Selling America like shampoo

January 05, 2003|By Dusko Doder

WASHINGTON - Five days after the U.S. assault on Afghanistan began more than a year ago, the Bush administration created a new State Department position whose job is to sell America overseas. It marked an urgent effort to deal more effectively with an unsettled and turbulent post-9/11 world.

The White House hired Charlotte Beers as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. She was known during the 1990s as the "Queen of Madison Avenue" for her magic touch in successfully promoting consumer products. Her new assignment was to crafting a multipronged PR campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Islamic world.

A Texas native with a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Southwestern Louisiana University, Ms. Beers, 67, rose in American advertising to become the legendary chairman and CEO of Ogilvy and Mather (whose billings she boosted by $2 billion during her seven-year reign.) Among her triumphs were campaigns to sell Uncle Ben's rice, Head & Shoulders shampoo and IBM.

"She got me to buy Uncle Ben's rice," said Secretary of State Colin Powell, who met Ms. Beers when they both served on the board of Gulfstream Aerospace. "So there's nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something."

The appointment was greeted by the whispered shock of veteran diplomats and foreign policy experts who understand that selling America overseas requires more sensitivity to other cultures and sustained, long-term connections.

To be sure, Ms. Beers was a brilliant advertising executive. But she was in the business of consumer selling. There's nothing to suggest that she is equipped for getting America's message to the world. The term advertising means "to tell about or praise a product or service publicly." Propaganda, on the other hand, means a systematic promotion of particular ideas, doctrines, policies or practices. As a former U.S. diplomat put it, "Selling Uncle Sam isn't the same as selling Uncle Ben."

Indeed, Ms. Beers' efforts have backfired from the beginning, when thousands of leaflets were dropped on Afghanistan offering a reward for the capture of Osama bin Laden. The problem: A picture showed bin Laden as he might look disguised in Western dress and clean-shaven - an image deeply offensive to many who saw it.

Insensitivity to other cultures has continued. Ms. Beers has organized TV ads for the Muslim world depicting the United States as tolerant of Islam, showing Muslims happily integrated in American life. She touted them as a great success. But awkward facts are omitted.

One need only consult the fare on Al-Jazeera, the CNN of the Middle East. It features nightly footage of civilians killed in U.S. bombings in Afghanistan, roundups of Middle Easterners in southern California by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, random violence since 9/11 against Muslims living in the United States and ongoing Israeli operations in the West Bank and Gaza. The hard sell of the U.S. commercials is unlikely to penetrate the very different realities of lives in places from Egypt to Afghanistan.

A recent international poll by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that the United States is losing the battle of public opinion. The discontent spans NATO allies, Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa - but particularly the Muslim world.

For example, when Muslims were asked whether suicide bombing is justifiable in the defense of Islam, 73 percent in Lebanon, 56 percent in Ivory Coast, 47 percent in Nigeria, 44 percent in Bangladesh and 43 percent in Jordan said yes.

Ms. Beers has kept an extraordinarily low profile since she took the job, even though public diplomacy is all about connecting. Her first news conference recently revealed why she had avoided journalists for more than a year.

Her presentation at the National Press Club here was more suited to the corporate boardroom than international affairs audiences. She was surrounded by the tools of Madison Avenue: power point presentation screens and big boards - "A Report Card for the Year," said one; "Iraq," said another in big, bold letters. She spoke of America as "an elegant brand," about the need for "a fast delivery system" and how to "magnify our message."

Ms. Beers is only a symptom of the real problem. The Bush administration from the very beginning made it plain that it did not care if its rhetoric and policies estranged the rest of the world.

This unilateralist attitude changed slightly after 9/11, but the administration still is not focusing on winning influence around the world as a meaningful key to the war on terrorism. A main reason: The United States has been caught flat-footed by the imprudent dismemberment of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) in 1999. It left the government without an effective means to project its message to the rest of the world. Formed at the beginning of the Cold War, the USIA arguably deserves more credit for the defeat of communism than any other government agency.

More important, the isolationist-minded Republicans responsible for USIA's demise hold sway over the Bush administration's thinking on foreign and military policies. They are mesmerized by the notion that all problems can be solved by a casualty-free application of U.S. air power, high-tech weapons and minimum number of special forces. The sheer U.S. military predominance tends to eclipse the need for a softer persuasion.

But this is short-sighted. As our experience in the Balkans demonstrates, military means do not resolve political problems on the ground. An effective presentation of the U.S. case to the outside world must be part of a coherent strategy in the war on terrorism.

And if the White House really wants to make headway in the battle for public opinion, it should reconsider the idea of advertising America like a dandruff remedy or a breakfast cereal. America, after all, stands for far more than "an elegant brand."

Dusko Doder is a Washington-based author and journalist.

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