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Hearts, minds & ads

Charlotte Beers built a reputation on Madison Avenue by promoting such products as Uncle Ben's Rice, Head & Shoulders shampoo, and Gillette razors.

''She's the queen of branding,'' said a Boston University associate professor, Susan Parenio.

Sworn in Oct. 2 as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, Beers will need all her branding skills.

Her new assignment? Create an ad campaign that will pitch freedom and other American values to young people in Muslim countries and discredit the message of Osama bin Laden, all while the United States bombs Afghanistan. ''It's the battle for the 11-year-old mind,'' Beers told a congressional hearing last month.

Beers, who once led J. Walter Thompson Worldwide and Ogilvy & Mather, refused to grant an interview, but her public statements suggest she will ultimately deploy Madison Avenue techniques to wage an overseas propaganda war against terrorists.

In seeking to convince Muslims, many of whom are deeply religious, that America represents no threat to Islam, Beers faces a formidable challenge, academics and ad agency executives said. The gap between the two cultures is so wide that conventional methods that persuade Americans to buy soap, beer, and cheeseburgers may be inadequate.

''A TV ad about `America the Beautiful' that simply says `We're here to help' isn't going to achieve much,'' said a Harvard Business School professor, John A. Quelch, author of ''Business Strategies in Muslim Countries.''

But if an ad campaign is part of a larger, coordinated US strategy that includes diplomacy, cultural exchanges, humanitarian efforts, and objective news programs beamed into the region, it could yield long-term results, perhaps in the same way that nearly 40 years of Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America helped win the Cold War, some of those interviewed said. Such a campaign would augment a current effort to make top US officials available to Middle Eastern media outlets.

US Representative Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, might have been speaking for many Americans last month when he wondered, ''How is it that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue has such trouble promoting a positive image of itself overseas?''

The short answer may be that America wasn't trying. Until Sept. 11, the nation largely ignored Muslims, who make up nearly a fifth of the world's population, Quelch said.

US tourism and cultural exchanges with Muslim countries have been few, and aside from oil companies, many US-based multinationals avoid the region, partly because religious leaders have persuaded most Muslim governments to resist promoting a favorable business climate. In this ''image vacuum,'' bin Laden has been free to define the United States, Quelch said.

So how do many Muslims see Americans? As ''loud, self-centered, pagan bullies,'' said executive vice president Bill Heater of the Boston ad agency Hill Holliday Connors Cosmopulos.

For many Muslims, America's democratic values of freedom, tolerance, and diversity are hidden behind a wall of perceived materialism and Hollywood sex and violence, said Marc Gopin, a visiting associate professor of international diplomacy at Tufts Univerity's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He is also the author of ''Between Eden and Armageddon: The Future of World Religions, Violence, and Peacemaking.'' For an ad campaign to be effective, it needs to show US values in a way that doesn't threaten a ''culture clash'' with Islam, he said.

To many, ''branding'' is a slick word that suggests a huckster's sales pitch. To those who study it, branding has another meaning. Through a message with both rational and emotional components, it is about creating a positive identity by opening a dialogue with a target audience and, over time, earning that audience's trust and respect, said Harvard Business School professor Nancy F. Koehn, author of ''Brand New.''

And the first step to earning trust is listening to the audience, said Ron Lawner, chairman of the Boston ad agency Arnold Worldwide. Before any branding message can be shaped, he said, ''We need to understand the mindset of who we are talking to.''

Some have suggested that Beers enlist American Muslims to make the country's case, and then buy air time for the ads on al-Jazeera, a popular satellite news channel in the Arab world.

At the Wenham ad agency Mullen, chief creative officer Edward Boches had another suggestion: Train moderate Muslims in marketing and give them media access to counter bin Laden's message.

Fred Bertino, president of the Boston ad agency McCarthy Mambro Bertino, had a different concern. While working on a branding assignment overseas, he learned that many Muslims don't own TVs or personal computers. One way to market in the region was to distribute a message on cassettes that could be passed from person to person.

No matter what the medium, any ad message must be consistent with US diplomatic initiatives and impartial news programs broadcast to the region by US agencies, said Lee McKnight, associate professor of international communications at Tufts' Fletcher School.

That's what happened during the Cold War. By the time John F. Kennedy became president, the propaganda war against communism was well coordinated. At the US Information Agency, whose motto was ''Telling America's story to the world,'' legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow was in charge. Impartial newscasts, cultural exchanges, and Fulbright scholarships made up the context in which the US government presented its views to foreign publics, McKnight said.

''It was crucial that newscasts were objective and instilled trust in the listeners,'' he said. ''That was a big reason for appointing Murrow, whose whole reputation was based on independence. Over time, this strategy was successful and helped win the Cold War.''

Should President Bush have appointed someone more like Murrow instead of Beers? Some critics think so. In any case, much of the infrastructure America used to discredit communism was dismantled after the Cold War ended, McKnight said. In 1999, the USIA was folded into the State Department.

''You just can't have marketing and propaganda,'' he said. ''You just can't craft TV commercials. If that's all you're doing, you're going to fail.''


Chris Reidy, The Boston Globe. November 8, 2001

Copyright © 2001 Boston Globe Electronic Publishing Inc.. All rights reserved.