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NYTimes.com Article: The Selling of America, Bush Style
by swsystem
25 August 2002 12:46 UTC
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This article from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by swsystem@aol.com.

Interesting article by Victoria Da Grazia on the contemporary selling of the 
US--the hegemony is now all about image, emptied of content.

Steven Sherman


The Selling of America, Bush Style

August 25, 2002

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

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

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

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

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.


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Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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