The Peace Brokers

Ad execs can still help American diplomacy in the Arab world

Ruthless. Arrogant. Aggressive. Biased. All ugly words. That’s what the people in Muslim countries tend to think of the U.S., according to a Gallup poll taken shortly after the attacks of 9/11.

Little has changed. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the continuing violence between Israel and Palestine, have only further tarnished the image of America in the eyes of many in the Arab world.

It’s time for officials in the State Department to start thinking more like business marketing executives and less like bureaucrats. That means understanding—and accepting—the fact that advertising really can help American diplomacy.

The federal government is willing to spend money on advertising to change behavior when it comes to drug use. It’s willing to dig deep into its pockets to lure recruits to the armed services. The American public accepts this with no fuss. Why should diplomacy be any different?

Now that Congress is calling for private-sector involvement in a new public diplomacy commission, here are some ideas that advertising executives can bring to the table:

Treat America as a brand, argues Tim Love, vice chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi. No doubt, this approach makes even the most thick-skinned bureaucrats shudder because they loathe equating the formulation of U.S. foreign policy with the creation of campaigns for Coke and Pepsi. But they are missing the point: Package the very best of this country—democracy, tolerance, freedom of speech, reverence for human rights—and market it in a way that is not arrogant or exploitative or seen as promoting immigration. “America is a brand—a collection of benefits, symbols, equities and perceptions in the minds of individuals around the world,” Love writes in “Walk the Talk,” a paper he has sent to Congress, the White House and the State Department.

Define the brand, says Charles Skuba, ex-Saatchi svp and adjunct professor of international marketing at the University of Maryland. “Branding America must not be propaganda, but should be a clear and loud voice for American values, as well as a demand for smart and balanced policy,” he writes in his paper, “Branding America.” “Great marketing will not sell bad policy.”

Make the brand more appealing, writes DDB in a “thought paper” titled, “America and Cultural Imperialism: A Small Step Toward Understanding.” The agency is talking about American companies operating abroad, but the same notion can be applied to American foreign policy. The U.S. instantly becomes more attractive to the Arab world if, say, it is seen as brokering a fair and lasting peace between Israel and Palestine.

Develop a strategy based on research done country by country, says Dick O’Brien, evp of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. Marketers have the ability to enter each country and measure the degree of hatred and resentment toward America. They can then build communications campaigns to counter it. “Television is virtually universal, even in the poorest parts of the world,” O’Brien says.

Spend more to market the brand and find a home for as many media buys as possible. Top companies like Microsoft and Procter & Gamble spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on international media buys. Compare that with the paltry $15 million the U.S. spent on Charlotte Beers’ “Shared Values” campaign, which was unfairly ridiculed for trying to sell America as a packaged good. The work was not a total failure: According to research the State Department shared with Congress, awareness of the campaign was up, and a shift in attitudes was beginning. Explain to me again how this is a bad thing?

The State Department is trying to do the right thing. Radio Sawa, once the Voice of America’s Arabic service, has been turned into a station people in the Middle East listen to. Web sites have been translated into several languages. Even some midlevel bureaucrats think advertising can help. It’s a start.