Stopping Spin Laden

Brand USA calling: A wheat shipment on its way to Afghanistan.Photo: AP Wide World Photo

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.”

Target (Audience) Practice
Which is not to say that it’s not a good idea, in a P.R. war, to drive home some basic points over and over again. The consensus among the diplomatic corps is that Powell’s refrain – that America is waging a war on terrorism, not on Islam – bears endless repetition because it’s a matter of continually unspinning the master propagandist whom Tony Blair has called “Spin Laden.”

Another terribly basic advertising tenet – know your target market – will also be tricky. “We tend to lump the Middle East into one big pot of terrorists, or people engaged in sort of messy peace-process questions, or oil sheiks – very stereotyped and superficial views,” says John McNeel, who spent the past five years living in Dubai, where he was chairman and CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Middle East. “But if you consider the difference between a country like Saudi Arabia and, say, Egypt, those are two radically different regimes, radically different cultures that have completely different demographics.”

Perhaps the most Westernized demographic in the region is the wealthy, 2 million-strong United Arab Emirates, where you can find swanky malls and cineplexes.

Teeny Qatar – home of Al Jazeera and site of the region’s first women’s tennis tournament in February (Martina Hingis played, and she wasn’t wearing a burqa) – has just 700,000 inhabitants.

The biggest country in the region, Egypt, with 69 million people, is avoided by some Western multinationals because of widespread poverty.

Iran, with a population of 66 million, and Iraq, with 23 million, are markets that have been written off by many Western marketers because of the political tensions there.

Home to 22 million people, Saudi Arabia is a traditional U.S. ally, but its ruling royal family places extreme restrictions on its media, as McNeel discovered when he ran a campaign for Pampers: “It was illegal to show a baby’s bottom, because that’s a display of naked flesh.” Saatchi & Saatchi would often simply do an end run around the censors because it’s estimated that two thirds of Saudi homes have (technically illegal) satellite dishes.

And consider what’s coming off those satellite signals: not just Al Jazeera, the high-profile, 24-hour, CNN-style Arabic news channel, but all manner of Western programs, including Survivor III, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and MTV’s Diary of Snoop Dogg.

But just because a given region might have access to – and a seeming appetite for – Western media product, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a receptivity to American propaganda. In fact, the opposite might be true. “You can’t have all those violent American movies out there and then think that a rebranding effort can change our image overnight,” says Thomas Sattizahn, a Chicago-based consultant who has helped set up broadcast operations in more than 56 countries, including the U.A.E. (where Rush Hour 2 was playing last week at the Al Mariah cineplex in Abu Dhabi). Likewise, Saatchi & Saatchi’s McNeel cautions against misreading the mind-set of ostensibly Westernized pockets throughout the Middle East. “There’s a phenomenon throughout the region that I call the ‘schizophrenic consumer.’ They will make choices to wear Levi’s or eat at McDonald’s, which on the face of it seems to represent an embracing of a Western lifestyle. But that’s an incorrect reading of what that choice is all about.” (McDonald’s throughout the Middle East close five times a day for prayer time.)

In other words, shopping in the Middle East is often just shopping, though consumer choices can be instantly roiled by the politics of the region. Procter & Gamble’s Ariel – Egypt’s best-selling laundry detergent for more than ten years – was subjected to a widespread boycott because it shared the same name as Israel’s prime minister. It was seen as part of a vast Jewish conspiracy.

Even more instructive: Coca-Cola was subject to a long-standing ban because the company has invested heavily in Israel. “Even to this day, Pepsi is No. 1 throughout the Middle East,” McNeel says. “Coke has been trying to win back some of the lost ground, but so far they’ve been pretty unsuccessful. They were just out of the market for too long.”

That “out of the market for too long” sentiment is a useful metaphor overall. “There was, throughout the nineties, a steady hacking away at the budget of USIA,” a State Department staffer tells me. “Throughout the world, we closed libraries and cultural centers, we cut back on English teaching and performing arts.” In the Middle East specifically, an Arabic-language Life magazine-type glossy called Al-Majal (it loosely translates as Domain) was scrapped in the mid-nineties. “It had articles about life in the United States, about democracy, free enterprise, issues of the day.” Circulation was under 100,000, but pass-along readership was enormous.

And now it’s become clear just how spotty our old-school “fast media” – radio broadcasting – is throughout the region. The Voice of America – as much as it infuriates Jesse Helms (he was apoplectic that it aired an interview with a Taliban leader in September) – doesn’t actually have much reach in Afghanistan and surrounding countries. It’s administered by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent federal board with a $450 million budget for foreign-language broadcasting. “Until I was sworn in last November,” says Norm Pattiz, the chairman and founder of the giant Westwood One radio network, “I think I was the only radio broadcaster who’s ever been on the board.” On a tour of the Middle East, he “found that our broadcast services there amounted to just seven hours a day of Arabic broadcasting.” And that was on shortwave and a barely audible AM signal.

