News & Politics

Selling Nuclear Fear

The graying peace movement is trying to attract some young blood through fear of nuclear war. But if there's one thing youth distrust more than the military industrial complex, it's their parents' nostalgia.
The graying peace movement is looking for fresh blood to oppose America's latest "Star Wars" scheme. But how do you lure recruits who may have been playing with Cabbage Patch dolls and Transformer toys when the Cold War ended?

The answer for an American -- and global -- audience is being test marketed in Canada at the moment. In Vancouver and Toronto, billboards and transit ads project day-glo images of a rave-cool young people dueling with a warhead beneath the words "Don't Blow It." The ads and the Web site they promote are the direct result of a close study of how to sell nuclear fear, and activism, to 18-35-year-olds.

Irony works. Tugging at heart strings doesn't. Make plenty of neutral-toned information available to your inherently skeptical audience. And avoid even a whiff of hippy-dippy. If there's one thing youth distrust more than the military industrial complex, it's their parents' nostalgia.

These are findings of an agency hired to research and craft a just launched media campaign for the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. The aim of the campaign is to mobilize youth against support for the U.S. national defense system that sits at the top of President George Bush's agenda.

Proponents of NDM say the system will shield North America by intercepting nuclear-tipped missiles fired by "rogue" nations. Opponents claim the unproven technology is an expensive boondoggle in the making, may violate anti-ballistic missile treaties, and will trigger a new global nuclear weapons buildup.

"If the U.S. goes ahead on this, China and Russia have said they will respond by heightening the arms race," notes 24-year-old Sarah Kelly, who was one of several Bombs Away campaign spokespeople on hand at the unveiling of the Don't Blow It billboard in Vancouver. "Keep heightening the arms race," reasons the fourth year medical student at the University of British Columbia, "and eventually a nuclear weapon will be used."

Articulate, imbued with energy to not only study medicine but wrestle with geopolitics, Kelly is just what the doctor ordered for a flagging movement.

Indeed, as the Star Wars debate rekindles, peace activists in North America and Europe see a golden opportunity to replenish their membership, which plummeted as soon as the Berlin Wall came down. Fresh troops are essential, they say, to tackle their larger aim: abolishing nuclear weapons altogether.

Seizing public attention for that cause proved daunting in an era when "presidents Bush and Clinton told people that we no longer lived under the threat of nuclear war and that the world was a much safer place," says Lynn Martin, Communications Director for the U.S. branch of IPPNW.

"While it is true that the numbers of nuclear weapons decreased under these administrations," Martin says, "there are still 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world today and the nuclear war-fighting plans and strategies remain unchanged. The U.S. and Russia each have about 2,500 strategic nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert status and these are targeted at hundreds of cities. If just one modern nuclear weapon exploded over a large city -- either by accident or intent -- millions of people would die and millions more would be injured. The threat of nuclear war remains the greatest immediate public health threat in the world today."

If so, not just politicians, but popular culture fails to reflect such urgency. In 1964, Stanley Kubrick's black comedy Dr. Strangelove made a splash by ridiculing the notion that America's nuclear arsenal was failsafe. In 1983, the television movie The Day After used realism to shock viewers into imagining the consequences of nuclear war. In cineplexes now we find Thirteen Days, a retelling of the Cuban missile crisis that gets good reviews, but implies nuclear doom was confronted 40 years ago and, through cool Kennedy thinking, defused.

Sarah Kelly was born 15 years after that near conflagration. She was but nine years old in 1986, when the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War received the Nobel Peace Prize. Forgive her, then, if the anti-nuclear movement of old is little more than a grainy Life magazine photo in her mind. She and her friends "have seen pictures of our parents' generation marching for peace." But for Kelly, the persistent risk of Armageddon comes as a fresh discovery, and she says she is hungry to know and do more about it.

The 18 to 35 age group that includes Sarah Kelly is the subject of much scrutiny by marketing types. One research firm, D-Code, has named them the Nexus generation, caught as they are between the Industrial and Information Ages, and sandwiched between the Baby Boom and Echo generations.

This demographic is the focus, too, of Amanda Gibbs, whose job at the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society (www.impacs.org) is to help put together media campaigns for non-profit organizations. According to Gibbs, the Nexus generation is "realistic, confident, optimistic, activist" and "incredibly media literate. Yet members of the nexus gang are also born skeptics, steeped in the irony of the age."

When the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War decided it needed to appeal to the Nexus generation, it hired Gibbs and IMPACS to figure out how.

