New book explores 'guerrilla marketing' in Colombia

Brand warfare is real, and Christmas can be an important tool.

“Guerrilla Marketing: Counterinsurgency and Capitalism in Colombia,” a new book written by Alex Fattal, an assistant professor in the Department of Film-Video and Media Studies at Penn State, explores how commercial-style branding has been deployed by both rebels and the state in Colombia’s civil war. 

The 304-page book, published by the University of Chicago Press, details the Colombian government’s efforts to transform Marxist guerrilla fighters in the FARC into consumer citizens. Fattal shows how the market has become one of the principal grounds on which counterinsurgency warfare is waged and post-conflict futures are imagined in the country.

The government pulled at the heartstrings of guerrilla fighters and tried to stoke their longing to be with their families during the holidays. For example, the military lit up Christmas trees in the jungle to encourage fighters to leave the FARC. Another year, they pointed anti-aircraft beams in the sky as if they were the Star of Bethlehem that might guide the guerrillas out of FARC territory.

“The campaigns were very creative and won all sorts of awards, but the book raises serious doubts about the after-effects of building an image of peace out of the hollow beams of marketing,” Fattal said. “Branding is coming to occupy the center of statecraft, whether that’s a real estate mogul using brand bluster to make his way to the White House or the Colombian military posturing as a humanitarian actor. What I call ‘brand warfare’ in the book is a phenomenon that we need to be paying greater attention to.”

His case study also examines the larger phenomenon of the convergence of marketing and militarism through more than three years of intensive fieldwork in Colombia, as well as research with political exiles in Scandinavia and peace negotiators in Cuba.

At Penn State, Fattal’s research analyzes the central role that the media plays in Colombia’s armed conflict through long-term ethnographic research. This combination of subject and method has led him to a research agenda that is deeply interdisciplinary, drawing on the social sciences, humanities, Latin American studies and the documentary arts.

Subjects that he examines include: the shifting strategies, tactics, and practices of warfare in the twenty-first century, the corporatization of propaganda, critical studies of consumer culture and marketing, the politics of social media, and documentary filmmaking (especially in Latin America). Questions of surveillance, disinformation, the role of the market in counterinsurgency, and the relationship between war and non-war are a few of the problems that motivate his research.

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