Experts Cite Pitfalls Posed by Complexities of Islamic Cultures

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NEW YORK ( -- When Charlotte Beers was sworn in as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs in October, the advertising titan was handed a labor that would have put Hercules on workman's comp.
Photo: AP
Part of the target market: a young Palestinian girl in Gaza City holds a poster of Osama bin Laden.
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Her role: to craft and market a message that "sold" not just the U.S. response to terrorism, but our country's core beliefs and values.

The questions are many. Can a government market itself across cultures -- call it "Brand America" -- like Coca-Cola, McDonald's or AOL? Or does the very notion of America building a buzz for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness strike an inevitable chord of fear and loathing in the Arab world? Does the advertising industry even have any business helping the U.S. market its brand identity?

Few details revealed
The State Department is revealing few details on how many Middle East specialists or marketers with cross-cultural expertise it has on staff in that region, or even in how many languages it has published any printed material.

Outside the official organs of government, branding experts, academics, business executives and even soldiers who have tried to win over other cultures have strong points of view on why the Internet, the lessons of Southeast Asia and even an old book by Donald Trump could hold the keys to Ms. Beers' success or failure.

"There is no single silver bullet, no magic wand, no quick-fix solution," said Yuri Radzievsky, chairman-CEO of GlobalWorks Group, a marketing and branding consultancy.

"American marketers," said Mr. Radzievsky, "look for '10 Handy Do's and Don'ts' when it comes to dealing with other cultures, such as which colors to use, words or gestures that may have a different meaning. That reduces understanding 'culture' to a level that may be useful to

a tourist, but not to a marketer seeking to win the hearts and minds of a target audience. That takes time and research."

'A tough sell'
His conclusion: "It's going to be a tough sell."

That may be the understatement of the year. "Thirty-five percent of Lebanese view Osama bin Laden as a hero," said John Zogby, president-CEO of opinion research firm Zogby International, which regularly surveys Middle Eastern attitudes, "and 31% believe Israel was secretly behind the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center."

"You can sell Brand America across cultures only by finding our commonality," said Fredric Kropp, marketing professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "But that's easier said than done."

In the 1990s, Mr. Kropp co-authored a study of Israelis in the city of Haifa and Druze Muslims in a nearby village. "For Israelis, the primary need was security. For the Muslims, it was being respected and having self-respect. They lived just about 10 miles apart, but in other ways it may as well have been a million."

Good intentions can backfire
Sheida Hodge, the head of the cross-cultural department at

Berlitz International, pointed out that even an above-reproach gesture such as President Bush's "program asking the children in America to send a dollar for [Afghanistan] children could backfire badly. In many Arab countries, you never show your need outside the family."

The most effective advertising, Mr. Kropp believes, "is bi-directional. If you want the customer to accept what you're offering, you learn about their needs and supply something to help. It takes time and it takes research."

"You become fluent in their culture," agreed GlobalWorks' Mr. Radzievsky.

Psychological operations
Few understand that better than Rick Hofmann. With 30 years' experience in corporate and public relations, he was an Army staff sergeant in psychological operations -- often known by the spooky-sounding contraction "psyop" -- in the Vietnam War. He is now a partner at consultancy Internet Marketing Strategies in Wilmington, Del.

"We were obsessed with the belief that Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh were mindless lackeys of the Chinese," said Mr. Hofmann, who is president of the Psychological Operations Veterans Association. "When you really looked at their culture you saw things that no one bothered to notice, especially street names commemorating the admiral who sank a Chinese

Photo: AP
Pakistani children posing as holy warriors with toy guns. One of them is pretending to be Osama bin Laden.
fleet centuries before, or the princesses who killed themselves rather than marry Chinese royalty. Who's looking at the street names in the Middle East?"

"Knowing we're the good guys is not enough to win a marketing war," Mr. Hofmann added. "If the message doesn't acknowledge and articulate the other side's grievances and problems, I guarantee you, you will lose."

Researcher Mr. Zogby noted that "90% of Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates put the Palestinian problem in their top three concerns -- that's a huge cultural bridge to cross. To the Arab world, the lack of a Palestinian state in 2001 is what taxation without representation was to us in 1776. You're not going to address it by using Julia Roberts to sell the West."

