October 28, 2003
the Product Right First
by Alan Bock
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.
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."
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."
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.
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 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.
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.
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
A GOOD PRODUCT
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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