October 28, 2003

Get the Product Right First
by Alan Bock

A Hollywood marketing man, Michael Levine, is pushing what is undoubtedly a good-hearted effort to bridge the gap between the United States and the Muslim world to improve both the intellectual content and the marketing savvy of America's public relations effort to the world. With all due respect to what is undoubtedly a sincere undertaking, Mr. Levine may have the cart before the horse.

As Doug Gamble, a former writer for President Reagan, wrote in a piece for the Orange County Register, "Levine, whose firm Levine Communications Office has represented a who's who of entertainment industry luminaries over the past 20 years, believes the U.S. must fashion an intellectual response to terrorism that tries to enlighten those whose passions are inflamed by hatred of America. 'We cannot kill all these people; we have to change their minds,' he says."

Levine is forming a panel of 50 thinkers and media and marketing efforts to do a report he calls "America's Message to the World," which will be presented to Bush, Cheney and other administration officials. As Gamble puts it, "One has to wonder how a media-savvy country whose Hollywood dream factory and advertising community produces movies and ads that influence trends here and abroad seems so incapable of getting its message out to the international community."


Part of the answer, of course, is that the Hollywood dream factory and the advertising community operate in the private marketplace, where success depends on the voluntary choices of consumers. Clever marketing can sell the first weekend of a turkey of a movie and plenty of us marvel at the dubious quality of some movies that become blockbusters but word of mouth usually brings down the second-week take of a truly awful movie (at least one that paying moviegoers, the only audience that counts, consider awful). But a movie has to connect with a critical mass of people who like movies to succeed, and good marketing can seldom save one that doesn't connect.

Likewise, the graveyard of failed products is littered with products that were cleverly or even brilliantly advertised and marketed but didn't catch on with consumers. That very fact leads most producers to try to determine if a product fills a real need, or meets a real desire, before committing too much to marketing it.

Government, government policy and even national ideals are not the same as a consumer product. Government cannot be accepted or rejected voluntarily in the marketplace; its very essence is the use of force. That reduces the incentive to get a policy "right" before putting it out there for popular consumption although even policies imposed by force may be vitiated by voluntary actions later on. It will be interesting to see, after the complications in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, how enlistments in our still-voluntary military, especially in the National Guard, hold up. A recent survey by Stars and Stripes suggests that military morale overall is considerably lower than some of those who blow into Iraq for two-day whirlwind visits believe.

The fundamental problem faced by those who think marketing U.S. policies and ideals is the key to widespread acceptance overseas, however, remains. Consumer products, for all the paranoid beliefs of those who want to think otherwise, can be accepted or rejected by people who use their own hard-earned money to make their decisions between Tide and the store brand, or between Motorola and Sony. Government products do not have to be "bought" except in an attenuated and almost metaphorical manner.

Government policies might have to command enough grudging assent so that those who promulgate them are not tossed out of office some years hence. But they can be and are put in place without the necessity of consumer/citizens taking an affirmative step of using their own resources voluntarily to "buy" them before they are implemented or successful in the "marketplace of ideas."


All this doesn't mean that the United States isn't a good place to live or that its ideals are not worh celebrating. Nor does it undermine Levine's major point that by using military muscle almost exclusively without an intellectual-cum-marketing effort to explain either why the U.S. deserves respect or terrorism is a lousy way to operate the U.S. is fighting with one hand tied behind its back. But it suggests that before calling on the media and marketing savvy of the American private sector to "sell" U.S. policies and ideals overseas, a bit more attention should be paid to getting the product right.

We might get an idea of how to do this by noting that before the Great War (or World War I) marketing America was not viewed as much of a problem. If anything, many Americans came to perceive the problem as being that too many people from other parts of the world wanted to move here. The ideals that seemed to guide America through its first century or so of existence inspired countless revolutionaries and political idealists throughout the world though plenty of them got significant parts of the American message tragically wrong.

The message was not only liberty and opportunity. Despite what Max Boot and others have documented that the United States periodically put its hand in in a number of "splendid little wars" in other parts of the world during the 19th century the United States was viewed during most of this period as having a live-and-let-live attitude toward most of the rest of the world, unless seriously provoked. For most of this period at least when it came to major military activities the United States was, as John Quincy Adams put it, the friend of liberty everywhere, but the guarantor only of its own.

America didn't have to market that. People responded to the idea of liberty and opportunity in the United States by migrating here in impressive numbers, and by trying to emulate what the founders had accomplished in places as diverse as Poland and Liberia. The product, so to speak, was not even then as perfect as some historians have suggested or as most Americans might have believed (it did, after all, include sometimes-brutal conquest of native peoples on this continent). But it was a pretty good product, one that people from all kinds of cultures responded.

Since World War I, Wilsonism, and various manifestations of the idea that America must export its ideals by force, however, the product has been degraded, and the language of American liberty has been degraded. As just one example, Americans routinely laud American military forces sent overseas to "protect our liberty." But although individual liberty is often undermined by strictly domestic politics, it is seldom under systematic attack as thoroughly as when the country is at war as has been the case with almost every country in recorded history.

The brave military men and women who go overseas are not responsible for the fact that wars put liberty at risk more thoroughly than almost any human endeavor, and most of them no doubt believe they are really there to protect liberties. (And in the rare instance, at least in the case of the United States, when an actual attack from a foreign power is likely, that might be true.) But political leaders have always used wars to limit liberty often sincerely believing that such limitations are utterly necessary and will be temporary in nature, but working to limit liberty nonetheless.

The upshot is that the attractive "product" of American liberty and opportunity for all has been degraded by wars and interventions. Like most Americans, I still believe this is a uniquely wonderful place and preferable to most alternatives. But it's not as free a place as I would like to see it, and certainly it is less free than our founders would have hoped it would be although as consummate realists they might not have been surprised to discover that, as Jefferson understood, the natural way of things is for government power to advance and liberty to recede.


The upshot, then, is that it is more important to get the product right than to market it properly. Before we engage yet another blue-ribbon commission to offer advice to the government on how to improve the U.S. image overseas, it would behoove us to do a little soul-searching about just what the United States is selling these days.

An honest assessment might not bring us to the same conclusions that the "hate-America-first" crowd sees that the United States is an inveterate bully that operates brutally overseas all the time, and only on behalf of the richest of the rich in America. But it would be likely to note, for example, that while the war in Iraq migh have been viewed by most Americans as a benevolent effort to get rid of a vicious dictator, it was a war of choice, not necessity. It was not prompted not by an imminent threat to the United States but by a perception of a possible eventual threat and even that eventual threat seems to have been percieved by so many in part because of dishonest assessments of the intelligence available to our leaders.

Before we start a marketing campaign overseas, it would behoove us to have an intensive and brutally honest discussion in this country of just what we want the United States to be. There are plenty of Americans who sincerely believe that our role in the world is not just to set an example of how a free society can prosper, but to move proactively to rid the world of dictators and rotten rulers. Let them make their case, and let those who view such overseas activism as self-defeating, too expensive, unlikely to succeed, or potentially subversive of true American ideals make their case as well.

Marketing the ideal of America is not a bad idea. But we hven't had a real discussion of what America should really be doing in the world since the end of the Cold War. Before we become tragically overextended and hated by even more people, perhaps we should pause for a few years and reconsider just what America's role in the world ought to be and whether ideals like liberty and independence are really best promoted by military muscle. That exercise might result in the eventual outcome having enough intellectual heft and respectability having been tried in the furnace of vigorous debate once again to attract admirers without doing much clever marketing.

– Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). He is also author of the new book Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press). His exclusive column appears every Tuesday on Antiwar.com.

Archived Columns by Alan Bock

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