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A Case Study in the Limits of Propaganda

Shared Values Revisited

by SHELDON RAMPTON

I received a request recently from a university professor who teaches a course about media literacy. She was wondering if I could help her find videos of the "Shared Values" television ads that the U.S. Department of State produced to improve the image of the United States in Muslim countries shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, so she could show them to her students.

I was a bit surprised to realize that the ads are fairly hard to locate online, but after some searching, we were able to find copies. To ensure that they will remain available, I uploaded the videos to two popular internet repositories: YouTube, where people can easily find them and drop them into their own web pages; and the Internet Archive, which should ensure that they survive for posterity.

Twenty or fifty years from now, scholars wishing to understanding the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world will certainly be interested in studying the "Shared Values" campaign. As my professor friend wrote back after finding the videos, "The ads are a great teaching tool about propaganda." Like most propaganda, they tell us a great deal about how the propagandists see themselves as well as how they want to be perceived by others.

"Shared Values" was part of a public relations campaign launched by Charlotte Beers, a former Madison Avenue advertising executive who was appointed by Colin Powell as U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and asked to help "rebrand" the United States to improve its image in Muslim countries.

In practice, the Shared Values campaign ran up against rising Muslim anger following the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq. As we have pointed out on this website on numerous occasions, the U.S. image has plummeted internationally – especially among Muslims. Here is how John Stauber and I analyzed Charlotte Beers and her rebranding effort in our 2003 book, Weapons of Mass Deception:

Dubbed a "Muslim-as-Apple-Pie" campaign by the New York Times, the "Shared Values" videos featured photogenic Muslim-Americans playing with their children and going about their jobs. One TV commercial showed Rawia Ismail, a Lebanese-born schoolteacher who now lives in Toledo, Ohio. Her head covered with an Islamic scarf, Ismail was shown with her smiling children in her all-American kitchen, at a school softball game, and extolling American values as she taught her class. "I didn’t see any prejudice anywhere in my neighborhood after September 11," she said.

The problem with these messages is not that they were necessarily false. The problem is that, like the rest of Charlotte’s web, "Shared Values" avoided discussing the issues at the core of Muslim resentment of the United States-the Palestinian/Israel conflict and the history of U.S. intervention in the region. "We know that there’s religious freedom in America, and we like that. What we’re angry about is the arrogant behavior of the U.S. in the rest of the world," said Ahmad Imron, an economics student in Indonesia after watching one of the "Shared Values" TV ads.

Viewed today, the Shared Values campaign, and even our critique of it, looks rather quaint and naive. Since John and I wrote those words, America’s reputation has been further eroded by the ongoing violence in Iraq and by photographs of America soldiers gleefully torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The idea that the United States is a tolerant nation has been undermined by the behavior of the war’s strongest supporters, as pro-war columnists like Michelle Malkin and blogs like Little Green Footballs regularly refer to Arabs and Muslims as "vermin" in need of "sterilization," while campaigning for the "free speech" of U.S. soldiers who compose humorous songs about killing Iraqis, or rallying to the defense of a student after his arrest for stealing stealing copies of the Koran and flushing them down toilets.


Does Propaganda Work?

After reviewing opinion polls that found steep declines in America’s public image in every Muslim country surveyed, John and I concluded in Weapons of Mass Deception that the Shared Values campaign was an "abject failure." Most observers at the time agreed. The TV ads were controversial in the countries where they aired, and government-run channels in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan flatly refused to run them at all. Less than a month after the launch of "Shared Values," the State Department abruptly suspended it. "Islamic opinion is influenced more by what the U.S. does than by anything it can say," commented an advertising executive in the Wall Street Journal. Charlotte Beers resigned two weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and comments at O’Dwyer’s, a leading public relations industry trade publication, greeted her departure with cries of "good riddance" and dismissive comments about her competence.

More recently, a couple of communications professors, Jami Fullerton and Alice Kendrick, have argued that the Shared Values ads were more effective than people realized. Fullerton and Kendrick reached their conclusions by conducting a survey that involved showing the ads to a test audience of university students in London and surveying their reactions. They first announced their findings in 2004, prompting a blistering critique from journalism professor Lawrence Pintak, who pointed out that only six of the 105 students surveyed were even Muslims.

