For Peace's Sake

As midterm elections approach, many voters are wondering if progress has been made in the war on terrorism. Politicians have announced their positions on the U.S. presence in Iraq, but few have addressed a continuing, underlying problem—America’s damaged image abroad.

International public opinion polls repeatedly remind us that people in many countries have negative attitudes toward the U.S. government, and in some cases toward America in general.

Could advertising help with America’s image abroad? Could it play a role in modern public diplomacy—in bettering relationships with people in other countries?

We believe the answer is yes.

After all, what discipline is better equipped to repair or enhance an entity’s image than advertising?

Some might recoil at the thought of advertising—with all its glitz—mentioned alongside a serious issue like international relations. Unfortunately, all it has taken in the past is one quick, sarcastic, ad-bashing sound bite—absent of data to support the criticism—to end a serious discussion of the power of advertising to influence attitudes toward America. The idea of calling our great country a “brand” is disturbing to some, but in the context of improving America’s image, it may make sense. After all, to the extent that the United States can be viewed by those in other countries as a collection of multiple attributes, it is a brand.

To that point, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, “We’ve got to get creative people from the most creative media society on the face of the earth to put their time, attention and mind power to this.” It is hard to ignore Powell’s suggestion when one reflects on the role advertising has played in getting us to buckle our seat belts, prevent forest fires and realize that a mind is a terrible thing to waste.

We believe advertising could also play a role in getting people not to “hate us.”

While programs such as Fulbright exchanges are considered the gold standard for improving relations between citizens of different countries, they are expensive and reach relatively few people. Advertising history has shown us that effective, strategic messaging can energize products, services and ideas, when communicated to many at once via mass communication, in the absence of personal contact.

We’re certainly not suggesting that we do away with cultural and educational exchange programs. But given the misconceptions and negative images that citizens of other countries hold, why couldn’t we try an ad campaign in targeted areas to help “tell America’s story?”

The “elephant in the room” is U.S. foreign policy. Many think it is inappropriate, or even ridiculous, to try and win hearts and minds when we have so many policy difficulties around the world. We believe failure to counter the negative image of America in the foreign press is more than ridiculous—it’s dangerous.

Why shouldn’t public diplomacy benefit from the power of a well-crafted ad message? There’s certainly a lot of potential content—featuring good deeds done by U.S. companies and individuals worldwide, dispelling myths and false beliefs about America, or highlighting the common ground we share with others around the world.

The U.S. State Department did just that in late 2002 with a much-maligned campaign known as the Shared Values Initiative (SVI). It’s interesting to note that SVI’s most vehement critics were politicians, mass media pundits, diplomats and some journalists. In our book Advertising’s War on Terrorism: The Story of the U.S. State Department’s Shared Values Initiative, we detail (to the surprise of most readers) that the U.S. government’s first television campaign to the Muslim world was actually quite successful by advertising standards. While there were problems getting the campaign on the air in certain countries, reach and frequency numbers were very healthy, and commercial recall scores as measured by NFO Worldwide were quite high.

Our own diagnostic research revealed that the spots—which featured testimonials from American Muslims living and practicing their faith freely in the United States—actually moved the needle in terms of improving attitudes toward America. Sub-group analysis of our data showed that the commercials resulted in an even greater positive attitude shift among Muslims in the sample. For us, one of the major insights from the research was that people around the world appear more open to learning about America than many in our more cynical culture might think.

In addition to reporting the history of SVI and the results of our own research, our book offers several suggestions for improving U.S. public diplomacy. Advertising is among the recommendations. It is critically important, however, that any use of advertising or paid communication employs best practices—that it begin with strategic research and lead to well-formulated messages, targeted media vehicles and evaluation measures that will provide feedback for future efforts.

Our hope this fall is that government leaders, especially those in the State Department, will consider ways to improve America’s image abroad. And when they do, we believe they should not be so quick to rule out advertising as a potential tool in that process. We need to give ads a chance.