Gibbs developed some campaign approaches, then hired D-Code to run the ideas by a Nexus-aged focus group. Among the group's six carefully selected members: A social activist who'd worked at addiction recovery and sexual assault centers. An arts publicist who'd sailed the Pacific on youth cultural exchange program. A restaurant owner and wine grower who specializes in organic ingredients. A hip-hop artist studying commerce and information technology. A screenwriter/graphic designer. And the founder of her own ecological gardening company.

Gibbs herself casually throws around terms like "marketing to the Web" and "fashion forward" and would seem to be naturally in tune with these Nexusers. But at age thirty, she felt a bit dated as the cultural biases of the focus group revealed themselves.

For example, Gibbs is in love with atomic kitsch like those 1950s instructional films telling school kids to "duck and cover" at the first sign of a nuclear flash, or that famous Dr. Strangelove scene of Slim Pickens riding a falling H-bomb like bronco. But such retro-iconography doesn't register with the Nexus group. "They thought it was moldy," Gibbs says.

A concept called "We said No Nukes" was intended to connect younger people with the peace protests of the past. But it fared no better. "Several of the D-Coders [saw] the activism in the 1960s as largely ineffective and its adherents as sell outs to big business (or worse, their parents)," read the final report.

Many in the group liked a concept that blamed corporate greed for driving the nuclear arms industry. But they doubted the broader appeal of that message across their generation. "'Sticking it to the man' is not going to push your 'social hot button' if you work in a bank," said the report. Some might "feel as though the campaign message is attacking them, their lifestyle, etc."

More popular was a straightforward approach declaring that we face, even today, immediate risk of a nuclear catastrophe. But again, a caveat specific to those of Nexus age. "The message was traumatic in the eighties when Nexus was growing up. It made them feel vulnerable to powers beyond their control and it could still elicit a disempowering response if not supported by actionable steps," D-Code reported. As the gardening company owner said: "No more missile horror messages for me . . . I still feel traumatized by the nuclear war movies of the eighties. . . . It was such a negative way to be brought up in this world, thinking that it might blow up any second because of power freak grown-ups."

Though the billboards are generating productive attention, the real engine of the campaign is the www.bombsaway.ca web site. A month after the site went up, it has had some 25,000 hits, half of them from the U.S., and over 1000 visitors have used the site's capacity to send faxes in opposition to the NMD program.

"Before you can activate younger people, you have to educate them," theorizes Gibbs, who grew up on military bases. The younger half of the Nexus generation, those aged 18 to 25, "don't watch, much less trust, TV," Gibbs maintains. Instead, surveys show they get more of their information from the Web than anywhere else. The Web fits their skeptical, hype-averse nature by allowing them to read as deeply and broadly on a topic as they desire, and it can give them timely updates and action advisories. When a notice gets picked up and spread exponentially in cyberspace, Gibbs says, that is a sign that the "viral marketing" approach to "web activism" is working, and very inexpensively.

Such buzz phrases were foreign to Dr. Mary-Wynn Ashford, co-president of IPPNW, when she came to Gibbs and IMPACS for help. Ashford, who is 60, intended to hire the group to make a 20-minute video, a standard tool for her group in the past. Now she fully buys into the Web-driven strategy for youth who she's come to see are "information savvy and steeped irony."

It did startle Ashford her to see this age bracket reject "our traditional approach: forthright and emotional, based on love for the planet, wanting to protect children. Young people said all this stuff sounds like the 70s and our parents' generation."

If veteran nuclear dissenters are having to start from scratch with a new pool of potential activists, the U.S. military establishment suffers no such loss of institutional memory. Vice President Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense under Dubya's father, and today's point man on NMD -- current Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- held the same post in the mid-1970s under President Gerald Ford.

Bush vows to up military spending by a third, adding another $100 billion a year, and he made NMD a cornerstone of his campaign. If the program goes forward, firms like Boeing and Lockheed stand to gain at least $60 billion in new contracts, according to a conservative estimate by the Congressional Budget Office.

Dr. Ashford expects lessons learned from www.bombsaway.ca to be applied in campaigns in the nine other countries. Top of that list is the United States, where public opinion is the only weapon against well financed lobbyists for military contractors. "We have to affect voting in the U.S. Congress," Ashford declares. "If we do, other countries will fall in line."

Vancouver-based writer David Beers is author of Blue Sky Dream: A Memoir of America's Fall from Grace (Doubleday and Harvest). He can reached at [email protected]
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