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Late October, 2002: State Department Marketing Program Fails with Arab Target Audiences

A State Department program designed to “market” America as a “brand” to Arabs is greeted with skepticism and, sometimes, derision. The advertising campaign, called “Shared Values,” was conceived by Charlotte Beers, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and a former advertising executive (see October 2, 2001). The concept is to “sell” America in the Arab world by emphasizing the “shared values” held by both Americans and Arabs. (Rich 2006, pp. 31-32) The program is based on four videos, centering on the lives of four “average” American Muslims—a schoolteacher, a doctor, a baker, and the director of the National Institutes of Health. (Perlez 10/30/2002) Beers said in a June Senate hearing that the US must pay closer attention to expanding communication with “the mainstream of young adults” so as “to give them, ultimately, a new world view.… The young will lead us.” The “Shared Values” program is the central thrust of that effort. (Office of International Information Programs, US Department of State 6/11/2002) The videos show American Muslims in their homes, at softball games, and at their jobs. They tell Arab viewers that they have experienced no prejudice against them after the 9/11 attacks, and describe how they live and work well with Christians, Jews, and Hindus. “I don’t think there is any other country in the world where different people from different countries are as accepted and welcomed as members of a society,” says one. But many Arabs do not believe the rosy depiction of life as an American Muslims, and call the videos patronizing and simplistic. (Some State Department officials privately agree with that characterization, but were powerless to influence their creation and dissemination.) Other Arabs call the videos nothing but American propaganda. (Perlez 10/30/2002) In 2006, author Frank Rich will call the videos akin to “testimonial commercials for new household products.” Many Arab countries, particularly in the Middle East, refuse to run the videos, saying that they do not adequately address the US’s policies in that region. (Rich 2006, pp. 31-32) In September 2003, the “Shared Values” program and other such public relations initiatives will be judged to be failures by the General Accounting Office (see September 15, 2003).

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