By Larisa Breton
Forget Smith-Mundt; the Hill’s call for a rethink padlocks the door on an empty barn. Americans already enjoy the gentle second-and third-order effects of an imported comic pantheon from Marvel Comics’ “The 99”, courtesy of private (or semi-private) commerce. New Yorker Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, now Chairman of Teshkeel Media Group, commercialized “The 99” in 2006 as a way to promote and make relevant the historic virtues of Islam while peacefully reaching out to a burgeoning youth population in the Levant. (“The 99” refers to both the 99 attributes of Allah, and to 99 mystical gems which confer special powers to those who discover them in the comic series.)
Picked-up by Marvel Comics for overseas distribution and marketed consistently, “The 99” has rapidly become a cultural touchstone, with multinational comic book distribution, a television series announced for production in 2008, and last year, the first of several planned “The 99”-themed amusement parks opened in Jahra, Kuwait as a sidecar to an established amusement park. In addition to English-version comic books available since 2007, “The 99” has now reached American shores in the form of a collaboration with DC Comic’s Hall of Justice’s Superfriends announced at the beginning of July. This development coincides with an evolution point of strategic communication (née public diplomacy) that is worth examining in the four frames of a daily comic strip:
FRAME ONE: WHOOSH!
“The 99,” for the time being, appears to have avoided the local or transnational ideologic backlash that attends commercial acceleration and accusations of concomitant Westernization for three reasons: because it has an historic educational function; it is a set of narratives being told within a culture by its own culture (or an acceptable proximate); attendant commercialization benefits local economies; and as such it is nearly unobjectionable. Al-Mutawa has used his fame carefully and well to publish a series of moderate, thoughtful, and family-oriented essays about modern life and Islam that are worth reading.
FRAME TWO: KAPOW!
Does this expansion of the American comic book heroic pantheon pass the so-what test? You bet. For our parochial purposes, what meanings can we take from this, as we kick around our green-and-white soccer balls and sip the Kool-Aid (pick your flavor, red or blue) from “The 99”-branded water bottles purloined from our kids’ Hanna Montana lunchboxes? For more than half a century, America’s fictitious cultural pantheon has been a lodestone of meaning and cultural consensus, and it is expanding, morphing, parenting –yep-- , and fracturing into robust virtual communities. Respectfully submitted: Non-state actors now include WoW guilds and other impossibly complicated transnational cultural affiliations in the VR space that will shape, affect, create and disrupt commerce and governance. (Forget some griefer spraypainting a B-to-B confab in SecondLife; it’s going to get interesting.) Should any cultural lodestone be preserved ad-infinitum? Nope. Why should it? America is a young country, and has more future than past. And what’s wrong with the private sector aiming to do good and doing right well, particularly when it has the time/vision/power to make something happen? Nothing. Nonetheless, recent calls for stratcomm oversight, planning and real MOE are not enough. Stratcomm includes far-forward outset engagements, née PSYOP in exigent AORs, to medium to longer-term state rebuilding or reacculturation efforts, to the most sophisticated types of cultural diplomacy and special operations in overseas markets, and it’s time to recognize it for what it is: a vibrant and healthy continuum; a full orchestra loudly playing a cacophony from the same score, absent a conductor possessing a vision of the whole work. Wholesale reparsing from one agency to another; and/or interagency-facilitating the continuum into irrelevance will no longer suffice in the same way that straightline communication-with-effects no longer exists.
FRAME THREE: BAM!
Assuming the development of “The 99” was a pure commercial play, there are some lessons-learned:
One: Inexperience, myopia, and turnover are impediments when it comes to identifying, planning for, and measuring media products and their effectiveness to target audiences. This despite the best-efforts of contracted commercial outfits who regularly get buy-in for impossible and intuitively undesirable ideas and products to target audiences around the world on behalf of corporate manufacturers and culture-mongers; imported and homegrown SMEs; creatives; media planners; and pollsters, who regularly bang their heads against walls, floors and conference-room tables as they work to define, create, execute and measure good programs. This despite the passionate commitment of military personnel, federal personnel and political appointees with disparate and ultimately complementary competencies. We too frequently forget: We’re all on the same side, we all make a wonderful living by global standards, and completing our tasks may take several lifetimes.
Two: There is, indeed, the need for consistent, persistent, and resistant support and promotion for our most important programs; many of which can and should outlive the normal hiring and attrition processes in place in our Military and at Federal agencies. Refine, review, and repoint, but please don’t react, redact or recant.
FRAME FOUR: HUH!? (To Be Continued….)
Framed as-is, the author leaves you with no recommendations, but instead some questions to carry-forward, in the sonorous tones of the Superfriends’ Hall of Justice narrator at the end of each episode…
--How are we going to feel about it when Wonder Woman announces that, in order to assert her individuality and spiritual values, she wants to veil? Or when one of the 99 mystical gems is accidentally discovered by a member of Code Pink?
--How can we, as a community, possibly provide long-term Measures of Effectiveness without understanding or acknowledging the role played by lightly- or un-assimilated ethnic communities in the U.S. in how they consume, interpret and comment upon cultural products back to their home planet thousands of light-years and one click away?
--Are we aware of how permeable, how malleable, and how pervasive our own mass-media culturo-sphere really is? Culturally speaking, what is America?
--Are we ready for the pamphlets dropped from the helicopter piloted by the Joker over Gotham? And will we know them when we see them?
--Are we ready and willing to understand and accept MOEs that are immediately evident in our culturo-sphere, even and especially when they’re right under our noses?
Larisa Breton owns FullCircle Communications, a strategic communications company
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