The McCann Time Capsule: 9/11 and the State Department’s Advertising Response

The McCann Time Capsule: 9/11 and the State Department’s Advertising Response

After the horror of the 9/11 attacks, Secretary of State Colin Powell brought on Charlotte Beers as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs to try to improve the perception of the U.S. in the Arab world and counteract the view that the U.S. was anti-Muslim. Beers, the highly regarded former CEO of Ogilvy & Mather who was sworn in to her U.S. government post on Oct. 2, 2001, decided on an advertising approach, and enlisted McCann to create the controversial international campaign known as “Shared Values.”

As discussed and analyzed in-depth by professors Jami Fullerton and Alice Kendrick in their 2006 book, “Advertising's War on Terrorism: The Story of the U.S. State Department's Shared Values Initiative,” McCann created five 90-second mini-documentary spots. As the book describes it, the spots “featured actual American Muslims actively practicing their religion and commenting positively on the tolerance Americans have for the Muslim faith.” These slice-of-life vignettes included a U.S. Muslim baker, doctor, school teacher, journalist and firefighter.  Each of the commercials ended with the tagline “Presented by the Council of American Muslims for Understanding. .  .And the American People.”

While $15 million was allotted for media, only a third of that was spent because most of the Muslim and Arab countries that were scheduled refused to run the commercials, which they rejected as propaganda. As the book notes, “the spots did air on a number of state-run media systems in Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Kuwait,” while there was also additional exposure through pan-Arab satellite systems.

But the initiative was controversial almost from the beginning in the U.S. as well as overseas. The idea of “branding” America or even of using advertising on behalf of America’s image in this kind of diplomatic initiative was criticized from the start—not only by D.C. insiders, but also by the media and some in the advertising world as well. Typical media headlines referred to Beers’ advertising background, saying “Can Charlotte Beers Sell Uncle Sam?” (Time magazine) or “From Uncle Ben's to Uncle Sam” (The Economist). The negative reaction led Secretary of State Powell to tell a group of senators in November 2001:  "Guess what?  There is nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something."

Some pointed out that the initiative’s problems had less to do with its content than with how long it took to get off the ground, given that it was approved in Feb. 2002, five months after being conceived, and that the commercials didn’t start running until October 2002. In testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Appropriations in October 2003, the chairman of the bipartisan Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World, noted that “We heard from several marketing experts who believed that advertising was not a good way to spread these messages. We disagree. The campaign was well-conceived and based on solid research. The issue of why countries rejected the ads and why the process, from conception to airing, took so long should be examined.”

In any event, while there was a lot of criticism, it was based on opinions and suppositions, not on any actual research evaluations, which is what led professors Fullerton and Kendrick to launch their research.  While noting that there were no benchmarks for evaluating a campaign of this type, they concluded their book’s analysis as follows:

“So, did SVI [Shared Values Initiative] work?

“According to internal State Department documents about SVI in Indonesia, the campaign achieved its objectives. It not only got people talking about Muslim life in America, it also produced more positive perceptions of America.

“An advertising tracking survey conducted around the third week of the five-week campaign yielded results for SVI on a parwith or exceeding message play back for major U.S. advertisers that spend tens of millions of dollars communicating with American consumers. .  .

“.  .  .  Taken together, the audience research and tracking research indicated that SVI appeared successful in view of stated campaign goals among its target audiences—a finding that stands in stark contrast to the very negative reviews the effort received from politicians, media critics and others.”

Ms. Beers quit her State Department position in March 2003. Which was the same month the Iraq War began, making a global Muslim-American “shared values” ad campaign seem, well, academic. 

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