In Vietnam, US troops were issued with the most modern rifle ever: the M16.
It was a good design but, by the time the procurement people had finished, it wasn’t.
They interfered and made it on the cheap, so the parts got bent and clogged and jammed.
But, as typical paper pushers, they thought the way to fix it was to pretend.
So, they sent the M16 out to all fighting troops, telling them this was the best weapon ever.
And the troops believed it – they didn’t know it was prone to jamming at the slightest clog, the slightest damp, the slightest bump.
None of which is ideal for a weapon whose primary function was fighting in the muddy, humid jungle.
But the troops bought the line about it being a wonder weapon, and many of them thought it cleaned itself.
So, many troops were found dead next to their M16s, which were jammed and clogged.
They needed to quickly correct the damage done by issuing a bad weapon and pretending it was a good one.
What was needed was a 32-page manual detailing all the necessary procedures each soldier needed to perform to maintain it.
But how do you get young boys, who’d just come over from the States, to learn the lengthy process of cleaning and caring for a complicated piece of equipment?
Teenagers wouldn’t read army pamphlets, they’d never study official publications that were as boring as schoolbooks.
Luckily, this was where someone with a brain got involved.
They knew that all teenage boys cared about was comics, girls and baseball.
They spent all their time reading comics, and they had pin-ups on their walls: Playboy gatefolds and baseball stars.
So, in 1968, they got the best comic book artist in America, Will Eisner, to put together a maintenance manual comprising those elements.
It was in the form of a comic book, the spokesperson throughout was a curvy Ann-Margret lookalike dressed in fatigues, who spoke in speech bubbles.
A lot of it was in cheeky double entendre, the sort of language to make young men laugh and remember.
Lines like: TREAT YOUR RIFLE LIKE A LADY, and SWEET 16 AND NEVER MISSED, and HOW TO STRIP YOUR BABY, and TRY OGLING THESE MAGAZINE PIN-UPS (for maintenance of the ammunition magazine).
And they’d switch into baseball language: WHEN THE BASES ARE LOADED EVERY HIT COUNTS, and LAID A BUNT LATELY, and SOME GUYS SPOIL A PLAY BY REACHING OUT FOR BALLS NOT MEANT FOR ‘EM – BUMPED HEADS AND LOST GAMES RESULT.
The curvy female spokesperson would occasionally lapse into the sort of jargon that was common among soldiers in Vietnam: FOR ALL YOU M16 ZAPSTERS HERE ARE SOME NUMBAH ONE SUGGESTIONS TO KEEP YOU ON THE GO-GO.
The cover of the comic wasn’t a formal War Department document either.
The headline on the booklet said: HEY SARGE, GET THIS COPY TO THE MAN WITH THE RIFLE.
It showed a sergeant and a GI, bullets flying all around them, the sergeant saying: “Do me a favor, do a quick ‘before-operations’ check on your rifle BEFORE we counter-attack.”
The great thing was because it was a comic, no-one threw it away.
Because it was a comic, they read it – again and again.
Because they read it, they remembered it.
Because they remembered it, it saved lives.
The incidence of dead soldiers with clogged and broken rifles declined.
Which is why we must talk to the audience in the language they prefer, NOT in the language we prefer.
Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three