Selling idea of freedom is most important assignment for Beers

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The debate goes on: Can (or should) the advertising industry play a key role in shaping the way people around the world think of us? Do the same skills used in selling soapsuds qualify ad people to develop worldwide propaganda material?

Through the years, various ad execs advocated such a mission for the industry, but found few takers for the idea. During World War II, it was a newsman, not an adman, who ran the propaganda arm of the U.S. government, the Office of War Information.

Frank Rich, The New York Times columnist, wrote a gloomy piece the other week on how badly the war was going, and he ended it with a swipe at Char-lotte Beers, our new undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. "Maybe we're losing the battle for Afghan hearts and minds," he wrote, "in part because the Bush State Department appointee in charge of the propaganda effort is a CEO (from Madison Avenue) chosen not for her expertise in policy or politics but for her salesmanship on behalf of domestic products like Head & Shoulders shampoo. If we can't effectively fight anthrax, I guess it's reassuring to know we can always win the war on dandruff."

The battle for the hearts and minds of anyone is not an easy one. In 1961, we ran a lengthy article by a Los Angeles agency executive on how the U.S. was losing the propaganda war to the Soviets. "What about the counter-appeal of the West?' he wrote. "It is weak. It is inadequate. Even where our counter-propaganda effort seems ample, it is often irrelevant to the immediate self-interest of its target audience. The West's propaganda war with Communism is a pretty one-sided affair, with our side the losing side."

About the same time, Charlie Brower, who ran BBDO for many years, argued that a Department of World Affairs be organized as a government agency to sell and advertise America to the world. The U.S. needed a sales manager, an ad manager and a staff in the field to sell itself, Mr. Brow-er said, and "we either ought to get it, or we ought to stop asking why we can sell cornflakes and not de-mocracy."

In another speech, Mr. Brow-er later asked "when in the hell is the U.S. going to stop acting like a rube at the fair and start using the advertising and PR skills with which it abounds to win the Cold War, which it is presently losing like nobody's business?"

We won the Cold War not because we convinced the world our cause was just, but because the Soviet Union ran out of money. The job of convincing people around the world that our way of life is best is made more difficult and complex now because of the pervasiveness of our culture. Our movies, music, fashion, consumer brand names such as McDonald's and Coca-Cola, embody what are widely seen as our crass and overly secular society.

Just as Muslim values are inseparable from their religion, our values are viewed unflatteringly as inseparable from those of corporate America. What's more, many people outside the U.S. don't buy our argument that our wide variety of products and lifestyles represent freedom of choice. I was told bluntly by a Middle Eastern person in the U.S. that we have "too much freedom" and that it was causing him to lose control of his family.

It's hard for us to understand and accept that what we take for granted here is a threat to more regimented and controlled societies, where freedom in all its forms is seen as eroding the authority of their rulers.

That's the environment Charlotte Beers has to deal with. I like that the Advertising Council has boiled its message down to one strategic idea: freedom. I also believe Ms. Beers can pick up on that in her messages abroad. Her challenge, of course, is to show the world that our concept of freedom goes beyond the Golden Arches and the Pause that Refreshes.

Freedom allows us to build a life that we want, to worship in the way that we want, to be tolerant of the other person's beliefs. Freedom, in other words, is hope, and that's what the terrorists and their adherents have way too little of.

Charlotte Beers knows how to crystallize that message and drum it home to her target audience. That's what advertising can do, and that's why all her years of experience will pay off in the most important assignment of her life.

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