The New York Times
August 25, 2002 Sunday
Late Edition - Final
The Selling of America, Bush Style (from LexisNexis)
BYLINE: By VICTORIA DE GRAZIA; Victoria de Grazia, a professor of European history at Columbia University, is writing a book about American consumer culture in 20th-century Europe.
SECTION: Section 4; Column 1; Week in Review Desk; Pg. 4
LENGTH: 1440 words
WITHIN weeks of Sept. 11, Charlotte Beers, celebrated as the "queen of branding" among the public relations cognoscenti, was named undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. Her job was explaining and selling the administration's foreign policy, especially its war on terrorism. The problem of "Why they hate us" was rephrased, in ad speak, as "How we reposition the brand."
To help win market shares from jihad, the former chairwoman of J. Walter Thompson Worldwide advertising agency recently received a $520 million Congressional appropriation to focus on "disaffected populations," especially in the Middle East and South Asia. As Ms. Beers testified, "a poor perception of the U.S. leads to unrest, and unrest has proven to be a threat to our national and international security."
Ms. Beers's efforts to mount the largest public relations campaign in the history of foreign policy will start with market research and focus groups to connect with angry young Muslims and also bring American policy makers up to speed on global opinion. Special projects will include producing videos about varied Muslim-Americans -- teachers, basketball players, firemen -- to show that the United States is an open and tolerant society, and establishing a new 24-hour Arabic-language satellite news network. These endeavors will be guided by the best practice in advertising, she affirms: to convey the emotional as well as the rational, frame all messages in the context of the audience, enlist third parties for authenticity and magnify a good result.
There is nothing new about using public relations with a commercial twist in foreign policy. The Romans demonstrated their power from Gaul to Galilee by stamping the emperor's face on their coins, and Her Majesty's government publicized the Pax Britannica by celebrating Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee with global distribution of figurines and cups with her image. Yet, no country has developed as close a link between statesmanship and salesmanship as the United States. Public relations has been a staple of American diplomacy, starting in World War I and perfected during the cold war, part of a mix that combined advertising with foreign aid, cultural exchanges and wide-ranging consular contacts.
Indeed, it was Woodrow Wilson, the first president to address the International Congress of Salesmanship in 1916 -- urging its members "go out and sell goods that will make the world more comfortable and more happy, and convert them to the principles of America" -- who first employed massive advertising in the name of foreign policy. It was in 1917, after the newspaperman George Creel convinced Wilson, an austere, scholarly president, that a Committee on Public Information could clarify the reasons for America's entry into World War I.
J. Walter Thompson's second-in-command, James Webb Young, was among the first men Mr. Creel enlisted. His task was to convince Germans on the Western Front of the "inevitability of defeat," and "put gloom and despair into the heart of every person in the German Empire." Before it was dissolved, in 1919, the Creel Committee had distributed millions of pieces of information at home and abroad.
The experience of World War I left advertisers boasting that publicity had "earned its credentials as an important implement of war." The idea that advertising could "sway the ideas of whole populations, change their habits of life, create belief, practically universal in any policy or idea" also sat well with America's sense of itself as a democracy on a global mission. It complemented the face-to-face relations that Wilsonian diplomacy endorsed. It was of a piece with the rapidly rising hegemony's self-consciousness about its image, and the belief that every American commodity -- whether a Model T, Hollywood movie or Palmolive soap -- flagged America's high standard of living as a universal right, one other peoples could obtain by modeling their governments and society on America's.
Propaganda, using state apparatuses, was what other states used in pursuit of their goals. Publicity, with private sector support, was the handmaiden of a government that presented itself as opposed to heavy-handed involvement abroad and sought to circumvent autocratic leaders to get the humane, rational message of the American people directly to peoples with similar aspirations. Other regimes may propagate hard-nosed ideology, but American democracy had lofty ideals.
The cold war was the high time for putting these concepts to work. The Marshall Plan, though regarded as a generous gift by many Americans, was seen by many Europeans as a Trojan horse, opening the gates to laissez-faire capitalism. Since one goal indeed was to redesign European markets on American lines, the European Recovery Program, as it was officially called, sought to explain its grand aims.
For Paul Hoffman, the former head of the Studebaker Motor Company, who administered the Marshall Plan in Europe, a "strong information arm" helped show that the "American assembly line" was superior to "the Communist Party line." He ordered 5 percent of local funds used for publicity, comparable to what American companies then spent launching a new product.
THESE sums went for a remarkably inventive range of events, films and publications, many propagandizing the "high standard of living" of "Joe Smith, America's average worker" -- his tidy home, clean blue jean overalls, shiny tools, his car. All would be accessible to Europeans, provided they worked hard and voted anti-Communist.
After advising the government on the Marshall Plan, J. Walter Thompson, the world's largest ad agency, was then given the NATO account. That was considered a more controversial sell in the mid-1950's, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization faced an "identity crisis" -- American taxpayers complained about the cost of defending Europe and anti-American protests appeared in Europe.
The ad men's advice was that for its 10th anniversary, in 1959, NATO should be reshaped "to forge a history of community and tradition," and "make clear to the world the striking superiority, as much moral as material, of the Western conception of Man and his dignity." The campaign called for a NATO birthday celebration, a NATO song featuring Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Harry Belafonte, among others, and slogans like "Good night, sleep tight, NATO stands on guard" and "N-A-T-O -- four letters that spell peace."
History shows, then, that Washington often used public relations for diplomacy. But the Bush administration is proposing something new, and not just because Ms. Beers has been quoted as saying a "30 percent conversion rate" for Muslims would "represent a sales curve any corporation would envy."
Today's effort is new, first, because so far it promises largely to be about image. Cold war publicity went hand in hand with the $13 billion in Marshall Plan aid. The State Department dispatched cultural missions, including exhibitions of Abstract Expressionist art; staged trade fairs with model homes and supermarkets; and named Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong as ambassadors of the American way of life. (Though both were critical of racial discrimination at home.) The key was cultural exchange, as Dave Brubeck, who also toured for America, wrote: "When our neighbors call us vermin/We send out Woody Herman/That's what we call cultural exchange."
The Bush administration's effort faces different hurdles, partly because it has different objectives compared to, say, the Marshall Plan's "decent standard of living." In the best of cases, even with a clear and appealing message, it is hard for the official government voice to be heard. One obstacle is that there are now so many competing messages from so many sources saying so many things.
Another obstacle is that advertising messages in themselves have so little bite. They are like one-way streets. Effective cultural exchange, by contrast, depends on engaging others in dialogue.
Yet these sorts of exchanges make a difference to emerging public leaders abroad, not to mention foreign opinion makers and the public generally. Consumers, as advertisers know, are not stupid -- especially not today's savvy global consumer.
Advertising, when disconnected from more substantial cultural exchanges, runs a double risk: either it is treated as just more background noise and so ignored; or cited as another example of America's overwhelming media presence abroad, for which the nation is already criticized. The bottom line, to use ad speak, is that advertising is only as good as the product being sold.