Rebuilding Brand America
By Dick Martin
AMACOM Books Copyright © 2007 Dick Martin
All right reserved.
Introduction THE ANTI-AMERICAN CENTURY
The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 sharply punctuated the end of the American century. Indeed, the era we are now entering may well come to be recalled as 'the anti-American century.' -Ivan Krastev, research director, Remarque Institute, New York University
THE WORLD, WE'RE TOLD, IS FLAT. IT'S ALSO TIPPING, AND NOT in America's favor. Pollsters tell us that United States' foreign policy-especially in the Middle East-accounts for 35 percent of anti-American feelings around the world. Whether the true proportion is 35 percent or 75 percent is small comfort for U.S.-headquartered businesses, which once happily rode on America's coattails but have grown tired of recent bumps. The question businesses should be asking is how much blame they share for the balance of the ill feeling and whether they are somehow contributing to the tilt.
Those are the issues explored in this book, along with best practices in dealing with them. But first, I should make it clear that I am neither a foreign policy expert nor an economist; I spent most of my career in the worlds of advertising, public relations, and brand management. This book starts from the premise that America is a brand, not in the sense that the name itself has commercial value (though it does), but because the notion of America occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of people around the world.American businesses share that space and, if it has become a bit shabby and less welcoming lately, they share responsibility for restoring it. In fact, the deterioration of Brand America is due in no small part to foreign perceptions that U.S.-based companies are so obsessed with their stock price that they will mistreat employees, mislead customers, and bend the accounting rules to wring an extra penny a share out of their financial results. Executive compensation that verges on corporate looting reinforces perceptions of America as a materialistic, narcissistic society in which the powerful exploit the weak. The reputations of U.S. companies and the country itself are so intertwined that rebuilding Brand America must be a joint undertaking of government and business. Both have a lot to learn from each other and, in the end, they will only succeed if they share the burden because they already share the same brand.
DREAMS, DAYDREAMS, AND NIGHTMARES
The notion of America is both rational and emotional. Among some people, it is a sort of daydream constructed from bits and pieces of information, some of it relatively fanciful. So many people immigrated to the United States from Italy at the turn of the twentieth century, for example, that good wishes are sometimes expressed as trovare l'America (literally, find America, i.e., find happiness). On the other hand, bits of information can also lead to less pleasant fantasies, akin to wakeful nightmares. These days, you need a multilingual scorecard to keep up with the varieties of anti-Americanism. To much of the Muslim world, America is the Great Satan, irreligious and immoral. To many Europeans, it practices savage capitalism and takes pleasure from cultural drivel. Many South Americans denounce it for neocolonialism and economic oppression. In Asia, it's a unilateralist, militarist bully. In Africa, as economist Julianne Malveaux put it so neatly, America is like the preacher who came to Sunday dinner, ate all of the bird, save the wings and the back, and wondered why everyone is glaring at [him].
Of course, there are good explanations for some of the behavior behind these perceptions. For example, what many people see as America's unilateralism grew from the vulnerability and fear that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001. And while America's intentions may be pure, as Kishore Mahbubani, the former ambassador from Singapore, notes, The rest of the world does not 'see' American intentions. What people around the world personally experience is the turbulent wake of American actions reaching from the cornfields of Kansas and the halls of Congress to the shopping stalls of Kowloon, China, and the oil fields of Kuwait.
Furthermore, with 725 military bases outside the United States, troops in 70 percent of the world's countries, nearly 200 military actions since the end of World War II, and live TV transmitted from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, it is no wonder that for million of people around the world, Americans are people in uniform and the country is an outsize military base. As Princeton professor Bernard Chazelle put it, Rambo's paternity rights are hardly Hollywood's alone.
Finally, muscle-even unmatched military and economic muscle-does not automatically translate into leadership. Before other countries accepted U.S. leadership, Francis Fukuyama reminds us, they would have to be convinced not just that America was good but that it was also wise in its application of power, and, through that wisdom, successful in achieving the ends it set for itself. Sadly, on that score, America's recent history in Iraq, and on its own storm-ravaged shores in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, leaves much of the world questioning not only America's sincerity, but its competence.
Google the word anti-American and you'll get at least 10 million results. But what is anti-Americanism? I like Tony Judt's description: the principled distrust and dislike of American civilization and all its manifestations. Judt is a scholar at New York University who specializes in European history, and his views on anti-Americanism are unavoidably colored by that perspective. But since most people agree that Europe was the birthplace of the phenomenon, his take seems apt to me.
