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Ugly Americans' makeover team

We are quite unpopular abroad, according to a 2005 study. There's one group that's trying to change that.

May 21, 2006|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

A Pew Research Center study on how the U.S. is viewed around the world is sobering, reflecting a deep erosion of our nation's image abroad. According to the study, released last June:

* Approval for the U.S. has tanked throughout the Muslim world, not surprising given the war in Iraq. Even among our closest allies, ratings have plummeted. In 1999, 71% of Canadians and 83% of Britons had a generally positive view of the U.S. Last year those figures fell to 59% in Canada and 55% in Britain.

* In Western Europe, Japan, China, France and Germany were more highly regarded than the U.S.

* Eighty-three percent of U.S. respondents said they had a high regard for their country. This is natural. But taken together with the study's other findings, it reflects a gap between the way foreigners see us and the way we see ourselves.

Americans who travel widely tend to better grasp this image disparity, so anti-American sentiment hasn't stopped them from going abroad. The European Travel Commission expects that more Americans will visit Europe this year than in 2000. That year, a record-breaking 13.12 million U.S. citizens went to Europe -- a heyday of travel in the pre-Sept. 11 world.

Their trips will not necessarily be spoiled or even affected by America's failing image. While living in Paris the last two years, I have had largely positive one-on-one encounters with the French, who understand the difference between individual Americans and U.S. foreign policy.

But I keep asking myself what travelers can do to help stem the rising tide of anti-American sentiment. When the U.S. government is at odds with the rest of the world on myriad hot-button issues, is it futile even to try?

Keith Reinhard, chairman emeritus of DDB Worldwide, an advertising agency that represents such corporations as Exxon, McDonald's and Anheuser-Busch, found himself asking the same questions. His response was to found Business for Diplomatic Action, a New-York based nonprofit that seeks to mobilize U.S. businesses to improve America's standing.

To that end, BDA has sponsored and distributed research about the problem, launched business and educational initiatives, worked to increase foreign visitation to the U.S. and created a "World Citizens Guide," now in editions for students and businesspeople, aimed at making traveling Americans better ambassadors for the U.S.

BDA hopes to distribute the guides through tour companies, airlines and ultimately with every new passport issued by the U.S. State Department.

Advice offered in the guide is cheerful and succinct: Talk about something other than politics. Listen at least as much as you talk. Slow down. Read a map. Dress up. Try to speak a little of the language. Show your pride but respect theirs.

To learn more about the guide and the organization's mission, I recently interviewed Reinhard by phone:

Why did you start BDA?

I began thinking about it right after Sept. 11, when Americans were expressing dismay that people didn't like us. It seemed a good time to take a sampling of opinion. My company has offices in 96 countries so I sent researchers into the streets to ask questions.

The positives about America were what you'd expect -- opportunity and freedom, prosperity and benevolence, ethnic diversity and our can-do spirit.

But the negatives were very strident and consistent, including materialism, exploitative-ness, the corrupting influence of American entertainment and the Ugly American thing. That continues to haunt us. It has to do with the ultimate arrogance of thinking everyone in the world wants to be like us.

Who are these Ugly Americans?

It's not just the overweight tourist in Bermuda shorts anymore. I was once sitting in a restaurant in Germany where I overheard [a U.S.] businessman loudly lecturing his companion about how to raise kids and run a company. When they got up to go, I saw that the German was wearing a suit. The American had on sneakers, jeans and a blue blazer.

Resentment toward the U.S. has been building since the fall of communism. It's natural that it should emerge given that we're the world's lone superpower. Then there's envy of our wealth and success. "Globalization" is seen as a synonym for "Americanization."

But it's really amazing when you think how little it takes to turn negative perception around. All you have to do is find out who the hottest sports stars or rock groups are and then use the information in your next conversation abroad. I once mentioned some local pop stars while talking to a woman in Venezuela. She was startled. "You know about them?" she asked.

How does promoting tourism to the U.S. figure in?

Before 9/11, the U.S. had a 7.5% share of world tourism. Now it's 6%. One percent means 7.5 million visitors, $12.3 billion, 153,000 jobs.

When people visit, they have a much better impression of us. For example, 52% of French people who have been here think of America favorably, compared to 17% of French people who haven't traveled to the U.S.

Unlike most other countries, the U.S. doesn't have a ministry of tourism. It's our arrogance again, the feeling that, of course, people want to come to the U.S. and don't mind standing in line to do it.

Can attracting more people to the U.S. and traveling abroad with the guide make a difference?

When a brand gets in trouble, it loses the benefit of the doubt. We are at that point. People believe outrageous things about us.

I don't want my grandchildren to grow up in a world where America is considered a rogue state. We need help from our allies, but they're not around.... So what's the alternative to trying to turn things around?


For a copy of the guide, go to

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