Friday, May 07, 2004

HEARTS AND MINDS, PART 56,957. Oh sweet Jesus. Daniel Henninger says we aren't doing enough propaganda in the Arab world -- and that's why the recent unpleasantness at Abu Ghraib is making us look bad. As ever, he traces the problem back to the perfidious Clintons.

Anybody remember Charlotte Beers? Early in the War on Whatchamacallit, the former Chairman of the Ogilvy & Mather worldwide advertising agency was made an Undersecretary of State by the Bush Administration, and tasked and budgeted with the dissemination of pro-our side messages in Arabia. Beers left the government last year "for health reasons." A few months back she talked to advertising columnist Bob Garfield about her experiences, and here's some of the little that she said:
Nothing would be more dangerous than silence. It's like asking Tylenol to be very quiet when people found out there was poison inadvertently put into their Tylenol packages. They went immediately to the air and every phase of communication to talk about what they were going to do, how it would be handled, and they won a huge round with the consumer groups. We do have some policies that are not popular, and that doesn't mean necessarily that we can make those popular, but we can certainly engage on many other fronts...

The skill it takes to have a brand cross borders is to create a universal understanding, you know, maybe the love of a Coke and the party that goes with it, and so on. And the second thing was to always honor and respect the local customs. And so the lessons that we all had to learn as marketers, to earn the right to sell our brands in those countries is one the United States has to practice. I mean the first thing I did in the first year was bring in people from the private sector to conduct courses in that kind of communication which is about context, and also about the basics of branding, really.
All respect to Ms. Beers, a former client of mine, but does this sound like the kind of thinking that would make a dime's worth of difference in a region that regards us as an occupying force? Branding? A Tylenol scenario? Coca-Cola?

That kind of thing did work once, in the former Soviet Union. The aura of our plenty, our brands, our Levi's and Fords and Coca-Colas, had a powerful effect on people who felt themselves oppressed by their own government, not ours. But we're the Big Daddys now -- scrambling to convince a violently hostile region that our berserkers do not reflect our true intentions. Yet we have precious little Coke or unpoisoned Tylenol to offer as tokens of good faith.

No wonder Beers bailed. It's impossible to sell the sizzle without the steak.

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