In Vietnam, American troops received the most modern rifle of all time: the M16.
It was a good design, but by the time procurement officials were done, it wasn’t.
They stepped in and did it inexpensively so the parts bent, clogged, and stuck.
But, as typical paper pushers, they thought the way to fix it was to pretend.
So they sent the M16 to all the fighting troops, telling them it was the best weapon ever.
And the troops believed it – they had no idea that it was susceptible to jamming at the slightest hoof, at the slightest dampness, at the slightest bump.
None of these are ideal for a weapon whose primary function was to fight in the muddy and wet jungle.
But the troops believed it was a miracle weapon, and many believed it was cleaning itself up.
Thus, many troops were found dead next to their M16s, which were stranded and clogged.
They had to quickly correct the damage done by throwing 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 had to perform to maintain it.
But how do you get young boys, who had just arrived from the United States, to learn the lengthy process of cleaning and maintaining complicated equipment?
Teenagers would not read army brochures, they would never study official publications as boring as textbooks.
Fortunately, this is where someone with a brain got involved.
They knew all teenagers cared about 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 asked America’s best comic book artist, Will Eisner, to write a maintenance manual that included these elements.
It was in the form of a comic strip, the spokesperson was a curvy Ann-Margret lookalike wearing a fatigues, who spoke in bubbles.
Much of it was cheeky two-way, the kind 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 TO SEE THESE MAGAZINE PIN-UPS (for ammo store maintenance).
And they switched to the language of baseball: WHEN THE BASES ARE LOADED, EVERY STROKE COUNTS, AND HAD A LAST BUNT, AND SOME STRIKES WASTE A GAME BY TRENDING FOR BALLS NOT INTENDED FOR BUMPED HEADS AND LOST GAMES RESULT .
The curvy female spokesperson sometimes fell into the kind of jargon that was common among soldiers in Vietnam: FOR ALL M16 ZAPSTERS HERE ARE SOME NUMBAH ONE SUGGESTIONS TO KEEP YOU ON THE GO-GO.
The comic book cover was also not an official War Ministry document.
The title on the booklet read: HEY SARGE, DELIVER THIS COPY TO THE MAN WITH THE GUN.
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 you strike back.
The good thing is that it was a comic, no one threw it away.
Because it was a comic, they read it – over and over again.
Because they read it, they remembered it.
Because they remembered it, it saved lives.
The incidence of soldiers who died with plugged and broken rifles has decreased.
That’s why we need to speak to the audience in the language they prefer, NOT the language we prefer.
Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative blindness and how to fix it, Creative mischief, predatory thinking and one plus one equals three