Charlotte’s Web

In George Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara, which recently closed after a revival on Broadway, the lead character, Andrew Undershaft, sells arms to opposing countries and anyone else who wants them.

Undershaft is a Nietzschean hero, an amoral war profiteer, Shaw’s version of the Übermensch.

“In the millionaire Undershaft,” Shaw wrote, “I have represented a man who has become intellectually and spiritually as well as practically conscious of the irresistible natural truth which we all abhor and repudiate: to wit, that the greatest of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty.”

The play is a century old, but there is a lesson we can learn from it today as the State Department and the Advertising Council look to craft a “public diplomacy” campaign geared to sell America.

We built up Iraq’s defenses during its war with Iran. We supported Saddam Hussein. Yet now we look to Iran for assistance. What we get, none too surprisingly, is static.

Similarly, we built up the Taliban when they were fighting the Soviet Union. And we wonder why the world doesn’t get us. “Why do they hate us?” we ask. We drop bombs, while at the same time we drop food. If we are trying to send a clear and unambiguous message, our actions need to be clear, first and foremost, or our message will not be believed.

That’s branding. Something this country does well. Very well. Argu ably, the world knows us more for the products we promote than for the country that enables the creation of such products.

There is a famous ad the legendary David Ogilvy describes in his book Ogilvy on Advertising. It’s a lesson on corporate advertising, but it applies here. Seated in the ad is a curmudgeonly CEO. Copy reads, “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what your company stands for.” It ends with: “Now—what was it you wanted to sell me?”

Charlotte Beers, who led Ogilvy & Mather for years, is the new under secretary of state for public diplo macy. She’s been given the task of getting our message out. As a woman who started out selling Uncle Ben’s rice, she’ll surely remember the example of David Ogilvy. Corporate advertising conveys a vision. Its message is aimed not so much at tactically selling the company’s products as it is in having a defined purpose. A raison d’être.

During the prosperity of the last decade, we did not feel an urgency to spread the gospel of America. Now we have a sense of patriotism not seen since the ’40s. That feeling can and should be positioned, and marketed, for the world to understand us—who we are and what we do, not just what we make and sell.

There is a higher purpose behind our products and services—one with loft and an ability to inspire, one that Americans know well and that we turn to in times of trouble, hardship and war. Witness the advertising messages that use the flag to give loft to a brand’s identity.

Shaw was his own best promoter—like a CEO, the embodiment of and champion behind his work. It’s time our larger, loftier message supplied the air cover that our tactical, product-driven ground war deserves.