The Post-Cold War CIA Turns to Madison Avenue

CHARLES CHI HALEVI

November 06, 1991|By CHARLES CHI HALEVI

CHICAGO. — Chicago -- As the Soviet Union reforms the KGB, the Central Intelligence Agency raises its profile in the U.S. The president is a former head of the CIA, the attorney general-designate has CIA credentials on his resume -- and the CIA has placed an image-boosting advertisement in the current issue of Ebony magazine.

The full-page ad portrays an idyllic scene with three children peacefully skipping rope in front of graceful and immaculate row houses as a fourth skateboards by. A grandmotherly type keeps watchful eye from her perch on a porch step, and a headline asks, ''Wouldn't you want to know if U.S. territory was going to be invaded?''

The ad's test draws an analogy to gangs invading the reader's neighborhood, and notes that the CIA advises the president, the National Security Council and other policy makers about the state of a larger neighborhood, the world. ''The CIA. Our business is knowing the world's business,'' says the slogan under the agency's official seal.

Why does the CIA need to run what the advertising community might call an image-awareness ad, but which less kindly disposed people would call propaganda? Perhaps it is because in the post-collapse period of the Soviet empire, some call for reducing not only the military budget, but the CIA's, too.

Even conceding that this nation still needs a strong intelligence-gathering organization, the ad raises important questions:

* How desirable is it for an intelligence agency that is supposed to focus upon foreign powers to engage in an advertising campaign in an American medium?

* Should American tax dollars pay for this? The open rate for this type of ad in Ebony is almost $40,000 for a single insertion. Larger-circulation publications would cost even more.

* Is it wise for an American publication to accept, and eventually perhaps depend upon, advertising from a government source? At a time when many media desperately need advertising revenues to stay in business, is this not a potentially addictive source of income? Ebony may be quite solvent, but what about media without deep pockets?

* What are the risks of a publication or news medium being associated with an intelligence-gathering agency?

Mark Mansfield, a CIA spokesman, insisted that the Ebony ad was not for image-boosting, but merely an attempt to recruit more minority agents. ''An ad in a major newspaper can generate as many as 2,000 resumes,'' he said. ''We've run [recruitment ads] in the New York Times, Washington Post and other major cities. It's a useful recruiting tool. The CIA is committed to bringing more blacks into its professional ranks and placing greater numbers of them in executive positions.''

Kristen Kunz, a lecturer at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, doubts that recruitment was uppermost in the agency's mind when it placed the ad in Ebony. ''Ostensibly,'' she says, ''it is a recruitment ad, because at the bottom they placed information on where interested parties can obtain information on employment. But it doesn't sound like a recruitment ad. Typically, a recruitment ad would be like, 'The few, the proud, the Marines' -- talking about what an individual could get out of becoming a part of an organization like the CIA. This ad doesn't do that.''

Furthermore, the recruitment come-on at the bottom is in tiny 6-point type, dwarfed by the 10-point ad copy and the 30-point headline.

''It's particularly significant that they chose the analogy of gangs invading a neighborhood,'' adds Ms. Kunz, ''since this is a black magazine. If I saw this in a magazine I would wonder why they're trying to bolster their public image. I'd also wonder if there are changes happening within the CIA or with the CIA's role in the government that would make the CIA want to bolster public opinion.''

A recruitment ad by the Drug Enforcement Agency in the same issue of Ebony, also a full page, begins with ''An Offer of a Challenging Career.'' It then discusses salary levels, the educational requirements, needed skills and so on. Similarly, the Air Force bought a full page in the same issue to advertise ''How High You Climb in the Air Force is Entirely Up to You.''

Why should American taxpayers pay for an image campaign for the CIA? Understandably, the agency wants the public on its side during congressional budget hearings, but so does every other government agency. Should the public pay for all of them?

And if so, should news and information media accept such ads? Money is addictive; faced with the threat of its withdrawal down the line, some media have been known to look twice at critical reporting about important advertisers. When the important advertiser is a government agency, a newspaper's or magazine's business interest can be reinforced by an appeal to patriotism -- to the detriment of the publication's real job. If the CIA sticks to its real job and does it well, it won't have to worry about its image.

Charles Chi Halevi is a free-lance journalist.

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