Under the Influence

How matchbooks were used to track down Osama bin Laden

From big beer and tobacco companies, to the war effort, to Hollywood, to the smallest mom and pop businesses, matchbook advertising was effective and affordable for everyone. And believe it or not, even the U.S. State Department used matchbook advertising recently to hunt down Osama bin Laden.
(9/11 Memorial)

Matchbooks have chronicled our culture. Through the Great Depression, the early days of Hollywood, the emergence of organized sport, world wars and even to track down terrorists.

Back in 1998, U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were truck-bombed.

Later that year, a federal court in Manhattan indicted fugitive Saudi millionaire and terrorist leader Osama bin Laden on charges of plotting the attacks.

The U.S. State Department announced a reward of up to $5 million for information that would lead to bin Laden's arrest and conviction. It was part of the State Department's Rewards For Justice Program, created in the mid-1980s. It offered millions of dollars in exchange for information that enabled U.S. law enforcement agents to prevent terrorist attacks, or successfully prosecute terrorists.

The key to putting a bounty on someone is the same key to marketing a product: people have to know the bounty exists in order to generate interest.

So the State Department put the news out to the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa and Europe. They marketed the bounty in various mediums including posters, radio and the internet. But one of the main channels was through matchbooks.

To spread the word, the State Department printed and circulated thousands of matchbooks bearing bin Laden's image, a multimillion-dollar reward, instructions for collecting the money, and the promise of identity protection and possible relocation.

The program started using matchbooks in the early 1990s, and it's reported that it was a matchbook that led to the arrest of World Trade Centre bombing suspect Ramzi Yousef.

Three years later, bin Laden's suspected involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks put the matchbooks back into circulation.

The thinking was this: many of the rural people of the Middle East don't have access to radios or internet. But research showed that a high percentage of people in those regions were smokers.

Matchbooks are an interesting item. Heavy to moderate smokers look at a matchbook 20 or more times a day. Up to eight additional people are exposed to a single matchbook. They get borrowed and shared. Every time a matchbook got pulled out of a pocket, the owner was reminded of the bounty.

Matchbooks were an inexpensive, yet effective way for the State Department to get the word out to remote regions, and to keep it top of mind.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, the matchbooks weren't effective in bin Laden's case. That could be because the reward amount on the matchbooks was missing a zero – it said $500,000 instead of $5 million. A bit of a difference.

Also, the matchbooks were green — a colour Muslims associate with Islam —so many Afghans would interpret it to mean bin Laden was a holy man.

And lastly, the website on the matchbooks was also incorrect – so anyone wishing to leave a tip just got an error message.

But, aside from those failures, the mighty matchbook has a long and quite successful history in the world of marketing. As a matter of fact, there was a time in our history when matchbooks were the most popular advertising medium in North America. They were inexpensive, colourful, persuasive, and highly mobile.

Businesses used matchbook advertising for the same reasons the State Department chose them to hunt down bin Laden — except for one difference: their proofreading was better.

For more stories about matchbook advertising, click or tap the "Listen" button above to hear the full Under the Influence episode. You can also find us on the CBC Radio app or subscribe to our podcast.

Under the Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio, a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels, so host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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The Terstream Mobile Recording Studio. (Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)