Covert Influence in Watch Media

Covert Influence in Watch Media

A CIA Case Officer’s job is to steal secrets by recruiting and running assets - penetrations of a foreign government or hostile non-state actor. At the core of this trade is manipulating an individual to report on his or her organization and spy on behalf of the US Government.  A significant step in the “development” of a clandestine relationship is the acceptance of an expensive gift, something that will make that individual feel indebted to his “friend,” the Case Officer.

As the Watches of Espionage platform has grown, we have been offered significant “gifts” and “favors” from brands and accessory companies in the form of “lending” a watch for a review, invitations to lavish parties in Geneva and even cash payments in return for coverage.  From the brand’s perspective, the goal is simple; to exploit the relationship we have developed with our community (you) to sell more products.  

Rolex Sign Yemen

Like a clandestine developmental, the offers are flattering and appeal to my ego, but having spent my professional career manipulating others, I understand this is a dangerous path. How can we objectively cover the watch industry if we feel indebted to a brand?  How can we maintain our authenticity if we mislead our community in return for financial remuneration?  From experience I know a small favor can quickly develop into a dependent relationship.

Nothing in life is free, and upon reflection, the marketing of watches and influence of public opinion on timepieces has more in common with the clandestine world than initially apparent.

James Bond Omega

Covert Influence

Covert Influence (COVIN) is the act of influencing a population’s political sentiment or public discourse, all while concealing the hand of the actor, a foreign government.  In short, it is a government’s messaging disguised as organic content intended to influence a segment to take a certain action.  All major intelligence services engage in COVIN to further their country’s political and military objectives.

IWC Watches and Wonders
Photo Credit: IWC

Information, Misinformation, Disinformation

While there is and always will be tension between journalists and intelligence officers, the reality is the two trades have much in common.

At the core of both disciplines is the process of collecting information, analyzing it, and then reporting it for the sake of decision-making. On the journalism side, the general public is the decision-maker and the decision is often simply public opinion. On the intelligence side, Intelligence Officers collect and analyze information to inform policy makers to (hopefully) make sound decisions.  

According to now declassified documents, during the Cold War, some prominent journalists and media outfits were aligned with the CIA and helped carry out Agency goals in both reporting from foreign nations as well as influencing the populace through placed stories. 

US Embassy Moscow Cold War espionage spy
US Embassy, Moscow, USSR

Today, claims of the CIA’s mass media control and “spooking the news” in the US have very little factual basis.  Contrary to Hollywood, CIA’s current use of the media and COVIN is heavily regulated by US law under Title 50 authorities and only occurs under significant congressional oversight, most notably that it cannot be used to influence the US public opinion.

Patek Philippe advertisement generation

Watch Journalism: To inform or influence?  

While W.O.E. is still new to the watch media landscape, it is easy to identify the same tradecraft used by intelligence services to influence you as the consumer.  There are very few impartial actors in this space and traditional marketing is supported with a sophisticated COVIN-like campaign to manipulate the consumer (you) to take a certain action (buy a certain watch).  

Understanding how niche media–particularly in the watch community– works, and recognizing influence, can help identify partial and impartial actors. This isn't entirely different from what happens in the intelligence world. Intelligence agencies constantly seek to identify, analyze, and counter hostile foreign intelligence services COVIN campaigns targeting the US and our allies.

Tudor FXD Beckham
sexy (Photo Credit: Tudor)

Brand Capture of Enthusiast Platforms

What separates “Enthusiast Media” from the typical “Fourth Estate” (media meant to hold people in power accountable, i.e., big media) is that enthusiast platforms are driven by access. And access is typically granted at the will of the subjects being covered (in the watch world, that’s the big watch companies). This Enthusiast model creates a symbiotic relationship between journalists/watch personalities and the subjects they cover, which inherently results in a bias when reporting. Like a Case Officer providing a gift to a developmental, brands provide watch influencers “gifts”, most notably in the form of access.

To gain and maintain access, the published narrative must be consistent with the established communication direction of the powerful players in the watch world. This is at the core of understanding watch media: As the digital age caught up with the traditional world of watch enthusiasm and platforms started cropping up, there was a very sharp shift from scholarship and reporting to advocacy. We’ve seen this happen in mainstream media as well–and as a result, there is a growing distrust of the major news media conglomerates.

Part of this change in watch media was intentional, but most of it was a byproduct of how the shifting model allowed for more participation, and in turn, more engagement of enthusiasts by brands. All the sudden there was a comment section, and consumers could openly voice their dissent or admiration directly to the brands. Tribalism–which as anyone in the IC can relate to–exists on every level. There are fewer “watch guys” and more and more “Rolex guys” or “Omega guys”, or whatever brand one developed an allegiance to. The “flame wars” erupted on comment sections and forum threads as collectors engaged in heated debates about certain elements of watch enthusiasm. 

