Warfare and consumer culture

The two stories that lead this week's section zoom in on a couple of consumer trends that are each difficult to spot - for very different reasons.

One reminds us that warfare spurs advances in high-tech that can worm their way into daily life.

The other reveals how one in-your-face facet of daily life - the barrage of marketers' messages - can seep into the politics of war.

First, a look at nanotechnology, the manipulating of atoms and molecules to create new materials, even microscopic tools.

Two years ago, writer Kelly Hearn covered a congressional hearing where an Army general described a nanotechnology-based armor he said would ultimately emerge. As thin as paper, it would supposedly stop a .38-caliber bullet fired at point-blank range.

Unless it's now making some top-secret debut, the armor is not being used by our forces in Iraq. But Defense Department funding aimed at enabling such breakthroughs has spurred advances in car manufacturing, water filtration, sports gear, and many other areas.

In our second lead piece, consumer writer Noel Paul tracks Washington's moves to "brand" the current conflict in the months before its launch.

Not to be too reductionist about it, the US needed to replace an old "product," containment of Iraq, with a new one, Iraq's reinvention.

The Bush administration pitched its cause sometimes as an issue of disarmament, sometimes as one of a needed "regime change," and sometimes as both. It watched polls while doing what it felt it had to do politically.

We asked some marketers for an assessment of that campaign. With the benefit of hindsight, they found some room for improvement.

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