Madison Ave's "Humanity" Ploy

We are, as singer-philosopher Madonna has noted, living in a material world. We also inhabit a corporatized culture.

As U.S. forces in Afghanistan searched bombed-out caves for Osama bin Laden, Karen Gibbs, who covers Wall Street for Fox News Channel, told viewers that financial analysts expected a "bin Laden bounce" of several hundred points if the Americans found him. But, she added, "the markets wanted" bin Laden not nabbed but dead. "The markets," she said, "will be very disappointed if we have a prolonged trial." That's natural, anchor Neil Cavuto observed: "the markets want closure." More than that, Gibbs noted, the "people in the Schwab offices" desired not merely the death of bin Laden but "a painful death."

The markets and the marketeers do rule. Their influence does not creep into other segments of society; it floods them. Thus, even as the U.S. military completes its rout of the Taliban, we still hear that the United States has not triumphed in the P.R. war and must adopt Madison Avenue tactics to promote itself to Muslim people.

Days ago, Advertising Age asked three top ad execs "how best to influence populations throughout the Islamic world." Cliff Freeman, chairman of a self-named firm, noted, "One way we might show the Afghanis what this country is made of is to show them our interest in them as human beings. We have to show them that the American people are interested in working with them and helping because we relate to their struggle....I would communicate these things through film."

Ellis Verdi, president of DeVito/Verdi, said, "I see this kind of advertising as closely related to political advertising rather than branding. The instinct would be to use the very familiar, often obnoxious techniques from political advertising, including surrogates who say good things about our country, such as Muslim academics. The problem is you're preaching to an audience that has been raised to hate us."

Jim Ferguson, president of WPP Group's Y&R Advertising, advised, "I would hire a guerilla marketing unit. They could have fashion shows over there. They could have movies, dances. They can teach them our decadent way of living, how the infidels live over here and why it's so much fun....You have to infiltrate their lives, and I don't think making commercials is going to do it. You set up events. You show them movies: Boogie Nights, I'd show them that." Ferguson added, "When I worked on the [current] president's campaign, we kept in mind what was brand Bush. So a lot of it is like selling soap....The first thing is to get people to like you. You always buy something from someone you like."

This wisdom from advertising's prominent execs suggests that corporate culture ought to remain within the corporate realm. Freeman's share-our-humanity notion is not wrongheaded. But will Muslims reevaluate the United States if they see Americans identify with the struggles of Aghans via a movie or two? (Which reminds me: is Stallone still working on a new Rambo-in-Afghanistan flick?) Demonstrating U.S. concern is important. But Afghans probably would appreciate butter over films.

Moreover, Freeman's celluloid campaign would confront a serious obstacle: America is not that interested in Afghans "as human beings." True, the Bush Administration sent $300 million in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan while it bombed there. Unfortunately, this amount does not go far in addressing the profound needs of a country facing famine and coping with millions of refugees. (Afghanistan requires $500 million to clear landmines leftover from earlier conflicts.) And the Bush Administration has told the Europeans that it expects them to pay for most of the multibillion-dollar reconstruction effort that is to take place once the war ends. The message: we care about the war, you care about the peace.

At the start of the Christmas season, Bush did attend a kids-filled rally at a Maryland warehouse that was shipping $1.5 million worth of blankets, toys, tents, clothing, candy and school supplies to Afghan children. The money for the goods had come from American children who responded to Bush's request that youngsters mail a dollar to the White House to benefit kids in Afghanistan. This effort was fine; it's great kids feel they are helping youngsters elsewhere. But the United Nations reports there are 1.5 million needy children under the age of 5 in Afghanistan, of which 150,000 are already seriously malnourished.

Afghan children need far more than $1.5 million in aid this winter. That amount is about 1.5 percent of what Bush spent to become President, and Bush must know scores of people who could cut a single check for several times that amount and feel no pain. The kids-for-Afghanistan campaign is better than nothing, but not enough.

Compared to Europe, the United States in recent decades has been a cheapskate in terms of foreign assistance to developing nations. Forget movies and symbols. If the Untied States wishes to demonstrate its concern for Afghans "as human beings" in order to enhance its standing in the Muslim world, then it could dig deeper into its pockets.

Verdi's proposal is superficial as well. Exporting "obnoxious" political ads abroad would unlikely persuade citizens in other lands that America is a place of sincerity and integrity. What would be the slogans? "America -- we're on your side"? Or maybe this: "Remember America? In Kosovo, we bombed Serbs to help Muslims." Verdi is correct that this would be a hard sell to "an audience that has been raised to hate us." The ad campaign could try to take on the reasons -- right or wrong -- for the preexisting negative opinion. "America -- we stuck with Israel, we'll stick with you, too"? Or, "America -- fighting for democracy and autocratic regimes, too"? Perhaps traditional advertising is not quite the answer.

As for Ferguson, he must have been pulling the leg of Advertising Age with his Ugly American schtick. Thrusting the excesses of American culture before Islamic audiences seems an odd method to win friends and influence Muslims. Yes, change these up-tight Third Worlders into disco-loving hedonists by force-feeding them a movie about the American porn industry that ends with the protagonist displaying his foot-long schlong. They can only love us once we liberate them from repressive mores.

Ferguson might want to note that recently a CNN reporter doing a piece in Afghanistan showed an American magazine featuring Jennifer Lopez to teenagers and asked what they thought of the actress/singer. The kids were shocked by the image of the midriff-exposed J. Lo and said she would never be allowed to dress like that in their country. Muslim leaders in the United States pounced on CNN for showing disrespect for Islamic culture.

This is not to say CNN was wrong to seek the views of Afghan teens on an American sex symbol. But the episode indicates the way to collect hearts and minds overseas is not by wrapping the U.S. in flesh and flash. To Ferguson, selling a president, selling a country, and selling soap may well be the same thing, with the process trumping the commodity. I hope the White House is too busy to return his calls.

Is this the best stuff the leading minds of advertising can contribute to a national challenge? If so, it shows the limited use of corporate values beyond the marketplace. Instead, let's "sell" America through deeds and policies. Let's take our cues about bin Laden's disposition from government policymakers and legal and national security experts, not the markets. Let's consider major mergers as more than financial soap opera. Or is asking for all this during the shop-for-your-country holiday season too much, as Madonna might say, "like a prayer"?

David Corn is the Washington editor for The Nation.

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