Uncle Sam, Uncle Tom, and Uncle Ben
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Uncle Sam, Uncle Tom, and Uncle Ben

"We are selling a product. We need someone who can rebrand American foreign policy, rebrand diplomacy."

MID-EAST REALITIES - MER - www.MiddleEast.Org - Washington - 2/22/2002:

We all know who Uncle Sam is. And there are many who think of Colin Powell as Uncle Tom, thought admittedly he usually plays his role so well in public. The Israelis and Sharon have Shimon Peres. And the Americans and Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld have Colin Powell. But...Uncle Ben?

Read on as the article from The Economist helps explain all these Uncles; then pull out some more of your hair. For the Americans really do think you can buy anyone and anything with enough money; and you can convince anyone about anything with enough slick advertising. That's American "culture".

P.S. But so far the $25 million bounty hasn't even coughed up Osama Bin Laden


Charlotte Beers's job is to fix America's image overseas. Can the schmooze queen of Madison Avenue deliver?

"SHE got me to buy Uncle Ben's rice," said Colin Powell, America's secretary of state, early last year as he defended his appointment of Charlotte Beers as chief spin-doctor. The 66-year-old Texan steel magnolia dresses her poodle in sweaters, flirts with company bosses and is lauded as the most powerful woman in advertising. "There is nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something," Mr Powell added. "We are selling a product. We need someone who can rebrand American foreign policy, rebrand diplomacy."

Charismatic and striking, Ms Beers certainly knows how to sell things. In a 40-year career, including stints running two top advertising agencies, Ogilvy GBP Mather and J. Walter Thompson, she conquered Madison Avenue with a mix of southern charm and sheer audacity. She ate dog food to woo product men at Mars; she wowed managers at Sears by casually dismantling and reassembling a power drill during her pitch.

That was in peacetime. But this is war. By the time Ms Beers took up her post last October, the task of the newly-minted undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs had changed beyond recognition. September 11th turned the job of improving America's image into a highly sensitive political post, requiring diplomacy and knowledge, particularly of the Middle East.

America's newly-inflamed patriotism may be playing well at home. But abroad, the world's only "hyperpower", as Ms Beers puts it, is often seen as a boorish bully, intimidating its allies and unable to comprehend the hatred it inflames across the Arab world (see chart). Indeed, military success on the ground may only have widened the cultural and psychological gulf between America and some Arab-Muslim nations.

Fixing this will be difficult, wearying, and perhaps impossible. Ms Beers herself calls it "maybe a 100-year project". But she is tackling it with her accustomed energy. True to her marketing roots, she is doing consumer research in weekly meetings with American Muslims, though her first overseas trip (to meet Arab opinion-formers in Britain, Egypt and Morocco) only took place in January.

She has also been pushing her people to get the word out. Since September 11th, State Department officials, including Christopher Ross, an Arabic-speaking former ambassador to Damascus, have made some 2,000 media appearances, mostly on al-Jazeera television. Ms Beers has produced a booklet about terrorism in 30 languages and is trying to portray America as a place of religious tolerance for Arabs through posters, articles and documentaries on Muslim life in America. "I consider the marketing capacity of the United States to be our greatest unlisted asset," she says.

But whether marketing is the right tool to change Arab attitudes is questionable. Wally Olins, a specialist in branding countries, believes America's image is too entrenched and complex--inspiring admiration, jealousy, fear and disgust in equal measure--for a simple branding campaign to work. Ms Beers concedes this. She has come under fire for public speeches about "brand America" which fuelled criticism of America's naive fixation on image. Mary Matalin, an adviser to Dick Cheney, the vice-president, has warned that the resulting fuss "has cast this patina over the whole operation."A HARD SELL

Ms Beers's success in her old job may have encouraged her to overlook basic marketing laws in her new one. Know your audience, for one. Like most Americans, this daughter of a cowboy, who counts America's domesticity diva, Martha Stewart, among her best friends, naturally assumes that her values are the right ones. She assumes that everyone, given a choice, would want to be American and that the hatred her countrymen encounter overseas must be a tragic misunderstanding. "Everywhere I go", she says, "I hear that people like the American people, but they don't like our policies."

This seems to betray a lack of understanding not only of the terrorists, but of millions of non-Americans with completely different views of the world. At a lunch in Cairo, Muhammad Abdel Hadi, a newspaper editor, complained: "Ms Beers expressed herself like President Bush in every way. No matter how hard you try to make them understand, they don't."

For all of Ms Beers's conversations with Muslims, America's communications have been off-target at best and dangerous at worst, says James Zogby, head of the Washington-based Arab-American Institute. As an example, he cites the decision to focus on Osama bin Laden's apparent guilt in the videotape where he gloats over the September 11th attacks, rather than on what incensed Muslims: a holy man acting like a vainglorious American. "America lost a chance to diminish bin Laden," says Mr Zogby.

Ms Beers also knows that the best way to damage a brand is to mismatch the image and the reality. Yet whatever gloss she can apply to America's image is wiped away by behaviour beyond her control. As she took part in a daily conference call to co-ordinate public diplomacy, for example, the Department of Defence merrily released doctored photos depicting a clean-shaven, besuited Mr bin Laden--undermining American claims that it never tampers with evidence. And it is not at all clear how the Pentagon's new Office of Strategic Influence, and its controversial initiative to shape opinion towards American military operations, possibly by planting stories in the foreign press, fits in with Ms Beers's own efforts.

With a bit of luck and a lot of money and persistence, Ms Beers may, in time, convince some non-Americans (and possibly even some Muslims) of her cause. But she is unlikely to be able to polish up America's image to the extent that both she and her boss would like. The days when Ms Beers's problems could be solved by eating a little dog food must seem increasingly appealing.

THE ECONOMIST, 21 Feb 2002

Comment on these article(s)

February 2002


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