America's new brand of anger and resentment
By Gary Silverman
Financial Times; Jun 24, 2004
In his 1966 work Masculine-Feminine, the French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard described the restless youth of that time as the "children of Marx and Coca-Cola". It was an apt characterisation of a generation that combined anti-capitalist politics with a passion for made-in-America pop culture.
The duality recognised by Mr Godard also represented a lucky break for US multinationals. No matter how radical the politics of the day - and by 1967, the young people of Mr Godard's film, La Chinoise, had traded café existentialism for Maoism - US brands maintained an undeniable global cachet.
But the good fortune of US multinationals in this regard could be running out. Influential voices in the marketing, advertising and public relations world are warning that their market research suggests political developments - including opposition to the Iraq war - are eroding the global appeal of US brands from McDonald's to Microsoft and MTV.
Operating as Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA), these senior image makers have embarked on an experiment in private-sector foreign policy designed to rehabilitate the US national brand. Arguing that business can do things government cannot, the group is seeking to create a corporate united front that would counter anti-Americanism through means including the promotion of higher-quality cultural exports.
"If we were looking at the US as a brand, we would say this is the time to relaunch the brand," says Keith Reinhard, the group's leader and chairman of DDB Worldwide, an advertising agency unit of Omnicom, the world's largest marketing services company. "My sense is we are seeing a transfer of anger and resentment from foreign policies to things American."
The effort represents one of the more explicit manifestations to date of corporate anxiety over US foreign policy. BDA's board includes such leading industry figures as Nancy Bachrach, chief marketing officer of Grey Worldwide North America, and Richard Edelman, chief executive of Edelman public relations. Its advisory council includes Jeffrey Garten, dean of the Yale School of Management, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
BDA says the right things about working with Washington, but its critique implies that something is wrong with US policy, or at least the articulation of it. "Because the government has lost credibility", Mr Reinhard says "civil society" needs to address anti-Americanism - an idea he credits to another member of his advisory council, Fawaz Gerges, Middle East scholar at Sarah Lawrence College.
"Business can move forward without the bureaucratic entanglement we face in Washington," Mr Reinhard says. "Business can move forward over time; policy isn't up for grabs every four years. Business can move forward sensitively."
Mr Reinhard says global multinationals often gain important insights into local sensibilities, if only because they employ so many non- Americans. DDB alone has 206 offices in 96 countries. Mr Reinhard hopes BDA will be able to persuade global companies to share their techniques for creating goodwill abroad through mechanisms such as the creation of a "public diplomacy corporate portal" on the internet.
Gaining this kind of co-operation will be difficult because companies reap competitive advantages by understanding local cultures. "To my knowledge, nobody had ever tried to mobilise the US business community in exactly this way," Mr Reinhard says. "It remains to be seen whether we can get companies to do this. If we can, that's where the real power is." But he is optimistic, pointing to the formation of BDA this year as an example of "the coming together of various competing advertising agencies and public relations firms".
Mr Reinhard's belief in the importance of the private sector leaves room for capitalist self-criticism. His group thinks the US entertainment industry, in particular, could be doing more to improve the country's image. Hollywood often finds it easier to market films with little dialogue - and lots of sex and violence - in foreign markets. But the result, BDA says in its mission statement, is that "the worst of our media product is omnipresent overseas".
"If you look at the Muslim states, for example, the part of our media product that is most attractive and appealing to young people is that which is most sexually explicit and criminally violent," Mr Reinhard says. "That part of our media product in the hands of the mullahs is dynamite."
BDA will try to promote alternatives - through dubbing higher-quality fare into Arabic and other languages, for example. BDA is also working to develop a reality programme of its own - The Exchange, which would follow three foreign interns working inside a multinational in the US and three US interns working in the same US company abroad.
"I don't think you will get people fundamentally to change their product," Mr Reinhard says. But, "we can introduce additional product that gives more balance".
In this sense, BDA is filling a void created by the government, says Mr Reinhard, who faults Washington for abandoning the cultural diplomacy of the cold war era.
"After the fall of communism, we didn't have an enemy any more and we didn't do cultural diplomacy," he says. "If the government would start doing that, that would be a great step forward. If they can't, the civil sector could."
Mr Reinhard's sense that anti-Americanism represents a looming crisis for US multinationals is not shared by many of the companies themselves. Sales figures tell a more bullish story than the surveys of consumer opinions that have fuelled his pessimism. Mr Reinhard's circle is particularly worried about a Roper survey that found "power brand" scores for most of the US brands that it follows fell last year.
Mr Reinhard acknowledges that many people in business are not prepared to take the warnings of an ad man seriously, given their lack of regard for the industry: "We are rated about the same as used car salesmen."
But Mr Reinhard says his nervous system - honed during a career that includes such memorable advertising campaigns as McDonald's "You deserve a break today" and "Like a good neighbour, State Farm is there" - tells him there is trouble ahead. It is part of his training to spot a brand on the decline - and in this case he is sure of what he sees.
"We are custodians of the brand; if we are good custodians, we are watching out for any sign the brand might be in trouble," he says. "I am feeling urgency. I wish I could agree with people who still believe there is no connection between how people feel about foreign policy and how people feel about the US."
Mr Reinhard says the need for business action to improve the image of the US is greater now than it was even during the tumult of the Vietnam war. The US economy is so closely tied to the rest of the world that maintaining a good image overseas is a crucial business consideration, he says.
"Previous generations of Americans could decide whether we wanted to be world citizens or not," Mr Reinhard says. "This generation could not. The only question is whether we are going to be good citizens or bad citizens."
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