Posted by Patricia Lee Sharpe
Many of you who read my recent piece on Winning Hearts and Minds may have missed this one. Each asks us to think more closely about commonly used phrases which, on reflection, turn out to be not so useful in the pursuit of effective public diplomacy. This one was written during the Bush administration. Leave out a few names, however, and it's a fresh as tomorrows sunrise, which in some ways is very discouraging, although the danger of misappropriation today is more likely to come from military psyops, say, than than from purely commercial advertising.
People in the White House and Pentagon are baffled. According to The New York Times on December 13, American policy makers can’t understand why a country able to market cars and colas to people deeply hostile to the U.S. can’t also “sell its democratic ideals” to them. Madison Avenue is infamous for its ability to persuade people to buy things they don’t need and can’t afford, and yet, our leaders observe, the U.S. falls short in persuading most Arabs (or even most Europeans) that the Iraq invasion was a good idea.
The Bush administration has been fixated from day one on the “marketing” and “sales” models for influencing foreign publics. Soon after the inaugural a successful ad woman was appointed to head up the Public Diplomacy section of the State Department. To the surprise only of those who recruited her, the lady failed to generate a love fest for America in the Middle East.
So she’s gone; wanted to spend more time with the family or something like that, the usual pretext for the departure of a high level political appointee. Why am I not surprised or baffled?
Let’s look at the U.S. auto industry. Back when Ralph Nader was more widely admired (or feared), he showed us that the American auto industry was foisting “lemons” on the American public. Despite their sexy tail fins, American cars weren’t well made. Their designs were out of touch with evolving life styles. They were more expensive than the emerging competition. They were “unsafe at any speed.”
Soon Americans were buying foreign automobiles, and Japanese automakers were manufacturing Japanese cars in the U.S. Despite the best (or worst) efforts of Madison Avenue, American automakers were losing market share. Result: the good old days of American dominance in the auto industry are gone.
During the 22 years I was working abroad I saw fewer and fewer new American cars on the streets. People with middle class budgets bought Japanese cars. The rich bought German cars. Haven’t our policy makers noticed how the world has changed? Is this sputtering sales model going to help the U.S. make friends and attract allies in an era of terrorism? For that matter, is the United States of America no more important than a hunk of steel and engineering?
This brings us to the cola model. American colas are indeed bottled and drunk everywhere, and cola marketing is big business. Why? Because cola is fancy sugar water, with mildly addictive additives like caffeine. It takes major hype to create, sustain, increase the cola market. In my days as a young advertising copywriter I, too, learned how to make an run-of-the-mill product sound exciting, unique, indispensable.
However, when I, a non-smoker, was asked to provide a testimonial, with photo, for a quit-smoking product, I quit the job instead. Exaggeration I could deal with. Falsification I couldn’t. Yet big time stars get big bucks to provide testimonials that are, to put it bluntly, lies: these sorry role models don’t really live and die by the products they push. Are these the techniques we need to make American policy credible abroad? Is America no better than “lemons” or sugar water? Influential people in the Pentagon seem to think so.
They think so little of the appeal of the American system, values and way of life that they want to create false documents and disseminate lies that amount to character assassination. It’s a tit for tat operation justified,they say, by the practice of American-bashing in some mosques and madrasas. Reading this, my heart sank.
When I was a press officer working for the U.S. Information Agency, I spent a good deal of my time refuting Soviet disinformation–and taking pride in the fact that we in USIA had a mandate the tell the whole American story, warts and all. Warts or no, we didn’t have to lie to look good. But in those days we didn’t have to explain away the shockingly cruel and illegal treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, at Abu Graib, in Afghanistan.
Who in the world can look at scenes of torture and associate America with “democratic ideals”? And once a campaign of disinformation is underway, nothing the U.S. government says will be trusted by anyone with good sense for a long time to come.
Only a few years ago, nuclear stockpiles notwithstanding, America’s greatest strength was the soft power of a universally respected political and legal system. The U.S. could in reasonably good faith call upon other nations to improve in the area of human rights. We practically invented freedom of expression and association.
Sure, people came to the U.S. to get rich, but they also came because even an immigrant, a nobody, could become a somebody. They also came to enjoy the personal security made possible by the rule of law and all those other freedoms the Patriot Act is now curtailing. And the U.S. prevailed through leadership, not intimidation, more often than not. Soft power is what American used to have in spades.
Soft power doesn’t need propaganda or a hard sell. And the America I used to love never needed a hard sell either.