basketball is known as “platooning”; team leaders are “floor generals”; and business schools assign Sun Tzu and the U.S. Marine Corps doctrinal manuals about tactics and strategy. Source: Oxford Companion to American Military History.
Identifying linguistic solutions that address the militarism of marketing language will take some time for us to collectively develop. We may need to “own” the language in new way or entirely rethink our terminology. We’ll get there, though. As we build a more humane set of communications terms to build a more prosperous, peaceful world, we will also start to redefine our conscious and unconscious connections.
Fifteen years ago, you couldn’t help hearing the word “eyeballs” in the commercial interactive industry — a reference to the quantities of people seeing or using a website or application. Not so much anymore. We still have “users”, but that will be replaced by “visitors”, “readers”, or “viewers” soon.
For our client’s marketing and communications plan, I’m going to start with a footnote that reads something like this: “The terms of trade used in this document may reference military constructs and methods”. And I will do what I can to support my local thesaurus.