Anti-Americanism is not the same thing as criticism of American actions, policies, or culture. Criticism-even when it is vehement and vitriolic-stems from an honest difference of opinion and can even be constructive. Anti-Americanism, on the other hand, does not seek to correct America's mistakes, but to condemn it as an inherently evil perpetrator. It interprets every American act in the worst possible light. To an anti-American, any apparently good act by the United States or its people is suspect, and all bad acts are the norm rather than exceptions. Author Lee Harris, whose book Civilization and Its Enemies earned him the sobriquet the philosopher of 9/11, brings great insight to what others have termed the product of a clash of civilizations. It is not that America went wrong here or there; it is that it is wrong root and branch, he writes.
CAUSES OF ANTI-AMERICANISM
There are numerous theories on the causes of anti-Americanism. One is the so-called structural theory; namely, that it is the natural reaction to America's economic and military preeminence. A second school of thought holds that it is an entirely rational response to America's foreign policies, especially in the Middle East. A third theory maintains that, whether America's policies are correct or misguided, its style in implementing them is arrogant and indifferent to the legitimate concerns of others. Closely related is the idea that Americans themselves are rude, loud, and overbearing. Their collective personality, it seems, grates on the world's nerves. Finally, some people believe that anti-Americanism is really part of a larger fear of modernization, with roots stretching as far back as the Luddites, who destroyed the textile machines that threatened their jobs at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Others say it's not modernization that people fear, but the soul-deadening effects of the coarse materialism that America typifies. Of course, it's also possible that people in other countries are just not that into America anymore.
Whatever its source, overt anti-Americanism may wax and wane with events, but the underlying resentment is palpable and enduring. Some people act on these feelings and ideas by shunning American fast-food restaurants; others, thankfully far fewer in number, are willing to kill or die for them. Such murderous anti-Americanism requires a proportionate response, and that's what governments are for. But a show of force is counterproductive in dealing with what I will call expressive anti-Americanism-boycotting American products, reflexively opposing anything American, or joining the chorus of unrestrained rhetoric from the Down with America canon.
It may be more appropriate to speak of anti-Americanism in the plural, because it is a complex blend of emotions that condense in unpredictable ways. It can be in different measure, and simultaneously, envy of America's power and wealth, anger at its real and imagined faults and offenses, contempt for its ignorance and lack of sophistication, embarrassment at one's own dependency on America, fear of one's losses, and shame for one's own shortcomings. Different strains spring from both ends of the political spectrum. From the left, it is basically anti-capitalist; from the right, it is nationalistic and culturally conservative, as in the original meaning of being anti-change. In Germany, for example, the expression Amerikanische Verhaltnisse-American conditions-is a derisive term, referring to the inhumanity of American capitalism. In France, Américain is an insult that political opponents toss at each other.
A SPECIAL CASE
Anti-Americanism in the Muslim world seems to be in a category of its own. The French can be charmingly eccentric and irritating, but Muslim anti-Americanism comes off as a hatred that can be scary. Indeed, it exploded violently on American soil in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Furthermore, Muslim anti-Americanism is not limited to a few fanatics. Attitudes toward the United States in the Middle East have consistently been the most negative in the world. That should not be too surprising: America is at war there; from an Arab perspective, the United States is on the wrong side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; and American values seem to be the antithesis of Islam's, the region's majority religion. To many, the situation seems practically hopeless.
For all these reasons, this book pays special attention to the Islamic world, particularly in the Arab states. But it is wrong to assume that anti-Americanism stems solely, or even primarily, from that region. Nor is it the result of a unique set of religious and political circumstances, unlikely to be repeated elsewhere. As we shall see, it has taken root practically worldwide. And American businesses play a role both in its causes and possible solution.
RESPONSE TO ANTI-AMERICANISM
Popular debate in the United States has focused on whether the appropriate solution to what has been termed America's image problem is one of better information dissemination or the more substantive challenge of adjusting policies. The Bush administration's view is that it is the former. Its answer is to do a better job of explaining what America stands for. In practical terms, that has resulted in an approach not unlike the one most Americans use when confronted with someone who speaks no English: Speak more slowly and loudly, use lots of broad gestures, and add a vowel to the end of important words.
