Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

A week ago, 60 Minutes’ Andy Rooney was shaking his basset-hound jowls over the need to get advertising agencies in on the battle against terrorism. “We have a great product,” he claimed. “We could put the money we’re spending on bombs into radio and television advertising. Inundate those countries with positive information about the United States. Drop good stuff on them.”

Alas, his lame tongue-in-cheek list of “good stuff”-sunglasses, Yankee caps, prayer rugs-suggests irony really is dead, at least as far as Rooney is concerned. And people wonder why we are losing the propaganda war.

Still, Rooney is not the only voice calling for a little more salesmanship in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. We have dropped from the skies some 400,000 leaflets bearing the image of an American soldier shaking hands with an Afghani and the message “The partnership of nations is here to assist the people of Afghanistan.” Tony Blair, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld have all followed Osama bin Laden onto the Al Jazeera airwaves.

Meanwhile, Charlotte Beers, former J. Walter Thompson chief and now undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, is considering buying time on the Arab satellite channel to spread the word that, as Rooney put it, “We’re really awfully nice people.”

There is something decidedly humiliating about watching a guy who lives in a cave in a country that has outlawed television out-spin the world’s original spinmeisters. Add to this the psychological torture (of yet another variety) that Americans experience upon watching massive crowds halfway across the world seething with hatred for the U.S. (It would be nice to have some context for these demonstrations, but since most Americans have zero knowledge of the political dynamics of these nations, all we have are the pictures, and they look pretty bad.)

Being hated is something that Americans-with their firm handshakes and backslaps, big smiles and instant leaps from acquaintance to intimacy-simply cannot stand. We pride ourselves on our “likability,” a national trait that is also, not coincidentally, the primary attribute of most successful ads.

Of course, there is more at stake than our feelings. The specter of destabilized Middle Eastern and Central Asian nations falling into the hands of militant theocrats is a frightening one, a threat both to our security and to our gas-guzzling SUVs.

But never before has a nation attempted to be so image-conscious in war. We don’t bomb on Fridays, out of respect for a holy day honored by 1.3 billion people. We drop bombs, but we drop food packages, too. Unfortunately, the missiles that stray into residential areas and the bombs that land on a U.N. relief center are a stubborn reminder that there really can be no such thing as a “politically correct war.” But shouldn’t we get a little credit for trying? “How is it possible,” wonders Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, “that the government of the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue can’t tell its story overseas?”

But, in fact, Hollywood and Madison Avenue have been telling our story overseas for decades. Until Sept. 11, we had pretty much turned our “consensus building” over to our global brands (nine of the world’s top 10 brands are American). We’ve let the marketers do the propagandizing for the American way of life.

And they’ve done a pretty effective job of spreading the truths that Americans hold self-evident: that material comfort, choice, convenience, individualism, efficiency, autonomy, private satisfaction and personal freedom are paramount-and all best achieved through commodities. You want America’s spin on the world? This is it. As the sociologist Michael Schudson has written, “Advertising is capitalism’s way of saying OI love you’ to itself.”

Perhaps in the Muslim world we’ve been talking to ourselves a bit too much. Still, Muslim audiences seem to have absorbed the message. That helps explain why American consulates in Muslim nations are besieged by green-card seekers. But it’s also why American flags get burned in the street. It’s why the neighborhood McDonald’s is full of middle-class locals attracted to its efficiency, predictability and palate-pleasing fat at a reasonable price. But it’s also why the same restaurant gets trashed in protests.

Those who hate us in the Muslim world may hate us not because they don’t understand us, but precisely because they do.