Marketing considered as a tactic in Mideast

Advertising: State Department wonders if Madison Avenue can change Muslims' attitudes about the United States.

October 26, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Earlier this month, senior State Department officials declared they would seek to deploy a new weapon in the arsenal used against terrorism: advertising.

Since then, the government has been consulting Middle East experts and advertising executives about how - and whether - to use paid commercial spots on broadcasts popular with younger Arabs and Muslims disaffected with America. It would be propaganda for the consumer-driven age.

The unofficial consensus is that this sell may prove tough, even for the masters of Madison Avenue.

"You are not going to be able to convert hearts and minds in the heat of the crisis. There is a narrative the region has developed over a period of years" about perceived U.S. hostility, says Shibley Telhami, who holds the Anwar Sadat professorship for peace and development at the University of Maryland. "Public relations can't possibly do the job."

Jim Gray, until recently a veteran public relations executive in New York City, says that a focused U.S. message might get through, given enough time and funds.

"The problem comes with the money. You're talking about billions of dollars," says Gray, now associate dean at Duke's Fuqua School of Business in North Carolina. "This is a worldwide challenge. It would make Nike [advertising] look like a handwritten sign on a lemonade stand."

Some potentially appealing points have not received much currency in the Arab media, such as past U.S. intervention to protect Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo and the judgments by some Islamic clerics that the terrorist attacks cannot be justified by the teachings of the Koran.

Some in the profession say that advertising cannot compensate for long-held grievances. U.S. support for Israel and often-authoritarian regimes in the Middle East has eroded much of this country's popularity in that region.

Yet recent anti-American demonstrations there often take place alongside symbols of U.S. corporate power such as KFC or Coca-Cola. Photographs of those events have captured both the promise and problems of U.S. influence there.

Leading the State Department's effort is Charlotte Beers, the new undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, who previously ran two of the world's largest advertising houses.

"We need to become better at communicating the intangible, the behavior, the emotions that reside in lofty words like `democracy,' " Beers told a House committee on Oct. 10. "The burden is now on us to act as though no one has ever understood the identity of the United States, and redefine it for audiences who are at best cynical."

While U.S. officials have recently started to participate in more interviews with the Arab press, Beers called for a campaign with many aspects. It should be online, on television and on the radio, she said.

In Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, columnist Gerald F. Seib starkly set out the challenge: "In an Islamic world inflamed by radical voices, that message won't sink in after one nice try from merely a senior American official. It will penetrate to the masses only if it's repeated over and over again."

In that vein, Beers said she would be turning to the Advertising Council - the not-for-profit coalition that brought us Rosie the Riveter and Smokey Bear - to explore a possible campaign. While the government has not yet committed to embarking on any ad drive, the group stands ready to take part.

Initially, the government seemed likely to try to place ads on Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, an Arabic-language satellite news channel that is said to reach 35 million to 40 million viewers. Now, activities involving other Middle Eastern outlets are also being considered.

"The fundamentals of marketing apply to this situation," says Priscilla Natkins, executive vice president in charge of campaign management for the Ad Council. "I do believe this is an achievable task."

First, she said, American officials would have to define what message they seek to get across. What kind of behavior or attitudes are we trying to change? Whom is the campaign seeking to reach? Participating ad agencies would review past research and commission new studies, replete with opinion surveys and focus groups, to find out what attitudes that group holds, and why.

The Ad Council, which draws upon agencies that volunteer their time, has had successful campaigns targeting drunken driving, domestic violence and to increase the use of seat belts. Since Sept. 11, the council has arranged for spots on mental health and a college fund for children of victims.

All of those messages were aimed at domestic audiences, however. This potential campaign, in places far distant, would represent a far greater challenge, Natkins acknowledges. "I can't think of any parallel," she says.

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