Verbatim November 2004

Rebranding America

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It's an American CEO's war-on-terror nightmare: for every would-be jihadi learning bomb-making in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, countless consumers around the globe start expressing their anti-Americanism by buying Mecca Cola instead of Coke, flipping on al-Jazeera instead of CNN, or zooming around in a battered Fiat instead of upgrading to a shiny Ford.

That's the scenario that a group called Business for Diplomatic Action—the creator of the faintly alarmist PowerPoint presentation reproduced above—wants to avert. Founded in January by the advertising mogul Keith Reinhard (whose firm created Budweiser's "Whassup?" campaign, among others), BDA hopes to marshal a cooperative effort among CEOs, academics, and advertisers to counter sliding foreign perceptions of "Brand America."

Thus far some of BDA's projects are strictly business-focused—roundtables and symposia for corporate leaders; an Internet-based virtual library of "best practices" for U.S. companies doing business overseas. But others are aimed at a general audience—including a passport-sized "World Citizens Guide" for young Americans traveling abroad (the guide, sponsored by Pepsi, debuts this fall) and The Exchange, a potential reality-TV series featuring the adventures of foreign interns in a multinational's U.S. offices and American interns working in its foreign offices. ("The CEO may then decide to hire one or more of them," BDA suggests, perhaps hoping that Donald Trump will be available for the role.)

All this may sound like a quixotic effort, but it's hard to imagine that the private sector can't manage to improve at least marginally on the U.S. government's recent record in public diplomacy. Shortly after 9/11 the State Department hired a celebrated ad executive, Charlotte Beers, to spearhead a campaign aimed at winning Muslim hearts and minds. A year and a half later she eased herself (or was eased, depending on whom you believe) out the door, after an ad campaign showcasing happy American Muslims met with a frosty reception in the Islamic world.

Keith Reinhard's second-in-command at BDA, Cari Eggspuehler, is an escapee from the wreckage of Beers's efforts, and she argues that the fault lay not with her former boss but with the government's "rigid and bureaucratic" institutional habits and its detachment from overseas realities. In many ways the private sector is actually better suited for gathering intelligence about global attitudes, Eggspuehler insists: "If I want information about the mood in a foreign country, I can get it literally within twenty-four hours, from companies with a presence on the ground." The business community is also better suited to exporting a message about America, since at this point, Eggspuehler says, "the federal government is just not a credible messenger."

Besides, what could be more quintessentially American than letting private enterprise have a go where the government has so abjectly failed? And even if BDA's efforts come to naught, at least the group will be working with every weapon in the American advertising arsenal. As Eggspuehler puts it, musing on the State Department's technological backwardness: "Our board and our advisers use their PalmPilots."

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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