U.S. needs image tuck

Audiences fed up with government's Hollywood

“Big cars, big guns and big breasts.”

That’s how most young Muslims characterized American movies — and by extension, American culture — in a recent survey. In Muslim countries, the U.S. has a popularity rating about the same as for waterboarding. And a recent Pew Research Center study found that America’s image is deteriorating even in traditionally friendly countries.

Ironically, though, when it comes to bolstering America’s image abroad, showbiz could teach the State Dept. a thing or two about reaching its intended audience.

That’s because the U.S. government continues to make the same mistake when it comes to reaching disgruntled populations abroad: It’s talking without listening.

“Every State Dept. fails to show any sensitivity to the values or interests of the audience,” says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who teaches at the Yale School of Management.

“There’s never been a methodological listening study conducted by the U.S. government,” says Keith Reinhard, president of Business for Diplomatic Action, a private task force that tries to enlist U.S. businesses in global actions that help counter anti-Americanism. “In one of our surveys, we talked to a New Zealand man, and he said, ‘You think that inside every human being on the planet there’s an American trying to get out. It’s not true!’ ”

The first U.S. propaganda chief to the Muslim world was Charlotte Beers, appointed Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy shortly after 9/11. Beers launched the “Shared Values” campaign, TV ads aired throughout the Mideast showing the happy and fulfilling lives of American Muslims.

“It was not what Middle Eastern Muslims were interested in,” BDA’s Reinhard says. BDA surveyed the intended audiences, just as it had surveyed young Muslims about Hollywood movies.

The spots were “mind-numbing and stupid,” adds Sonnenfeld, who also reviewed the ads. “It was the equivalent of speaking slower while shouting louder.”

Eventually some Arab networks refused to even air the ads.

Beers’ successors fared no better. Karen Hughes, who said last month she was resigning to spend more time with her family, did hire more Arab-speaking personnel for her office, and she upped the annual budget for public diplomacy by more than $200 million in four years — to $845 million in fiscal 2008. But her much-hyped trip to the Middle East in 2005 was a bust of epic proportions; she was roundly criticized for talking mainly about the joys of being a mom and how Americans truly value all religious faiths — while images of camouflaged GIs blowing things up in Iraq dominated Arab TV sets.

These days, instead of taking the usual GOP approach of bashing “Hollywood values” for cheapening the U.S. image at home and abroad, Republican presidential contender Rudolph Giuliani has instead railed at the State Dept. for its “poor job” of selling America. He vows, if elected, to deploy more soldiers on the PR front of the war on terror.

But no surge of diplomats will help, experts say, if they just keep doing more of the same.

And that’s were showbiz can help.

If there’s one thing Hollywood does — even if it doesn’t always do it right — is it tries to find out what audiences are interested in.

“Mark Burnett should have produced those TV ads,” Sonnenfeld says, referring to the reality TV heavyweight.

Now, with James Glassman, a former Washington Post financial columnist and current head of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, slated to succeed Hughes as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, the challenge is clear.

“Hollywood listens to what people want,” Reinhard adds. “The government needs to listen, too.”

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