Fighting talk

While American and British forces wage war in Afghanistan, the US advertising industry is engaged in its own battle to maintain domestic support for the military campaign. How effective are these ads and could similar pro-American advertising

After a week in which America and the UK sought to re-energise the Afghan campaign in the eyes of their own citizens and of Muslims around the world, the spotlight has fallen on the shortcomings of the propaganda war they are fighting.

In recognition of failures in the public relations battle, the US and the UK are setting up information centres in London, Washington and Pakistan so that they can give a co-ordinated response to the issues and events surrounding the Afghan campaign.

Tony Blair’s government is recognised as being home to masters of spin and it is making every effort to win the PR war through briefings of press and television journalists and the co-ordinated diffusion of messages. But on the other side of the Atlantic another approach is being used, one that is enlisting the help of ad executives to strengthen the resolve of American citizens after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Within a fortnight of the atrocities, the US advertising industry had swung into action. A 30-second TV ad was prepared showing First Lady Laura Bush attempting to comfort Americans in the aftermath and concluding with the patriotic message: “God bless you and God bless America.” The ad was the work of the Ad Council, which has been creating public service ads in the US since World War Two, when its predecessor the War Advertising Council was set up following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

But while allied WWII messages such as “Loose lips sink ships” may have played their part in preparing the way for America’s atom bomb victory in 1945, the uncertain nature of the war being waged in Afghanistan has led to the promotion of some mixed and, at times, controversial advertising.

A celebration of diversity

Other ads have followed the Laura Bush execution, though exactly what their aim has been remains elusive. The “I am an American” campaign shows US citizens from different ethnic groups repeating that line. It was intended to demonstrate the ethnic diversity of the US and, according to an Ad Council spokeswoman, was an attempt to “celebrate this country’s diversity in a time of crisis instead of turning on one another”. She says the ads have had “unbelievable feedback” with “touching responses from it. People seem to be moved”.

All work on the ad campaigns – from creative through production to air time – was donated free by agencies and media owners.

It seems appropriate that a country so at ease with a commercialism viewed with suspicion by other nations, should find solace in TV advertising. But UK ad executives agree that such an approach would not wash this side of the Atlantic. Advertising Association (UK) head Andrew Brown says: “The ads are incredibly American, but I don’t see how they could work here. In the US, there is an established trend of media giving free space, but that doesn’t happen much in the UK. That kind of advertising needs an emotional touchstone, and I don’t know if that exists here. The Americans are better at honest expressions of patriotism than the British.”

US brands have also been referring to the attacks in advertising, but they run the risk of seeming opportunistic. Designers such as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger are part of a campaign called “Fashion for America: shop to show your support”. It aims to lure US shoppers back to the malls following the attacks.

It is one thing using advertising to try to enhance American patriotism in the wake of an unprecedented atrocity. It’s quite another to extend the US love affair with commercial messages to tackling anti-American feeling in the Arab world. Charlotte Beers, the former chairman of J Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather, who was recently appointed as the US State Department’s under-secretary for public diplomacy, has suggested taking the message directly to the Arab world in a series of ads to run on the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite TV channel.

Altered perceptions

The proposed campaign would seek to promote the US position and quash the perception that Osama bin Laden has made all the running in the battle for Muslim public opinion. Last week, the station broadcast a second video recorded by bin Laden in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

Part of Beers’ strategy is to have more spokespeople for the US on the influential TV station, which was launched in 1996 with a number of former BBC journalists from the defunct BBC Arabic service.

The idea of running ads proclaiming that America is not the “devil” some perceive it to be, while at the same time carrying out carpet-bombing operations in Afghanistan, sounds strange to many people. And it is unclear what America’s allies in the action make of such a plan. A Downing Street spokesman says: “The Americans are considering a range of interesting and imaginative ideas, which we are discussing with them. There are no plans for a British ad campaign in the Arab world. It is important to look at all the possibilities and see what can add value.”

But he plays down the prospect of a campaign in the UK similar to those run by the Ad Council in the US, though he says it has been neither ruled in nor out. “We are always considering new ideas. We would not rule it out – we are discussing the Americans’ communications ideas, but not in a UK context.”

