Best Face Forward


The photo spread in Maxim's July 2007 issue was standard "lad-mag" stuff: leggy models in barely-there bikinis posing seductively against a backdrop of sun, sea and sand. Accompanied by equally provocative text, the five-page feature delivered ample doses of brazen sexuality and exotic scenery. It was yet another month and another far-flung location to pique the interest of Maxim's 2.5 million young male readership.

Only this was no ordinary far-flung location and these were no ordinary midriff-baring models. Titled "Women of the Israeli Defense Forces," the project was shot in Israel using former female soldiers who had traded their boots and fatigues for swimsuits and stilettos.

The Maxim shoot, designed to help redefine Israel's public image, was initiated by David Saranga, the consul for media and public affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York. It was part of a larger effort to give a new face to the nation as it approaches its 60th anniversary this spring.

Traditionally, Israel's Foreign Ministry has been responsible for shaping the country's political image -- not for lifestyle marketing. The country's Ministry of Tourism was in charge of attracting tourists. In a switch, they're now working together to help rebrand Israel as a lifestyles-oriented destination, a strategy being ramped up thanks to the anniversary.

The anniversary "is a big number and speaks to a sense of legitimacy for the nation," observes Barry Lowenthal, president of New York-based Media Kitchen. "It also suggests staying power for a country often associated with violence."

The ministries, of course, have a tough road ahead of them. According to a late-2006 National Brand Index survey of nearly 30,000 respondents in 35 nations conducted by branding expert Simon Anholt, Israel had the lowest public perception of any country in the world -- except for Iran.

"Countries are contaminated by their role in the world," explains Anholt, who has advised countries such as Britain, Iceland, Latvia and Germany on national image-enhancement policies. "Especially if it involves conflict."

Though a relatively unimportant consequence, the violence can interrupt efforts to put forth a new image. Israel's U.S. TV campaign from Communications Plus, "Israel -- you'll love us from the first shalom," for example, was suspended by the Ministry of Tourism in mid-2006 during the three-month war with Lebanon. (It came back on-air several months later.)

Two years on, that war may be long finished, but the country remains mired in a bloody conflict with Palestinian militants that is broadcast daily by international news networks.

Interestingly, tourist numbers in Israel were already improving before some of the ministries' latest efforts were put into place. Since a near-decimation of its tourism industry earlier this decade, a result of ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip and stalled peace processes with its Palestinian neighbors, the country has been attracting an increasing number of tourists. Last year, a record 542,000 Americans visited the country -- more than double the figure in 2002 during the height of the last intifada. But Israeli government agencies are keen to grow these numbers -- and public favor -- even further.

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