Since Pintak wrote his critique, Fullerton and Kendrick have attempted to bolster their research by conducting a second survey in London and additional surveys in Singapore and Cairo. They have published their findings in a book, titled Advertising’s War on Terrorism: The Story of the U.S. State Department’s Shared Values Initiative. However, much of the substance of Pintak’s criticism still applies. For one thing, all of their surveys involved small samples of students at international universities. (Can the reactions of English-speaking students at American University in Cairo really predict how the rest of the Muslim world will respond to the ads?) As one book review noted,

The two London samples included 5.8% and 17% Muslims respectively, and the Singapore sample 13% Muslims. Muslims were the largest group (82%) in the Egyptian sample but the total number of participants in that case was only 39, potentially compromising the validity of the findings.

Beyond these methodological concerns, moreover, Pintak correctly observed that "the whole issue of the effectiveness of the commercials is actually beside the point." Whatever positive impression the ads might have generated in people who viewed them was countered by the generally negative public outcry throughout the Muslim world about the very fact that they were being broadcast, and the Fullerton/Kendrick survey had no way of measuring this factor. More importantly still, any positive effects of the ads have been vastly outweighed by the negative attitudes that the U.S. has created toward itself through its invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Monologue About Dialogue

Regardless of whether the Shared Values ads were effective, they were in any case dishonest. Each "Shared Values" video ended with a tag line that said, "Presented by the Council of American Muslims for Understanding … and the American people." But although "the American people" supposedly co-sponsored the ads, few Americans had ever heard of the Council of American Muslims for Understanding (CAMU). This is because CAMU was actually a PR front group, created and funded by the U.S. State Department.

Front groups are an example of a PR tactic known as the "third party technique," in which the sponsor of a message seeks to put their words in someone else’s mouth. Usually this is done because the sponsor thinks the message will seem more credible if someone else says it. Here is how John and I described CAMU in Weapons of Mass Deception:

In another effort to achieve "third party authenticity," a group called the Council of American Muslims for Understanding (CAMU) launched its own web site, called OpenDialogue.com. "It will be government-funded, but it’s not government-founded. I’d like to say we founded it," said the group’s chairman, Malik Hasan, who nonetheless admitted that the idea for CAMU began with the State Department. Visitors to the website, whose declared mission was "bringing people and cultures together through dialogue," were invited to send away for a free copy of "Muslim Life in America," view the stories of Rawia Ismail and the others profiled in the "Shared Values" TV commercials, or to "tell us your story" by sending an e-mail.

The striking thing about the CAMU web site, however, is how little real dialogue it enabled. This is, after all, the twenty-first century. Internet newsgroups, web forums, email listservs and even web cams have long ago perfected the technologies that enable real dialogue to occur in real time between people throughout the world. The absence of opportunities for genuine dialogue may explain why OpenDialogue.com has been irrelevant to most people seeking information about U.S.-Muslim relations. A Google search on April 8, 2003 found only 58 other web pages that link to OpenDialogue, most of which were sites run by U.S. embassies or other government agencies. For comparison’s sake, there were 2,200 links to IslamiCity.com, a site that discusses world affairs from a Muslim point of view.

After the Shared Values campaign ended, CAMU’s government funding dried up, and the group quietly disappeared, as did its website. When I visited OpenDialogue.com just now, I found a commercial spam site with popup ads that crashed my web browser. You can still find a copy of the original website, however, at the Internet Archive. On its "questions and answers" page, CAMU described itself as "a private, non-profit, non-partisan and non-political organization."

This, of course, is deliberate deception. An organization created by the U.S. State Department is certainly not "private," and it is only "non-political" if we interpret that term in the narrow sense of "not involved in electoral politics." (Malik Hasan, its chairman, is a wealthy Republican activist who subsequently became a founding member of "Muslims for Bush.")

One of the hallmarks of propaganda is that its practitioners are wholly preoccupied with the question of whether their message "works" and are indifferent to the question of whether their message is "true." At the risk of sounding like a moralist and scold, I believe that honesty is important in communications, even if dishonest messages sometimes "produce the results we want." This, however, is a point that Fullerton and Kendrick do not seem to have considered in their analysis.

Ultimately, though, I think propaganda fails even the "effectiveness" test. Propaganda is the language through which power expresses itself. By its very nature, it is incapable of sustaining the sort of dialogue that creates genuine understanding between different cultures. If Americans truly wish to be respected and appreciated by the rest of the world, we have to find other ways of communicating.

SHELDON RAMPTON is the co-author, with John Stauber, Weapons of Mass Deception and The Best War Ever.