Even if the right message is crafted, there remain questions about to whom exactly we are going to sell America.

"There is not one Arab world but several," said Marieke de Mooij, president of the marketing firm Cross Cultural Communications Co. in the Netherlands. Besides Arabs, there are more ethnic groups in the region than you could shake a Benetton ad at. In Iraq, there are Kurds, Turkomans, and Assyrians. In Egypt, Bedouins, Bernbers, Greeks, Nubians, and Armenians. In Iran, Persians, Azers, Gilakis, and Mazandaranis.

'Multiple publics'
"We have multiple publics," said marketing professor Mr. Kropp. "There are the allies like the Saudis, who need to be reassured, the undecided in many of the other countries and the hard-core 'enemy.' Each needs a different mix of messages."

"Cultures share the same values," said Ms. Hodge, "but they set different priorities for those values."

Mr. Zogby agreed. The top five Saudi values, his polling found, were faith, family, justice, ambition and knowledge. In the U.S., it's freedom, family, honesty, self-esteem and justice.

"The common ground we can work on," he said, "is family and children." The State Department has already posted several photos of families and children at the "Muslim Life in America" Web page at Several other sections portray Muslims in other walks of American life.

"Putting Christopher Ross, the former ambassador to Syria, who's fluent in Arabic, on Al Jazeera was effective at first," said Douglas Davis, a Middle East expert and personality psychologist at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, and former president of the Society for Cross-Cultural Research. "But the novelty is wearing off."

Growing up in Iran taught Ms. Hodge that "everyone in the Middle East is politically minded and skeptical of official pronouncements -- which is why they are usually ignored."

Skeptical to direct appraoch
That skepticism requires a longer cultural courtship than Americans are used to, said Ms. de Mooij. "In collectivist cultures, the direct approach does not work as it does in individualist cultures. In sales, time must be invested in building relationships before getting to business. A direct, persuasive message, such as [those] common in the U.S., will be viewed as offensive."

While some scoff at the idea of using the Web to communicate with Arab nations -- especially with literacy rates of just 55% in Egypt and 37% in Afghanistan -- "do not underestimate its reach," said Haverford's Mr. Davis.

He has worked extensively in Morocco and on the psychology of Internet usage, and has found that "Internet access was cheap and actually easily available through cyber cafes, and it reached opinion-makers."

"The best approach," said Mr. Davis, "is one where we show American Muslims in positions of respect and responsibility. Overseas, we should use people known locally, with surnames common to that region, all showing that America is not a one-sided story but one where we listen to others and help them thrive."

The Donald Trump appraoch
Enter Donald Trump. In his 1987 biography, Trump: the Art of the Deal, the real-estate tycoon pays homage to the haggling skills that made him successful. Ms. Hodge said that's an important lesson for anyone who wants to communicate with Arab nations.

"It's all about negotiation," she said. "Deal-making and negotiating are expected in the Middle East. It means a back-and-forth over time, giving their anger and their resentment credence -- though that doesn't mean acceptance. It's the art of the deal, finding their soft spot and getting them to say 'Yes' to our message."

Ms. de Mooij actually finds the idea of America advertising itself "incredible, because U.S. leadership is associated with the enemies of the common people, who live in material and spiritual poverty." But she believes the U.S. can "sell the real America" through methods other than marketing, such as "a sort of Marshall Plan [that] shows a genuine interest in people's problems."

Targeting the right people
"Target the opinion leaders ... organize student exchange programs, support local media," she said. "Sponsor local musicians, give aid to local education, help to set up universities, increase Fulbright activities. Reinvent programs such as the Peace Corps."

But for others, selling America is as American as apple pie. According to Mr. Davis, "We marketed ourselves in the early '60s when the old United States Information Agency produced powerful films for overseas, like John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums and Nine from Little Rock," said Mr. Davis. "They reached -- and touched -- large audiences overseas."

"Using the ad industry to sell America is not only doable, it's a must," said "psyop" vet Mr. Hofmann. "'Give me your tired, give me your poor' is still a great concept, and nobody's ever sold it better than Levi Strauss."

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