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Stopping Spin Laden

To counter Osama and his karaoke microphone, the U.S. is deploying food drops, shortwave-radio broadcasts, and a Madison Avenue vet who used to sing the praises of Uncle Ben's rice. But are these the best ways to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world?

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Brand USA calling: A wheat shipment on its way to Afghanistan.  

What's not to like? we've been asking ourselves. If Osama bin Laden & Co. -- and a significant number of apparently not clinically insane Muslims worldwide -- hate the West, it must be because they misunderstand the product, right? "The West should be a brand manager's dream," columnist Alice Thomson writes in Britain's Daily Telegraph. "It may be big and brash, but there is nothing phony about the product."

That brand-management jargon isn't just incidental; the State Department actually talks that way. Or at least the boss, Colin Powell, does. The Thursday before September 11, Powell stood before hundreds of his charges -- mostly State Department types -- at a D.C. conference and declared, "What are we doing? We're selling a product. That product we are selling is democracy. It's the free-enterprise system, the American value system. It's a product very much in demand. It's a product that is very much needed."

Post-September 11, of course, we suddenly figured out that international perception of that product has long been faltering, and in a big way. "How is it," asked House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde at a recent congressional hearing, "that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue has such trouble promoting a positive image of itself overseas?" Good question, Henry. Now somebody named Charlotte gets to answer it.

Brand Charlotte
"When I heard Colin Powell talking about all that brand stuff," one Madison Avenue veteran tells me, "I thought, That came directly from Charlotte."

Charlotte is Charlotte Beers, the newly confirmed chief of public diplomacy and public affairs at the State Department (she's one of Powell's six deputies). But so far, none of us has heard much from Under Secretary Beers because the woman who is the de facto minister of propaganda has, after an initial flurry of sound bites, clammed up. ("She's had over 250 interview requests," a State Department flack tells me, "and we're not granting any of them.") Probably because she's too busy taking a crash course on suddenly being a diplomat at the worst time ever to suddenly become a diplomat.

"We saw it as a bold and interesting appointment," says a diplomatic State Department diplomat.

Beers was an advertising-industry fixture for four decades -- she's headed three advertising agencies, including, mostly recently, J. Walter Thompson. A Texas gal (well, a 66-year-old Texas gal) with a southern drawl, she's the daughter of an oilman and started her career in advertising as a brand manager at Uncle Ben's. "Well, they eat a lot of rice over there," a former colleague deadpans. (Later on in her career, she also helped market Gillette -- not that the Taliban have much use for razors.) "I mean, I like Charlotte very much, but her appointment was preposterous."

Still, perhaps by selecting someone with a total lack of diplomatic experience, Colin Powell was suggesting that marketing is more powerful than diplomacy. Or maybe he was acknowledging the general triumph of the private sector in figuring out fabulous new ways to "win hearts and minds."

Then again, the appointment may signify the triumph of Brand Beers. "To be honest, she was very successful in advertising because she's a major schmoozer," says another ex-colleague. "She had a famous Rolodex -- there's hardly anyone she didn't know." Under the letter P: Powell, Colin. They served on the board of Gulfstream Aerospace together.

Slogans 'R' Us
But let us dispense with the cynicism for a moment. Let us assume that not only is Beers a brilliant choice to wage our propaganda war, but there is, in fact, a propaganda war to be won. Where do we begin? By disarming ourselves of at least one standard weapon in advertising's arsenal: the slogan. "You can't boil down America into a slogan," says William Rugh, the president of amideast, a D.C. organization that promotes understanding between the U.S. and the Middle East. "America isn't a single product -- it's not Coca-Cola. If Charlotte Beers thinks America is a product to sell, that won't work."

More to the point, the diplomatic corps probably won't play along if that's her intention. Rugh, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Yemen during the eighties and ambassador to the United Arab Emirates in the nineties, is a career diplomat who also held several jobs at the old USIA, the United States Information Agency (which was folded into the State Department in 1999). He's seen the "Let's sell America" approach waft through Washington before: "We had one USIA director who was responsible for the Wrigley's account, and he said he wanted those of us who had been in the business to develop a slogan to identify America that was like a gum slogan. Well, most of us are skeptical of slogans and bumper stickers. We never came up with one because we thought it was a dumb idea."


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