Panerai Hqs
(Photo Credit: Panerai)

Swiss Brands - The Puppet Masters 

Watch brands, long masters at marketing, quickly figured out how to manipulate organic advocacy and create communication strategies that brought the leaders of those advocacy movements front and center. Prominent collectors and “tastemakers” were compensated to influence taste, or rather influence “mass opinion” of the watch community at large. 

This led to the modern watch “influencer” model, but something even more impactful happened. The emergence of blogs that cashed in on their influence. Banner ads in the early days were commonplace, and that was the most obvious form of advertising. But the game has evolved.

This is where it takes a discerning eye to distinguish what’s meant to influence–and what has roots in scholarship and enthusiasm. 

Watches & Wonders
Watches and Wonders (Photo Credit: Unknown)

Scholarship vs Advocacy

Big watch brands spend large budgets on “native content” packages that wrap up banner ads, sponsored content, and sometimes events all into one package. Absent is one line item: coverage, as in stories, on the brand’s new releases. It’s implied that the digital platform will cover the release favorably when the brand signs a six-figure ad deal. That’s how big watch platforms can technically remain “independent” while still being influenced by watch brands. It’s the same sort of “soft power” one might see in the intelligence world. There’s always a part of the deal that’s bound by an implied handshake rather than a written contract.  Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

To make things even more complicated, most large watch platforms now sell the very watches they cover so there’s even more opportunity for the platform to be influenced by brands (as a channel to push their watches) and to influence consumers (to sell more watches). 

As a platform starts to carry more brands, there are fewer brands that would be subject to criticism–and if the platform aspired to carry a brand, of course it wouldn't be subject to criticism either. The pattern that occurs is that every article is positive and very few publications offer any earnest scholarship when it comes to a watch or watch manufacturer.

Ryan Gosling Spy Tag
(Photo Credit: Tag)

If one were to look for an objective watch review–it would be notably absent from any of the big watch publications. This isn't by accident. At W.O.E., we celebrate the stories of the community–and we suggest ways to get further into watches, but we generally leave the “reviews” for the blogs. They always seem to be positive, because there is general commercial interest involved, whether overt or clandestine.

We’ve looked at how the conflict in Ukraine is an information war. This ties into how we can think about media–whoever controls the narrative controls public opinion. In enthusiast media, whoever sways opinion controls the consumer purchases. 

The World As it Is

To be clear, we are not criticizing any major watch platform or brand for that matter.  We believe in a free market and actors should make decisions on what is best for their shareholder’s interests.  In a perfect world, all major news outlets and watch platforms would cover events in an objective manner.  That said, we observe the world as it is, not how it should be.

At W.O.E., we’ve long ago established that we will not follow the model of traditional watch media in the sense that we will not take money in exchange for allowing our platform to be used as a tool to influence our community.

Breitling Aviation
(Photo Credit: Breitling)

W.O.E. is brand agnostic.  To date, we have profiled several brands including Tudor, Casio G-Shock, Marathon and Bremont and covered examples of many more (Breitling, Seiko, Omega, Panerai etc). While these are not necessarily endorsements, each brand maintains a connection with our community and our goal is to document that history.  We plan to cover many more and we will continue to do it on our terms without a hidden hand on the libra scale.

We’re not closing the door of collaborating with a major watch brand one day–but it would be for the sole purpose of designing with the scope of our very specific community in mind, and again, on our terms.

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READ NEXT: Criminal Rolex Gangs And Traveling With Watches, Part I

Watches of Espionage Strap

This article has been reviewed by the CIA's Prepublication Classification Review Board to prevent the disclosure of classified information.

21 comments

I agree with this article. I love seeing the herd trash one brand for another…usually it is the same herd…the majority of you will…but others are also guilty of this…so many good brands out there and value in less expensive brands has never been better. Thank you for this article!

Greg

A great piece of writing.

While many on both the left and the right of the political spectrum decry the efforts of nation-states to influence (overtly, clandestinely and covertly), they forget they live in a media driven world where corporations and political figures use the same tools every day to influence their thoughts and actions.

The watch business is no different from any other business and no different from political advertising the world over. They use the same tools. It pays to be a little cynical but also to study the subtle elegance of a well crafted influence campaign. After all, if you don’t study the process, you are more likely to the be the target of the process.

JR Seeger

Still trying to find hidden code explaining how Ryan Gosling made an appearance in this insightful article ha!

Thank you for avoiding being “bought” and keeping the W.O.E brand agnostic.

Jason M.

This is the very reason I read very few of the mainstream watch media any more (with the exception of Watches by SJX, which does actually publish objective reviews) and have switched to blogs and forums. I hadn’t thought about it as “scholarship” vs “advocacy” before but that describes it very well – and nicely summarises the journey that the OG watch media site has sadly gone on (we all know which one is the OG here).

Jonathan H

Stunningly articulate dispatch. Thank you for putting it out there and for making sure that you keep your platform organic and above board. Superb.

@Karmic_AV8r

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