What If… Snowden as a Marketing Campaign: Marcus Brown Q&A

By David Knight |

The Edward Snowden revelations were a game changer. All of a sudden, no one knew who was listening in to what; which secretive government agencies were spying on whom. With the former NSA contractor holed up in Russia, his old employer – as well as other agencies such as the UK’s GCHQ – has been left desperately trying to contain the fall out, especially in the public eye in the US and further afield.

But what if the whole thing was just a marketing campaign aimed at misinformation? That might seem a little farfetched, but it forms the basis for a talk – or will it be a performance? – at the upcoming re:publica 14 conference in Berlin.

Marcus Brown, a transplanted Brit, is the creative director of We Are Social Deutschland in Munich, and he spoke to Silicon Allee about his talk, entitled Pledge, Turn, Prestige – the Snowden Pitch and taking place on May 6 at 5.30pm.

SILICON ALLEE: Your talk is going to be a little bit different – do you have a creative streak?

MARCUS BROWN: I studied art at Dartington College of Arts and gained an honorary Bachelor in Art and Social Context; that was back in 1991, way before anybody was talking about the Internet, let alone social media. I’ve always been interested in how people and communities interact with pictures, stories and ideas and I still use a lot of art theory in the work I do today as a creative director at a communications agency. Strangely enough, a lot of people I know working in the area of creative technology have fine art degrees.

SA: Tell us more about your talk at re:publica 14.

MB: I’ve decided to choose a slightly different format this year and I’ve gone for more of a performance framework than a standard ‘I’m going to tell you something’ keynote. The basic idea is that the whole NSA, Prism and Snowden narrative is the brainchild of a communications agency: that is is to say that the whole thing is one big marketing campaign. The campaign is up for grabs and I’ll be pitching to four fictitious NSA officials.

SA: Where did the idea for the Snowden pitch come from?

MB: I was plotting out an end of year blog post last December and writing a list of all the things that had annoyed me during 2013. Edward Snowden was at the top of the list. I started wondering why that was and began sketching out various different narratives where Snowden played the lead role and I kept coming back to an idea I stumbled upon in Norman Mailer’s novel ‘Harlots Ghost’, that being that government organisations such as the CIA or the FBI had departments where they employed novelists to create real stories, about real operations, as a way of using facts as disinformation by cloaking them in the aura of fiction. If you sprinkle some magic theory (Pledge, Turn, Prestige) and a whole bunch of advertising and marketing theory on top of that thought you start to see Snowden and the NSA in a different light.

SA: Why did you decide to give this talk? Why is it such an important topic?

MB: I’ve always had a morbid fascination about how governments and dictatorships employ marketing and advertising thinking to control what millions of people think and do. I’ve never been a conspiracy theorist but the potential for stories that espionage and conspiracies offer is huge. I’m hoping that by spinning an obviously fictitious narrative layer into the whole Snowden/NSA story we can get a little closer to what is really going on. The Internet and mobile phones have offered artists, media, businesses, governments and governmental organisations such as the NSA a whole new ways of spinning tales and creating products around human digital behaviour and the underlying strategy behind them all is the same: if it’s technically possible then it is, from a moral, cultural and commercial stand point, a good thing to be doing. I think that it is important to question that.

SA: The motto for this year’s re:publica is Into The Wild – how does your talk fit in with that?

MB: We have no idea what’s going on. We’re lost in a magical forest that we thought we knew like the back of our hands and we thought that all would be good if we stuck to the magical path. The magical path, however, was contracted out to a governmental subcontractor and has eroded away, leaving us stranded, lost and slightly disappointed with it all. Some of us are scared. Some of us are angry. I’m hoping that my talk and re:publica as a whole will help give us all a little direction.

SA: What message are you trying to convey?

MB: The premise of my talk is that the Snowden/NSA story is a marketing campaign based on tried and tested disinformation techniques such as ‘limited hangout operations’ and I’m throwing in some business, marketing, advertising and magic theory into the pitch for good measure. If we, as a digital society (whatever that might be), consider the NSA to be some grand mythical monster, a mix between Medusa and the Matrix, then one could be forgiven for considering its impact on society to be disastrous. If, however, we shift our frame of reference and consider the NSA for what it really is, a governmental organisation run by civil servants that manage spreadsheets, profit and loss, products and sales targets; an organisation that had no ‘brand visibility’, then maybe another, altogether blander and less damaging story reveals itself.