But the challenge for America, and American business, isn't pumping out more information, packaging it more seductively, or changing policy to win a hypothetical popularity contest. The real issue is understanding. Not primarily others' understanding of America, but America's understanding of them.
No country can afford to sacrifice the safety and security of its people to quiet its critics. But it can't achieve true security either, unless it understands how its actions are perceived by others and how others perceive their own interest. America will not be truly secure until the people of other nations believe it is using its power to serve their interests as well as its own, or at least taking their interests into account. Every poll suggests that is far from the case. But it doesn't have to be that way. Joseph Nye, former diplomat and dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, reminds us: The United States was even more preeminent at the end of World War II than it is today, but we pursued policies that were acclaimed by Allied countries. It matters if the big kid on the block is seen by the others as a friend or as a bully. There is still plenty America can do, even while ensuring its own security, to demonstrate that it is a friend to the rest of the world.
America's response to the 2005 East Asian tsunami, for example, improved its standing in the region. According to a poll commissioned by an organization called Terror Free Tomorrow thirty days following the tsunami, 65 percent of Indonesians had a positive opinion of the United States because of the American response. And the highest percentage was among people under age 30. In fact, their opinion of America's efforts to fight terrorism was about evenly split (40 percent in favor to 36 percent opposed). In a stunning turnaround of public opinion, support for Osama bin Laden and terrorism in Indonesia has dropped significantly, according to the group, while favorable views of the United States have increased. For the first time ever in a Muslim nation since 9/11, support for Osama bin Laden dropped significantly, from 58 percent favorable to just 23 percent. The images of U.S. military helicopters delivering relief from American businesses to refugees did more to improve America's reputation than any number of feel-good TV commercials could.
In studying anti-Americanism, I was reminded at every turn how exceedingly complex the issue is, how full of contradictions and prone to easy generalizations. I also discovered that anti-Americanism has become a publicity boon for numerous polling firms and other commercial interests. Fielding a poll designed to generate provocative results is a tried-and-true formula for generating publicity. The introduction of online polling makes the exercise relatively quick and inexpensive, if of sometimes dubious validity. I was struck by how many newspaper articles quoted breathless survey results from firms I had never heard of before and have not heard of since.
As a general rule, most surveys should be taken with a grain of salt. Finding a truly random sample of sufficient size to be statistically valid is increasingly difficult in an era of do not call lists and telemarketing wearout. Even the most statistically rigorous surveys are only a rough approximation of what is on people's minds. The way a question is asked, the order in which it's asked, and the general news of the day all influence the way people answer surveys. Multicountry surveys raise questions of language and interpretation. Further, there is usually a significant lag between fielding a survey and publishing its results. Time moves on and attitudes move with it. Surveys only accrue real validity if they produce consistent results over long periods of time.
Survey results can also be colored by factors beyond anyone's control. Often, people don't have a well-formed opinion on a survey's specific questions until the moment they're asked, so the opinion they manufacture in that instance may simply average their feelings about a related subject that is more salient to them. For example, a citizen of Yemen may have very few opinions about American consumer products. But when asked if he would buy them given the chance, he develops an instant answer based on his feelings and thoughts regarding the most closely related topic on which he does have strong feelings, say the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unconsciously, his mind ticks off a succession of thoughts: American consumer products ... America ... America's friend, Israel ... Israel, enemy of Palestine ... Palestine, my fellow Arab country, abused by Israel, America's friend ... And as a result, he concludes, No, I wouldn't buy American consumer products if they were free.
Other people have very strong opinions on many subjects, but these opinions aren't necessarily the result of their own careful analysis and deliberation. Many people regularly bathe in streams of elite opinion-whether political, religious, or cultural-that were selected in the first place because they generally conform to their own basic predispositions. While they don't consciously ask, What would Bill O'Reilly think about this? or What would Maureen Dowd say? their survey responses often reflect what the elite of their camp are saying.
None of this is meant to undermine the validity of surveys, but to inject an element of caution into their interpretation. Because surveys produce numbers bracketed by a statistical margin of error, many people give them the same weight as a trusted thermometer. But the touted margin of error itself is not 100 percent accurate; in fact, the pollster's confidence in its accuracy is usually qualified somewhere in the footnotes (e.g., subject to a margin of error of plus or minus three points at a confidence level of 95 percent). And the margin of error itself can change when applied to subsets of the total survey sample.
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