Against the grain: why Uncle Sam's touch of the Uncle Ben's left the Arab street cold

Good marketing can't make up for a bad product, says John Quelch. That's why America's ad campaign to endear itself to the Muslim world has failed

Sunday 27 July 2003 00:00

An important American initiative - the use of advertising to support public diplomacy - was quietly laid to rest last week in Washington as the US State Department named 13 members for its Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World. Journalists and academics joined former ambassadors on the list. Not one advertising agency executive or marketing professional was included.

Such omissions are significant because of the earlier resignation of Charlotte Beers, the high-profile former advertising executive, after a turbulent 17-month stint as US Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

The State Department's flirtation with advertising began after the terrorist attacks of 11 September. A tide of "why do they hate us?" navel-gazing was bolstered by opinion poll evidence of widespread anti-American sentiment throughout the Muslim world. Secretary of State Colin Powell appointed Ms Beers, at one time a general of Sir Martin Sorrell at WPP Group, to develop communications strategies that would reach beyond the usual opinion leaders in Muslim countries to the broader, younger audience known as the "Arab street".

On the surface, this initiative made sense. Diplomacy no longer takes place behind closed doors; it is conducted on CNN, Al-Jazeera and other all-news satellite channels that depend on a 24/7 diet of talking heads (though CNN's credibility in the Arab world has taken a pounding). Shaping overseas public opinion towards America can help influence political leaders who might otherwise not be as friendly to the US.

But prior to 9/11, public diplomacy at the State Department had lost its way. During the Cold War, the Voice of America brought news (and hope) to millions of people behind the Iron Curtain. Then, with the Cold War won, the office suffered budget cuts and limped along managing an assortment of educational and cultural exchange programmes. Come 9/11, it had few Arab-speaking experts left to respond to the challenge.

Enter the formidable Ms Beers, who made her name building Uncle Ben's rice into a national brand in the US in the 1970s and rose to head WPP's Ogilvy & Mather advertising network. Despite her best efforts to manage expectations, she was quickly pounced on as the woman who would do for Uncle Sam what she had done for Uncle Ben's. State Department insiders, who resented the notion that advertising should have anything to do with diplomacy, were eager to sharpen their knives.

During her tenure, Ms Beers is credited with many achievements: promotion of a new Arab-language radio channel; better television production facilities; improved public affairs training for embassy personnel; and more rigorous market research standards. But the centrepiece of her efforts was a series of five TV advertisements to be aired from Egypt to Indonesia. Each ad depicted an American Muslim going about his or her daily business and enjoying the tolerance and freedom of the American way of life.

The campaign concept, widely pilloried, was nevertheless seen by many as well conceived. First, it addressed the widespread view on the Arab street that Americans did not respect Muslim values. The implicit message in the ads was: "We don't hate you so why do you hate us?" Second, it reinforced President Bush's often-stated admonition to Americans to respect Muslims living in the US - an effort that minimised post-9/11 retaliation against them. Third, it emphasised values in US society - freedom and democracy - that research showed most Arabs and Muslims also embrace. Fourth, if successful, the campaign promised to take the heat off American icon brands that risked boycotts by the Arab Street.

But the ads were pulled after less than two months. The reasons for their "failure" will be familiar to many experienced marketers. First, good marketing can't compensate for a bad product. Arab antipathy to the Bush administration's support for Israel and its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq meant that any ad campaign would be an uphill struggle or, worse, stoke further animosity.

Second, all marketing must be built on a foundation of mutual trust. Anti-American sentiment ran so deep on the Arab street that it was easy for cynics in the Middle East to dismiss the campaign messages as patronising and irrelevant to their plight, and to characterise the American Muslims in the ads as Uncle Toms. The ads were also undermined by images such as those showing the treatment of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay.

Third, advertising can rarely provide a miracle cure. Post-9/11, there was an urgent search for quick fixes. But Ms Beers didn't have enough political equity on Capitol Hill to secure the sustained campaign funding needed to turn back a resentment of US policy that had been building for years.

Fourth, implementation is as important as strategy. Government-run TV stations in many Muslim countries refused to run the ads. Many "friendly" Arab leaders have long found it convenient to channel domestic opposition into antagonism towards the US. They weren't about to help sweeten the US's image.

In the final analysis, there are some challenges that are too big for advertising alone to solve. As a supplement to a broader communications effort, this campaign could have helped. But changing hearts and minds is a tall order that can only be done one American and Arab at a time. Unlike Asians and Hispanics, Arab Americans don't have the strength in numbers to accelerate widespread dialogue; they are invariably counterbalanced in the media by advocates for Israel. Tough Homeland Security checks, too, are discouraging Muslim tourists, businessmen and students from coming to the US - at a time when building bridges one-on-one is more important than ever.

This problem is too important to be left to government agencies. Multinational companies and their foundations need to invest in reversing this trend as part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives. Muslims will soon account for one quarter of the world's population. Their human development and integration into the world economy is essential to multinationals' long-term sales growth.

Ms Beers had the courage to step out from the private sector into the lion's den of public diplomacy. Perhaps Coca-Cola and IBM should do the same?

Professor John Quelch of Harvard Business School is author of 'Business Strategies in Muslim Countries'

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