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Stopping Spin Laden

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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.


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