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Slick Ads Won't Sell the U.S. Message to Arabs, Report Warns

Policy: The head of a presidential panel says Madison Avenue is the wrong road to take.

September 19, 2002|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Madison Avenue-style advertising aimed at "selling" America to Middle Eastern audiences isn't likely to work and could backfire, warned the chairman of a presidential commission on public diplomacy.

"There's more to America than Calvin Klein jeans--and that's the point," said Harold C. Pachios, chairman of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. "We are thought of as superficial, so we need to avoid anything that smacks of the superficial."

A report released Wednesday by the commission is the latest in a series of efforts by think tanks and the Bush administration to shape the U.S. approach to international audiences.

The report concluded that if it wishes to win hearts and minds abroad, the U.S. government will need to better focus its diplomatic message, restructure its bureaucracy, listen much more to foreign voices and aim its message at foreign publics and not just at the foreign leaders who have been the traditional targets of American diplomacy.

America will also need to spend more on communicating abroad, after a decade of budget-cutting with the end of the Cold War, the report concluded.

The U.S. spends $25 billion a year on traditional diplomacy and $30 billion on intelligence and counterintelligence, but only $1 billion to inform and persuade international audiences, the report said. That $1 billion is used for State Department information and exchange programs and international broadcasting, including the Voice of America.

But funding for educational and cultural exchange programs has fallen from $349 million in 1993 to $232 million last year, adjusted for inflation.

Many veteran diplomats regard those exchanges as crucial in building goodwill abroad and showing international audiences that America values more than materialism and pop culture.

The number of people participating in cultural exchanges fell from about 45,000 in 1995 to 29,000 last year, the report said.

The public diplomacy commission was launched by President Truman in 1948, but from the end of the Cold War to Sept. 11, its reports have received little attention, said Pachios, a former deputy press secretary to President Johnson.

But Pachios said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is interested in how America is perceived abroad because he understands the importance of international public opinion in forming the coalitions and partnerships that the U.S. seeks on Iraq and other issues.

Meanwhile, the State Department, the White House and the National Security Council are all moving ahead with plans for a coordinated strategy to tell America's story abroad.

Undersecretary of State Charlotte Beers, an advertising executive brought in after the Sept. 11 attacks to reshape America's marketing campaign, is preparing to unveil a "total communication initiative" for the Middle East, a State Department official said Wednesday.

The initiative will start in four to six weeks in eight Arab and Muslim countries, and will involve television, print and radio announcements and speakers and conferences, the official said.

Beers had been scheduled to announce the program Monday at the National Press Club but canceled the appearance because she thought the message would be lost amid the day's breaking news about Iraq's willingness to resume United Nations weapons inspections, the source said.

The official scoffed at the suggestion that the initiative would resemble a Calvin Klein-style advertising campaign.

"We're trying not to 'advertise' but to initiate dialogue with important opinion leaders in the Arab and Muslim world," the official said.

"Yes, TV clips will be part of our effort, but they are not going to be advertisements for product."

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