February 19, 2003

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Life During Wartime

I'd like to sell the world

By Gabrielle Banks

By the time President George W. Bush's "war on terror" kicked into gear, Uncle Sam was long overdue for a makeover. So, before the first fighter jets took off for Afghanistan, the State Department hired a leading Madison Avenue ad executive named Charlotte Beers to repackage America for Muslims everywhere. When pundits and beltway insiders questioned this approach to diplomacy, Secretary of State Colin Powell defended Beers's reputation on the State Department's Web site: "There's nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something. We are selling a product. We need someone who can rebrand American foreign policy."

As undersecretary of public diplomacy and public affairs, Beers did just that. The woman who had cooked up campaigns for Uncle Ben's and been anointed "Woman of the Year" by Glamour hired the firm McCann-Erickson to produce $15 million worth of TV and radio ads, and a slick-looking Web site starring happy, well-adjusted Muslims in a Muslim-friendly America. The TV spots ran during Ramadan in Malaysia and Indonesia. Jordan refused to air them, as did the government of Egypt – where, according to a recent Pew Research poll, 6 percent of the population has a favorable opinion of the United States.

With such a daunting task at hand, it makes sense Beers would choose McCann to market America. They're the folks who brought us gems of Americana like the "I'd like to teach the world to sing" and Mean Joe Green Coke commercials, as well as Miller's "Everything you ever wanted in a beer ..." The San Francisco branch of the century-old company is a rare survivor of the crumbling economy. In the '90s boom San Francisco was seen as a prime location for advertising, but in the past two years at least nine firms have closed up shop. Nationally, more than 20,000 advertising-industry employees have lost their jobs in the past 18 months. Given the current state of affairs, a company insider tells us it's not surprising McCann is willing to put out Yankee propaganda to keep itself afloat – even if it means risking its corporate reputation on a project that's almost guaranteed to flop.

Rather than trudge through the official State Department statement on the making of the McCann ads, we ventured into the belly of the beast. While the nation teeters on the brink of war, our tipster, a high-level exec at the company, offers an industry perspective on the McCann product. What goes into a campaign of this magnitude? We let this ad executive (whom we'll call "M") click through the McCann materials at the State Department's Open Dialogue Web site (opendialogue.org), so you could read a few pithy insider comments. (Several key identifiers have been changed to protect this individual.)

M starts with the "welcome" page, which is laid out like a greeting card. Visitors can chose from six languages to enter the site. "It's done in this really pathetic westernized Arabic decor. It's so obviously not done by Arabs. It's Disney Arabia." On the other hand, M says, "The color choice is soothing and relaxing – it allows me to spend a lot of time on the page. It's a dusty brown, warm tone, a strong contrast with the bright white and constantly flashing sites throughout the Web. It feels personal. The layout is really open, so I don't feel really overwhelmed or threatened."

"Just a basic advertising question, though," M says. "How did I get to this site? What did I see that led me to this page? It's unclear how people find out about this and what incentive they might possibly have to be here."

M responds to the family snapshot on the next screen: "This photo they chose is un-fuckin'-believable. It's of a Muslim American family in the Bradys' kitchen, with the colors updated. You've got Sears cabinetry and all the 'American dream' elements. 'With Corian countertops for as little as $1,400.' "

The page reads, "We believe the more people communicate the more they understand about each other. Through short documentary films, printed materials, and this Web site, several Muslim Americans have chosen to share some of their thoughts about living in America. We invite you to learn more about them and their experiences, and, if you choose, to share some of your thoughts."

"Is this any different from Leni Riefenstahl? Wasn't she creating documentaries?" M asks.

M clicks onward, suddenly intrigued by the prospect of what's to come. M's looking at the section in which five Muslim Americans – a Libyan baker, a Lebanese teacher, a Brooklyn-born paramedic, an Indonesian grad student, and the director of the National Institutes of Health – share their stories. He's particularly taken by an image of a group of Muslim men praying at twilight in front of a glittering Ferris wheel.

"They're pulling every conceivable punch to let you know, between every line, that these Americans have what you don't, and you know you want it."

Farooq, the paramedic mentions in his blurb his rebellious teen years and how he's become involved, since then, in his job and in his community.

M breaks it down: "Doing rescue work is the perfect way of expressing one's faith. Things that look like godless activities are actually expressions of faith. I was a troubled teen, but I am not a suicide bomber. It's suicide bombing-prevention education."

Of the NIH director spread, M says, "Dr. Elias Zerhouni of the NIH is totally supported and embraced by the people here. See, President Bush – he's looking adoringly at Dr. Zerhouni, who's over at the podium. Over here, at work, there's an American flag in the center of the photo, which you might not see in just any lab."

Rawia, of the Brady-kitchen spread, is getting her master's degree. She teaches Arabic and Islam to children. "The classroom is bright, colorful, and airy. Everyone's learning – there's lots of girls – and she's teaching with her head scarf on," M says.

M clicks over to "Comments from around the world. Tell us your story."

A few visitors are critical of the Bush administration, but most joining the dialogue sound like Faraz from Pakistan. Faraz writes, "One day I was reading the paper, so I thought of opening your web site to see what it's all about. It is quite beautiful and the best web site I have seen. May Allah give you and other Muslims respect all over the world."

M isn't convinced.

Who does M think the intended audience is for a piece like this?

"They're not going for people who are already in al-Qaeda. They're going for the reasonable person who, presented with the facts, could go for a different approach. With DSL access, preferably."