London professor studies city’s role in Cold War project
February 9, 2009
By Jim Feehan
During the height of the Cold War, Issaquah was deluged by an aerial assault. The payload: 30,000 leaflets dropped on the city in an experiment to understand how messages travel through a community.
The U.S. Air Force, the University of Washington and it was widely suspected that the CIA, participated in the experiment, called Project Revere, said Klaus Dodds, a professor of geopolitics and the director of the Politics and Environment Research Group at the University of London.
“Project Revere we found fascinating, in part because of its central role in stimulating research into rumor and the role that geography plays in shaping rumor transmission and reception,” he said.
He said he wanted, 58 years after the event, to study why this research was so central to a lot of Cold War-era research into communication.“Plus, to be honest, we wanted to see whether anyone could recall the sight of thousands of leaflets being dropped on their communities,” he said.
Researchers at the Public Opinion Laboratory at the University of Washington chose to name the project after Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere. One of the leaflets makes reference to Revere and doing one’s duty in terms of responding to a request to pass on information, Dodds said.
Issaquah was selected because it was close to Seattle and had a small population, he said.
Project Revere visits Issaquah
In July 1951, University of Washington researchers visited Issaquah and designed a simple experiment to determine how rumors traveled through communities. The experiment was about coffee and involved sponsorship from the Gold Shield Coffee Co., of Seattle. The test involved whether people could remember the slogan, “Golf Shield Coffee – Good as Gold.”
The research team came to Issaquah on July 16, 1951, and told a select group of women about the new marketing slogan. They were told that if they could remember the slogan a few days later, they would be given a free bag of coffee. They were also encouraged to tell others about it.
The next day, the 30,000 leaflets were dropped over the city. Those encouraged people who did not know what the slogan was to find out. If they could find out the slogan by the following day, they could also qualify for free coffee.
The research team returned to Issaquah on July 18 and interviewed a select number of people (excluding the original women from the outset of the experiment) and asked whether they discovered the slogan by word of mouth or leaflet, or both.
At the time, Issaquah’s population was about 1,000 and 20 percent of women listed among registered voters were targeted, Dodds said. No less than 100 people and possibly 184 people, according to one report, received the coffee, he said.
“Basically, a lot of people learnt about the slogan remarkably quickly,” he said. “One thing that emerged is that women may have been hugely effective in terms of passing on the message.”
Project draws criticism
The UW team was pleased with the results, he said, but there was adverse reaction in local newspapers when it was discovered the experiment was partially funded by the coffee company. The July 19, 1951, editorial in The Issaquah Press criticized the project.
“What seemed an odoriferous story to us was not the aroma of coffee but the stench of free advertising sponsored by our military organizations. Since when are our defense dollars being used by a private business?” the editorial said.
Project Revere did not end at Issaquah. Other cities, such as Walla Walla, Salt Lake City, Seattle and Boise, Idaho, were also involved, Dodds said.
The airdrops in Salt Lake on July 26 took a more serious tone to test how quickly news spreads without the aid of modern communications.
Postcards were dropped asking, “If this were an enemy leaflet dropped to warn you of an atomic attack coming today, what would you do?” The questionnaire suggested recipients might call defense authorities, stay home, go to an emergency center or leave town.
“The Issaquah component was important and subsequently helped to inform a great deal of research into rumor, and communications research more generally,” Dodds said. “Leafleting, of course, is still used to this day by U.S. armed forces in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re interested in why the humble leaflet still retains a saliency in the Internet era.”
Reach Reporter Jim Feehan at 392-6434, ext. 239, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.