Portland ad executive Al Moffat, who spends his professional life contemplating brands, image-building and market positioning, says perhaps the best-known brand in the world — America — “is in play.”
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U.S. military forces handily won the war, crushing a technologically inferior foe on the battlefield in less than a month. But winning the peace, and restoring the United States’ image in the world, will prove a much more exacting challenge, Moffat and other experts said.
The widely televised images of U.S. troops blasting through Iraqi defenses has stirred resentment in many quarters, fueling the view of the United States as an arrogant, imperialistic conqueror. Experts said the Bush administration’s best rebuttal is the mobs of grateful Iraqis dancing in the streets of Baghdad.
“What the administration can point to is the liberation of Iraq,” said Moffat, of Moffat-Rosenthal Advertising. “The brand now is liberation.”
Selling the war to Americans proved relatively easy. The lightning drive up the Euphrates River, chronicled by embedded journalists and streaming video, was a testament to the soldiers’ courage and training. But now the administration faces a longer, more complex battle — a “war of ideas,” as Ariel Cohen, a research fellow at Washington D.C.’s Heritage Foundation calls it.
One man’s liberation is another’s occupation.
“The next war is the propaganda war,” said Mark Barden, a media planner who formerly worked for the Wieden+Kennedy ad agency in Portland.
Even soldiers on the ground seem keenly aware of the importance of images in this new phase of the struggle. One of the war’s unforgettable images — the toppling of a hulking statue of Saddam Hussein — was fraught with political symbolism. A U.S. soldier initially placed an American flag over the statue’s face but quickly replaced it, apparently under orders from an officer, with an Iraq flag.
“As I watched it, I was thinking, ‘can someone please get a PR officer out there,’ ” said Daniel Baxter, of the Borders Perrin Norrander advertising agency. “That moment is, in a nutshell, the problem with the way the U.S. is marketing itself. They don’t always think before they act.”
Winning back the world Imagery and symbolism are the lingua franca of much of Portland’s sizable advertising and marketing community. Asked to view the Iraq war through the lens of a consumer products marketer, a handful of local advertising experts agreed the Bush administration faces a formidable task in winning back a world frightened and repelled by the U.S. show of force in Iraq.
The foreign policy-consumer product marketing analogy only plays so far, however, “If a multinational’s research shows a message or product is impractical, they can drop the effort,” said Barden. “This is entirely different. We can’t walk away from this.”
Local advertising professionals praised the job done by the Bush administration in selling the war to the American public. Broad domestic support for the war only grew as U.S. troops went into combat.
In “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” and George Bush’s constant referrals to “evil-doers,” they recognized the kind of snappy, emotion-laden phrases that make up any successful advertising campaign.
The administration’s domestic sales job wasn’t always smooth. Officials’ justification for the war shifted early and often from Iraq’s support for terrorists, to the country’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, to its brutal and repressive nature.
As they say in both advertising and politics, the administration was not “staying on message.”
But it didn’t seem to matter. Once troops were under fire, domestic support for war grew and the peace movement made no inroads, national polls showed.
Some of the executives speculated that the reasons behind the war became irrelevant for many Americans once it appeared that a hot war was inevitable.
“The message became supporting our troops rather than going to war,” said Mike Doherty, chief executive of Cole & Weber ad agency. “Americans are patriotic. We really rally around ourselves at a time like this.”
“In the ad business we call it positioning,” added Barden. “Align this war with patriotism and you’ll get the people on your side.”
Tough sell to foreigners Now, as the U.S. military mops up in Iraq, the Bush administration turns its marketing machine on the international community. Experts said it’s a fence-mending chore of monumental proportion.
The arguments that were effective for President Bush with the domestic audience — that the war was needed to protect U.S. security — were irrelevant to foreign audiences.
Longtime allies were aggrieved by the U.S action and the administration’s willingness to go forward without approval from the United Nations.
And to a Middle East already seething with resentment for U.S. support of Israel, the dancing in Baghdad did little to alleviate weeks of nearly nonstop images of civilian casualties broadcast on Al-Jazeera and other Arab television networks.
Barden said the United States “must somehow find some traction with an audience that doesn’t want to believe any of it.”
Selling the United States to the Middle East right now, he said, is akin to convincing Alaskans of Exxon’s environmental bona fides in the days after the Exxon Valdez ran aground. “The vast majority of the Arab world views the U.S. action in Iraq as aggression,” said Ali Abunimah, of the Electronic Intifada, a pro-Palestinian media group. “A couple of good news days for the U.S. don’t erase that image.”
The United States, of course, had its share of image problems before the Iraq war. The Bush administration even went to Madison Avenue in an effort to improve its position in the world.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. State Department hired longtime ad executive Charlotte Beers as its undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs.
One of Beers’ stated missions was to promote understanding between the United States and the Muslim world. Her most prominent project was a series of glossy advertisements on the state of Muslims in America.
The State Department attempted, with mixed success, to get the pieces broadcast in the Middle East. Many stations refused, dismissing the ads as U.S. propaganda.
Selling the Middle East on the merits of the United States became even harder as the Bush administration marched toward war in Iraq. Beers resigned from her post in early March citing health problems. The headline on CNN’s Web site read “Bush’s Muslim propaganda chief quits.”
Ariel Cohen, of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Beers was a bad fit from the beginning. “I think Madison Avenue is not the right pool of talent,” Cohen said. “It’s not about making America pretty in glossy ads. This is much more the kind of ideological war we were engaged in during the Cold War.”
Follow-through needed The United States will get a step up in the propaganda war if it can restore order and avoid a humanitarian disaster in Iraq.
“This is not a PR campaign at this point, said Jean AbiNader, of the Arab-American Institute. “It’s not about words. It’s about actions.”
Among the administration’s priorities, AbiNader added, should be fulfilling its promises of democratic reform in Iraq.
Restoring some degree of self-determination was key in the successful occupations of post-WWII Japan and Germany. Japan adopted a new constitution just seven months after the surrender and staged elections shortly thereafter. Germany held elections in 1949.
War crime trials also played a significant role in both occupations. The trials were crucial in exposing atrocities committed by the former regimes and ending any legitimate shot they had at maintaining widespread popular support.
More than 50 years later, the U.S. government needs to heed the lessons of Germany and Japan, said Jeffrey Herf, a professor at the University of Maryland. “The absolute worst thing we could do is botch the job of crushing the Baath Party,” he said.
Jeff Manning: 503-294-7606; firstname.lastname@example.org