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James Bond author Ian Fleming is sitting opposite the soon-to-be president of the United States. Along with other dinner guests, they’ve spent the evening chewing on world affairs. But one issue is at the front of John F. Kennedy’s mind.
He is looking at wartime British intelligence officer Ian Fleming as if he might know the answer. So the discussion returns to the vexing topic of what to do about Fidel Castro.
Kennedy asked, “What would Bond do?”
According to one of the other guests, Fleming – who knew Kennedy had recently told Life magazine that From Russia with Love was his 9th favorite book – began talking in a wonderfully casual, slightly bored voice:
“I really don’t see what all the fuss is about. Why is this fellow Castro such a problem? You’re just making an international figure out of him by the very importance you seem to attach to him, instead of which it could be all so simple.”
“How, Ian?!” asked Kennedy.
“Well, there’s one weapon you should use but which none of you seem to have thought of.”
“Ridicule. Instead of making him look important to the Cubans, set out to make him look ridiculous.”
What followed was a 20-minute monologue on the three-point plan for ridiculing Castro.
The 3 points are below, but let’s first look at this mini masterclass from Fleming:
- Reduces the complex topic of Castro to something “so simple”
- Invokes curiosity with one obvious weapon to use
- Repositions Castro not as a figure of ridicule
Fleming told Kennedy that the three things Cubans loved most were money, religion, and sex.
Then he proposed the following:
- A plane to shower forged Cuban pesos over Havana to destabilize the currency.
- The projection of a giant cross in the night sky from America’s base in Guantanamo. This would force Cubans to look skyward and make them believe the second coming was at hand.
- A plane to drop pamphlets from a “Swiss sex institute” with photographs of bearded Cubans and information that tests proved radioactivity settled in men’s facial hair and made them impotent. The barbudos would shave off their beards, and the revolution would be over.
“Everyone roared with laughter,” said another guest Marion Oatsie, “and John ended up almost with tears in his eyes. It was a tour de force of brilliance and wit and very, very funny.”
Beneath the humor, there are deep copywriting takeaways.
Before joining the intelligence services, Fleming worked at news agency Reuters. He learned to write quickly and accurately because if you didn’t you were fired.
With his novels, as Playboy magazine noted in 1964, Fleming’s central device was “a wildly improbable story set against a meticulously detailed and somehow believable background.”
Direct-response copywriting is the transfer of belief through proof.
Fleming hooked Kennedy in.
He broke his proposal down into three digestible parts.
And above all, he spoke not in abstract ideas but concrete plans.
On January 28, 1961, a week after his inauguration, Kennedy authorized two attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro. American spy fiction scholar Skip Wilman later argued that “JFK’s fixation on covert action to oust Castro was constituted through an underlying fantasy shaped in part by Ian Fleming.”
Fleming created Bond as an agent of post-war British escapism.
But for one American president, he was real enough to influence foreign policy.
The power of ideas.
With help from Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography: Ian Fleming, The Complete Man.