Words Matter: Ads don't work

By MERRIE SPAETH  |  March 19, 2003 at 3:28 PM
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DALLAS, March 19 (UPI) -- Ads don't work. That's the conclusion the State Department came to when it recently cancelled its "U.S. loves Muslims" campaign and initiative headed by advertising icon Charlotte Beers, which tried to buy time on Arab TV networks to show video of American Muslims talking about life in America.

This campaign shows the limits of advertising. Corporate America should pay attention to this lesson because companies concentrate far too much on paid media to reach key constituencies.

The State Department's effort suffered from a low budget, limited commitment and a complicated message. The Department's $15 million budget pales in comparison to the $50 million that the makers of Baked Lays spent to launch their potato chips in the United States.

The State Department's campaign lasted less than a year. By comparison, Intel advertised "Intel inside" for four years before it penetrated consumer consciousness.

The Baked Lays message, baked and less calories, was perfectly suited to an ad campaign. Not so with the "Americans love Muslims" message that Beers was trying to send into hostile and uneducated territory.

By "uneducated," I mean that Arab audiences may know about Coca-Cola, Penthouse Magazine, Brittany Spears and American movies, but their knowledge is limited when it comes to our history and how we came to be a nation which values freedom, individual rights, private property, entrepreneurship, enterprise and equality. The audience understands little about how we came here from Western Europe, and then from all corners of the globe, to get away from stifling, class-based, constricted societies which dictated what a man might do or believe.

The campaign needed real news sent through television and radio messages, and by what I call "ambassador efforts." Ambassador efforts are person-to-person initiatives where the message is spread through personal contact and credibility.

The United States has had an on-again-off-again view of officially paid-for news through Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and the United States Information Agency. But undeniably, broadcasts make a noticeable impact.

A New York Times reporter writing from Jordan recently noted that Jordanian support for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has all but disappeared since 1990 because "satellite television now brings many Jordanians tales of his violent repression in Iraq."

In Tom Clancy's new book, Red Rabbit, the head of the British spy agency, Sir Basil Charleston, observes to Jack Ryan, "This CNN news network that just started up on your side of the ocean. It just might change the world. Information has its own way of circulating." Ryan replies, "A picture is worth a thousand words, isn't it?" to which Sir Basil replies, "It's even more true of a moving picture."

But real news tells the good and the bad. It can and should have a point of view -- in our case, that free markets and free men offer the best foundation for self-governance.

But real news, even if we were to provide it and beam it in every language around the world, is only part of the picture. People-to-people communication is ultimately the most important route of information. We know this already. At the height of the Cold War, Russian visitors could not believe our well-stocked supermarkets and traffic jams, and they carried those descriptions to their neighbors behind the Iron Curtain.

Several government initiatives exist to sponsor and encourage Americans to travel abroad and speak to groups of peers or residents. The Eisenhower Foundation has the long-established People-to-People program. These use real Americans as the personal carriers for our message of opportunity, diversity and tolerance. These efforts need to be ramped up by a factor of 100 percent.

Modern technology offers the true opportunity to tell our story. As children, we had pen pals in other countries. If every American adult tried to find a few peers in his or her industry or with similar interests and started communicating, we would change how the world sees us. Certainly the voices of opposition will participate. That itself sends a message. But the more powerful impact will be from what we have been able to accomplish in our own lives. This two-way conversation, because we will learn a great deal from our correspondents, is what will change the world's opinion of us. Let advertising do what it does best -- tell us about the weekend sale and Baked Lays.

-- Merrie Spaeth, Director of Media Relations for President Reagan, is President of a Dallas-based consulting firm and is a regular commentator on public radio and television.

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