Mass Killers and Communication, February 2018

Nikolas Cruz, by his own confession, attacked Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with a semi-automatic rifle in Parkland, FL, fatally shooting 17 people and wounding 14 others. Cruz had been reported as a potential danger months earlier to the FBI, but the bureau took no concrete action. Many close to Cruz knew there was something wrong and law enforcement was aware of him. Still, this was insufficient to stop another mass killing.

See below a post I wrote during my graduate studies addressing the 2011 Tucson mass shooting. In it, I reference Anatomy of a Massacre, a book I wrote on the 1991 mass shooting at Luby’s Cafeteria, America’s worst such attack until the 2007 incident at Virginia Tech.

“Mass Killers and Communication”

Posted January 13, 2011

Mass killers are communicators. They communicate their anger, their disconnection from reality, their progress toward violence. They communicate vividly and frequently. They find audiences who receive and understand their messages. And despite their prodigious output of warning signs and pronouncements, mass killers go unchecked. This is the ultimate lesson of the attack in Tucson that killed six people and wounded 13 including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

In 1993, I wrote Anatomy of a Massacre, a true-crime book about what was then the worst mass shooting in American history: George Hennard’s attack on Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, TX, October 16, 1991, that left 23 dead. Hennard was a communicator, as was Jared Loughner, perpetrator of the Tucson mass shooting. Hennard exhibited bizarre, threatening behavior in the lead-up to his crimes. He stalked a family–Jane Bugg and her daughters, Jill and Jana–who lived down the street from his parent’s home where he was living alone. Jane’s complaints to local police brought no official action.

Hennard made his own complaints to law enforcement. He reported to the FBI that “a secret group of white women” had formed a nationwide conspiracy against him. He made a pilgrimage to the site of the San Ysidro McDonald’s where James Huberty set the previous mass shooting victim record at 21. He voiced his hatreds, paranoia and speculation about killing people to those around him. His physician father openly deemed him mentally ill.

Still, nothing happened to stop Hennard. He drove his pickup truck through Luby’s front window at lunch hour, exited the vehicle, and began firing on the building’s occupants with two 9mm pistols. Five minutes later, several police officers engaged Hennard in a gun battle. Twelve minutes later, he was dead in the restaurant’s back hallway. Twenty-three innocent people had been fatally shot with approximately 40 wounded.

Hennard communicated the outcome of Oct. 16, 1991, to anyone who would pay attention. Huberty communicated his instability and intent as well. So did Charles Whitman, the sniper atop the University of Texas tower, who killed 16 people in 1966. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the mass killers at Columbine High School, documented their threats and early dangerous acts online. Seung Hui Cho, who exceeded Hennard’s death toll by killing 32 at Virginia Tech, was a known menace to family, students, teachers and authorities. Nidal Hasan, murderer of 13 at Fort Hood not far from the location of Hennard’s attack, recurrently expressed extremist views and sent intercepted e-mails to terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki.

And now we hear the all-too-familiar story of Jared Loughner, his ominous behavior, his outbursts, his YouTube video speaking of genocide. In Comm 4144 at University of Denver, we are currently studying communication models. Emulating flow charts, they track the path and effect of communications. Repeatedly, the communication model for mass killers is: Source–>Message–>Receiver–>Tragedy

It’s time for a new model.

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Voice of America, Voice of Russia—February 2018

Image: Washington Post

The New York Times and other media report Russians’ use of Facebook to stir discord during the 2016 election. In reading this article, assess how outside parties can use Facebook tools to learn detailed personal data about users and target them with paid content. Assess the ability of these parties to generate content that appears to come from news outlets or independent interest groups.

Reporting on such Russian activity predates the 2016 election as Russia is known for its heavy use of Internet “trolls” and proxies to advance fake news and disinformation to destabilize leadership considered hostile to the Putin regime. It is important to study Russia’s actions in totality and juxtapose them with Soviet propaganda campaigns from the pre-digital age.

In 2004, I wrote an article for AdWeek about the need for a Department of Communications, establishing a cabinet-level presence to centralize and intensify America’s communication efforts. Some may argue that such a department could become a propaganda machine at odds with independent media. Others may say we need to counter the communications of America’s adversaries. Russia is conducting an information war. At its height, ISIS waged a pervasive information war that drew followers to its occupied territory and motivated others to commit terrorism around the world. Can America blunt these efforts without violating our principles?

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What’s an iPad Pro Ad?

In a class I’m teaching at North Central University, Principles of Advertising, we’ve discussed the recent television commercial for iPad Pro. A adolescent girl travels her neighborhood toting the device. Using the iPad Pro (accessorized with Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard), she works on a project about insects while sitting in a tree, snaps a closeup of a praying mantis for said project, video chats with a friend, and writes long-form content.

A neighbor asks politely, “What are you doing on your computer?”

The girl responds guilelessly, “What’s a computer?”

Due to the above punchline/tagline, several of the students found the ad annoying. They are not alone. The media—traditional and social—have critiqued the ad with a collective “Really?” as Apple strives to present the iPad Pro as a laptop replacement. Imagine a world without “computers,” the ad suggests (just try balancing on a bough with a desktop). Gen Z and beyond would consider them equivalent to pay phones and CD players, both of which Apple has helped cast onto junkpiles.

My students have asked if an “annoying commercial” is counterproductive to a marketing campaign, an excellent point. The ad is triggering social media conversation and media coverage, desired outcomes on their face. We discussed the iconic HeadOn commercial that garnered abundant attention for its sheer obnoxiousness. In fairness, the iPad Pro commercial is vastly more artful and features a product known to work. To determine if the ad repels or attracts customers, we must first examine the iPad Pro’s target marketing.

In Q4 2015, the debuting iPad Pro targeted business professionals—larger, more powerful, more useful with a growing array of work-oriented apps, and compatible with a full-size keyboard. This extension of the then-five-year-old iPad line hoped to counter overall declining sales and the perception that iPad was built for media consumption not media creation, meaning “serious work.” This target corresponded with projections that business users would constitute 20% of the tablet market, customers who would demand the superior performance and features emblematic of the Apple brand. Per our class’ learning from Advertising and Integrated Brand Promotion, it is sound practice to target a numerical smaller market that can be served more expertly, increasing profits and brand loyalty.

In recent years, Apple expanded the iPad line to encompass different tablet sizes, capabilities and pricepoints. The strategy has been successful as sales rose. However, analysis shows models other than iPad Pro have driven the rise; Apple does not officially break out sales of individual iPad models.

With Apple also targeting customers who want less expensive iPads, another question arises: Is Apple trying to change the target for the iPad Pro to a younger, less business-oriented market?

And one more query: Is Apple simply trying to get people to think differently about iPad Pros and traditional laptops? If so, are they using a “next generation” message with the commercial’s young protagonist?

Back to the first question: Will Apple’s “annoying commercial” hurt sales? It will be hard to tell without separate sales figures for the iPad Pro. But as a happy iPad Pro user and member of the original business professional target market, allow me to be a one-person focus group. The ad does not turn me off the product. If using iPad Pro makes me cool, hip or edgy, then I’ll have to deal with the unexpected consequences.

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