Few marketers have faced a communications objective as difficult as the one the United States faces in the Middle East.
It’s a nightmare scenario for a marketer: The audience will use any excuse that it can find to believe the worst about the brand. The particular target audience the U.S. needs to address hates the American “product” and will believe anything the competition says about it. The marketing task is more difficult than trying to give people warm fuzzies about Philip Morris. It’s even harder than trying to run a political campaign for a liberal Democrat in Alabama. Core beliefs must be changed.
Although large numbers of Middle Eastern people do condemn the September 11 attacks, a majority of them — according to all of the available polls — blame the U.S. and, in particular, Israel for the violence. The fact is, our brand reputation in the region caused us to earn additional enmity — not sympathy — for having been the victim of the world’s deadliest terrorism act.
Some Market Research
An-Nahar, a Lebanese newspaper, found that 31 percent of respondents thought Israel was behind the hijackings while only 27 percent thought it was Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden.
Even the government of Turkey, a NATO member, sits atop a population that mostly believes that America should respond by acceding to terrorist demands, instead of using violence against fellow Muslims.
To the Arab and Muslim populations of the world, the U.S. is but a player in a larger issue — the creation and continued existence of Israel. This issue has been used by many Middle Eastern and Asian governments to rile up and redirect hatreds away from the corrupt domestic systems and toward a common foe: Israel and, more recently, the U.S.
It shouldn’t, then, surprise an experienced marketer to find that these constituencies strive to fault their perceived opponents. Even as our secretary of state points out the various Middle Eastern nations joining the “Coalition,” those nations do so reluctantly, without popular support, and — if precedent holds — insincerely.
Changing the Market Forces
Conceding to terrorist demands always begets more terrorism, so our response becomes limited to two spheres: message through military action and message through media. That insincerity of some Coalition members is the factor we can change with the American media strategy in the Middle East. Governments can’t truly support us when they have populations violently hostile to us. And terrorism is easy to support, fund, populate, and spread in arenas where such hostility thrives.
The reasons why most Muslims blame America, either directly or indirectly, for recent events need to be ferreted out. That hostility is born of populist leaders — both religious and governmental — who exploit and deepen existing racism and nationalism. They conduct this campaign not with media budgets, but with on-the-ground organizations and direct interaction with the population.
Richard Levy, a University of Illinois historian, says that conspiracy theories — like the one that says Israel secretly caused the Twin Towers attacks — flourished after years in which Arab governments encouraged crude Jewish conspiracy theories.
James Zogby, the chairman of the Arab American Institute, told a reporter: “This and other similar stories function as a form of wish-fulfillment by people who wanted so badly not to accept that Arabs were responsible.”
Terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood — whose stated objectives have been to overthrow relatively secular governments such as those of Egypt and Saudi Arabia — pander to the popular sentiment by throwing in (only recently) statements against Israel. Now instead of trying to get the U.S. to withdraw so that they can take over the corrupt regimes in the Middle East, they say they want the U.S. to withdraw so they can have their way with Palestine.
The governments have been equally cynical. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen have funded fundamentalist groups (for instance, the Taliban) to make trouble elsewhere, hoping to both kowtow to domestic sentiment and keep the troublemakers occupied in faraway places.
The racism and hatred fueling public sentiment are the underlying forces in the market of Muslim opinion that America needs to address directly. Obviously, letting the government-run media outlets relay our message didn’t work.
The Media of Change
This is one of those times where the distinction between creative needs and media needs is blurred. Instead of merely needing to find the right message, we also need to find the right way to communicate messages. The media folks will determine the success or failure of our messaging campaign. It won’t be TV ads or even radio. It will be newly created, local organizations that deal with people directly, face to face. New schools, new curricula, cultural organizations, hospitals, and other types of community-based contacts will be the most effective media for the U.S. message.
Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat chair at the University of Maryland, told Reuters that conspiracy theories spread in Islamic countries because the constituencies feel powerless and tend to blame their troubles on what they see as powerful outside forces. To the degree that we empower Muslim populations in the Middle East — despite the wishes of oppressive local governments — we will begin to solve some of the underlying problems.
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