The broadcasts have been expanded somewhat since September 11, and the signal beefed up in Afghanistan, thanks to Commando Solo EC-130 planes equipped with airborne transmitters. But Pattiz’s vision is grander than merely garnishing the existing infrastructure: He plans to create an entirely new service called the Middle East Radio Network – what he calls “a 24-hour-a-day Arabic service targeted at an audience 25 and under, utilizing Western broadcasting techniques.” As he enthuses about MERN’s planned talk shows and public-affairs programming, he gets so worked up that he has to stop himself. The network, as revolutionary as it would be for the region, “is not rocket science,” he points out. “This is basic broadcasting blocking and tackling.”

Pattiz’s inspiration for the $30 million venture, which would involve a new network of AM, FM, and digital transmitters, came after he conducted Western-style focus groups in the region. “I realized there’s a media war going on over there – using hate radio, disinformation, incitement to violence, government and journalistic self-censorship. U.S. international broadcasting wasn’t even a participant. Less than 2 percent of the population had even heard of the Voice of America, let alone listened to it.”

Jesse Helms’s objections notwithstanding (he’s in favor of reviving the more overtly propagandistic Radio Free Afghanistan, which broadcast during the Gulf War), Pattiz seems confident the board will get the needed financing.

Still, it’s one more indication of how we’re in it for the long haul. At the earliest, MERN would be up and running only by late spring of next year.

The Battle For Market Share:
Good Vs. Evil?

Still, if Middle Eastern “consumers” are angry about a product – whether it’s Coca-Cola or America’s foreign policy – how can we turn them around?

Ambassador Rugh recommends recruiting lay ambassadors: “It’s very powerful when an American Muslim stands up in front of a Saudi audience and says, ‘You know, America may look to you like a nonreligious society, a society hostile to Islam, but I can tell you, having lived there, that Americans are open and respectful of religion, including Islam.’ “

Rugh suggests pro-U.S. propaganda can’t come only from Americans. In regard to our broadcasting efforts, he says, the old “Letter From America” approach – from the BBC’s Alistair Cooke, syndicated around the world for more than 50 years – should be emulated. “There ought to be an Arab Alistair Cooke broadcasting in Arabic every day,” he says.

In a way, Charlotte Beers’s most serious challenge may be to persuade the administration to temper its own reductive language regarding the region. Saatchi’s McNeel, for instance, cites President Bush’s “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists” line as particularly troublesome. “A lot of countries in the region, even a country like Pakistan, which has made a bold decision to be in the Western camp in the fight against terrorism, are walking a very fine line and wouldn’t by any means want to send out a signal saying, ‘Okay, now we’re on the side of the U.S.’

“The authors of the events of September 11 clearly had as one of their main objectives to polarize moderate Arabs, to polarize moderate Muslims around the world to fall more resolutely into the anti-American camp.” If you’re not with us, you’re against us plays into that.

Ultimately, McNeel agrees with Ambassador Rugh – that if we have any hope of success in the propaganda war, it has to be fought from within the Middle East by Middle Easterners. “The campaign has to involve respected Muslim figures from the region. They need to be recruited in such a way that it’s representative of their values and their convictions. There’s been a lot of talk about how un-Islamic the acts of September 11 were, and I think that is a clear angle of attack that has to be brought across much more clearly.”

That Was Then. This is Now.
“The State Department has taken the view that to know us is to love us,” spokesman Richard Boucher told Advertising Age in more innocent times (in April). It’s hard to imagine that sort of guileless statement coming out of the State Department today. Strangely, though, similar refrains are still coming from the White House.

“How do I respond,” President Bush asked at a recent press conference, “when I see that in some Islamic countries there is vitriolic hatred for America? I’ll tell you how I respond: I’m amazed. I’m amazed that there is such misunderstanding of what our country is about, that people would hate us. I am, I am – like most Americans, I just can’t believe it. Because I know how good we are, and we’ve got to do a better job of making our case.”

Beers, for her part, seems to be busy managing expectations. Testifying before Congress, she recently characterized the propaganda war’s goal as reaching young people. “It’s the battle for the 11-year-old mind,” she said, sounding ominously like someone who has decided that the 12-and-over demographic may already be a lost cause.

E-mail: sd17@aol.com

Stopping Spin Laden