The effectiveness of such a US-backed ad campaign targeting the Arab world would be heavily dependent on the way it was positioned. Institute of Practitioners in Advertising president Bruce Haines says: “It could backfire. It would have to be some kind of campaign showing ordinary Americans going about their ordinary lives to show that in fact the ‘great Devil’ is made up of people like themselves. But if you are watching your TV screen with US government ads and there are B52s screaming overhead, there’s a contradiction in terms.

“Where it is possibly of value is in those moderate states such as Jordan, Egypt and Pakistan, where people are looking for more information to keep extreme activists in their place. They could provide more ‘ammunition’ and information about the reality of the US and try to clearly define their objectives.”

Imaginative techniques

Along with the other armoury of propaganda open to the allies, such as radio broadcasts to Afghans and the dropping of leaflets across the country, the use of ads to sway Muslim opinion is certainly “imaginative”.

It may be interpreted as the opening of a new battle front in America’s propaganda efforts across the world (unmediated by the “impartiality” of news reporting) and if deemed successful, could point to a fresh approach to promoting the “new world order” as defined by the West.

If it were seen to fail, it would be a message to the ad industry the world over to stay in their offices and concentrate on selling products and services rather than making forays into the realm of global politics.

Selling a nation

Charlotte Beers is an experienced marketer, but she faces her toughest role yet as under-secretary for public diplomacy where she must succeed in promoting the US both at home and abroad

Elegant, energetic advertising veteran Charlotte Beers was hired as under-secretary for public diplomacy last March by head of the State Department Colin Powell (MW March 29). She was confirmed in the position just a month ago, shortly after the September 11 attacks and thrust into the middle of America’s propaganda war in the battle against fundamentalist terrorism.

Powell commented of Beers a few days before the attacks: “I wanted one of the world’s greatest advertising experts, because what are we doing? We’re selling. We’re selling a product. That product we are selling is democracy. It’s the free enterprise system, the American value system. It’s a product very much in demand. It’s a product that is very much needed.”

In a statement to a hearing of the Senate Committee on Public Diplomacy, Beers outlined how the values of advertising “which concentrate on the emotional side of issues rather than presenting cold facts” could be applied to communicating the US message.

“We must constantly put a picture of humanity on the rather sterile words that the government sometimes uses for communication. If you think of this attack as a big building going down, you haven’t got it. If you think of it as how many orphans were made that day, and how many people are still weeping and mourning, you will remember.

“We need to become better at communicating the intangible, the behaviour, the emotions that reside in lofty words like ‘democracy’. When we say it, we think people know what we mean. It’s not what we say, it’s what they hear. So the burden is now on us to act as though no one has ever understood the identity of the US, and redefine it for audiences who are at best cynical,” she told the committee.

In a sense, she may be right. Islamic fundamentalism appeals to the emotions of its followers, positing an “international brotherhood” united against a common enemy of non-believers. By putting an emotional spin on perceptions of the US, Beers seeks to fight fire with fire.

Powell hired Beers to enhance the image of the US around the world, even before the September 11 attacks. She began her career at Uncle Ben’s as a consumer research supervisor and in 1969 joined ad agency J Walter Thompson. After ten years at the agency she left to head Tatham-Laird & Kudner, where she increased billings threefold. In 1992 she moved to New York to become head of Ogilvy & Mather. She retired in 1997, but was lured back to the world of advertising with an offer to become chairman of J Walter Thompson.

She says her great obsession is with branding, but it is unclear how this approach will help the US propaganda effort in the Islamic world. It is precisely the commercial elements of American culture that many US critics find hard to stomach. She maintains it is crucial to get across the message that the US wants to help the Afghan people, and that is why it is donating $320m (&£219.4m) worth of aid to help refugees in the country.

Many believe that political advertising is of uncertain value, and it is hard to imagine an ad campaign through Al-Jazeera having much effect on Muslim opinion. After all, any ad campaign is only as strong as the product that it promotes.

Beers’ approach runs the risk of appearing to be all froth if it is not backed up by a strategic political plan which is acceptable to Muslims. But ad executives insist advertising can alter behaviour and attitudes – from Saatchi & Saatchi’s “Labour isn’t working” poster to the successful campaigns against drink driving. For every success, however, there are failures, such as anti-drugs campaigns.

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