Dangerous Delusions: Advertising Nonsense about Advertising America (PublicDiplomacy.org)

27 August 2004

The question of how the U.S. communicates its message to the Muslim world is arguably the most vital issue facing the nation today. It is therefore deeply disturbing when the debate is muddied by dangerously misleading pseudo-science.

“University Study Shows Advertising Can Improve U.S. Image Abroad; Controversial Campaign By Charlotte Beers Shown Effective in Experiment,” proclaimed a press release jointly issued this week by Southern Methodist University and Oklahoma State University.

Within 24 hours, the story was being carried around the world. Quoting directly from the press release, Indiantelevision.com reported: “A new study shows that a U.S. government advertising campaign may have been successful in changing certain anti-American sentiments abroad. This runs contrary to the U.S. government’s decision to drop the ads because they were considered ineffective.”

In fact, the $15 million “Shared Values” initiative (SVI) – dubbed the “Happy Muslims” campaign for its antiseptic profiles of Muslims living in the U.S. – sparked a firestorm of outrage across the Muslim world, forcing the government to pull the ads and ultimately leading to the resignation of State Department PR guru Charlotte Beers, a former Madison Ave. ad exec.

But none of that appears to matter to the advertising professors who authored the study, Alice Kendrick of SMU and Jami Fullerton of Oklahoma State. They claim to have empirical data that shows the ads actually worked. The evidence? A “survey” of 105 college kids in Britain. How many were Muslims? Well, actually … six.

“Given that the State Department’s informational goal was to inform and persuade international audiences about the freedom of Muslims to live and practice their faith in the United States, the campaign was successful under the experimental conditions described herein,” they report in the introduction to a paper scheduled for publication in the September issue of the Journal of Advertising Research.

One catch: The campaign wasn’t targeted at “international audiences.” As State Department spokesman Richard Boucher made clear when announcing the rollout in October 2002, the spots were aimed at shifting opinion in “Islamic countries.” In case the researchers missed that minor detail, they might have checked the State Department website, which contains numerous official transcripts with headlines such as, “U.S. Reaches Out to Muslim World with Shared Values Initiative.”

Actually, Kendrick and Fullerton did know that. Deep in their article, after the obfuscation about “international” audiences, they note, “Although the intended target of the campaign was Muslims, the current study attempted to obtain reaction to the SVI commercials from students of various backgrounds from around the world” – 70 percent of whom were Europeans and all of whom attended one school in Britain – because to do otherwise “would have been beyond the budgetary bounds of this study.”

In other words, they could only afford a plane ticket to England. That doesn’t stop them from making sweeping generalizations about Muslims: “Findings of this study indicate that the SVI commercials were most effective against their intended target audience – Muslims and women.”

“This is worthless,” says John Zogby, one of the nation’s leading pollsters, who has conducted numerous surveys of Muslim opinion in the Middle East and Asia for Congress and various research organizations. “No respectable market researcher would draw any quantitative conclusions from a sample of 105 and let alone 105 from the wrong market. It honestly enters into the realm of dangerous.”

“The study is terribly done and I think purposefully misleading,” says Jeremy Ginges, a Middle East researcher at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, the largest such center in the world. Adds terrorism expert Scott Atran of France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and the University of Michigan, “From the social science perspective, the lack of controls over the social, economic, political, etc. horizons between a self-selected emigrant population and the billion or so people in the Muslim World would never make it into even a mediocre social science journal.”

That hasn’t stopped the Journal of Advertising Research from scheduling the paper for publication. Worse still, Kendrick and Fullerton this week approached the staff of the House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and International Relations, which is currently holding hearings on public diplomacy, seeking to have their study added to the Congressional record.

Even if they are turned down, the danger is that some misguided politician will seize on their sweeping conclusions as “evidence” that the U.S. should revive its ill-fated advertising campaign for “Brand America.”

One can only hope that those who are seeking to rebuild America’s communications bridge to the Muslim world were listening closely Monday when the chairman of the global advertising giant DDB Worldwide, Keith Reinhard, told the committee that public diplomacy “is not about ads or catchy slogans, it’s about actions.”

Survey after survey demonstrates that the U.S. has lost all credibility among the world’s Muslims. According to the latest Zogby poll, America’s “favorability rating” is essentially zero. A sampling of Arab media the day of the Congressional hearings –

  • As-Safir: “Washington’s war in Iraq does not only aim to reshape the political map of the Middle East, but also to undermine Arab cultural values.”
  • Al-Mustaqbal: The Iraqi government is “implementing democracy with U.S. military might.”
  • Al-Hayat: “Forces are deployed at Iran’s doorstep in a manner that looks like a U.S. siege of the Islamic Republic.”
  • Al-Jazirah (newspaper): “[Israeli] settlement fever rages in the Palestinian territories with the direct encouragement of the U.S. administration, whose position shows increasing contradictions between its plans, ideas and reality.”

Not long ago, a Lebanese colleague from the American University of Beirut emailed me in despair. “Anti-American sentiment in the region is building up. America is even losing the modicum of sympathy it once garnered among moderate and liberal Arab thinkers,” wrote this former Ivy League professor. “I don’t know what can be done to avert the collective mood of anger, heightened by feelings of impotence and indignity. Finding shelter in radical Islam seems the only venue.”

The forces of moderation in the Muslim world are under siege. The vast pool of sympathy toward the U.S. in the wake of 9/11 has dried up. Feel-good ads that ignore Muslim perceptions of U.S. policy are not going to change that. Nor are revisionist academic studies based on dangerous delusions and fuzzy math.

In a way, the whole issue of the effectiveness of the commercials is actually beside the point. Even if they had been a blazing success, the ads would have changed nothing.

“How it treats its Muslims at home is not an issue,” a top Malaysian politician said while the ads were airing in that country. “The issue is the U.S. administration’s overall policy towards the Muslim world.”

Anti-Americanism breeds and festers in the vast void between the values Americans live by at home and those they are perceived to operate by abroad. Until recent years, the U.S. government could say one thing and do another. The rise of an aggressively independent media in the Muslim world has changed all that.

In a speech on public diplomacy last week, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice said the terrorist threat can only be overcome “when lies are replaced by truth.” Indeed.

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