Iraqi democracy: the sales pitch

How a Western PR firm, with Arab partners, tackles the world's toughest ad campaign

On the television screen, an elderly Iraqi man sits at a desk, carefully folding pieces of paper that suggest ballots. "I choose to live in peace," says a voice-over, in Arabic. "I choose justice and stability." With a fountain pen, he checks a box that takes the shape of Iraq. "I, an Iraqi, choose one Iraq."

The 30-second spot, which began airing in Iraq May 8, ends with the blue oval insignia of the Transitional Administrative Law and the same mellifluous audio kicker - "an Iraq of hope and peace" - that has capped similar ads in recent weeks.

The TAL is the work of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which will run Iraq until the planned June 30 handover. The ad, versions of which appear on radio and in print, was produced by a Western public-relations firm hired this spring by the CPA to reach Iraqis clustered around a rising number of satellite TVs.

Its job: to sell democracy.

Few would debate that the US-led coalition needs some potent PR in Iraq right now, with new evidence of the humiliating treatment of Iraqi prisoners emerging almost daily. Bell Pottinger Communications, a London agency, beat out four other bidders this spring for the chance to provide it.

While advertising experts praise the agency's sophisticated, soft-sell approach - which keeps the focus on Iraqis - some also marvel at the vastness of the task. It probably represents the world's most difficult advertising job, critics say.

"Mission impossible - trying to launch a campaign right into the teeth of what's happening out there," says Jack Trout, who helped develop the concept of product "positioning" more than three decades ago. In 2002 he worked with the State Department, helping new diplomats project a positive image of America abroad as part of the Brand America program launched after Sept. 11.

The key in Iraq today: Play up the benefits of democracy - freedom, security, prosperity - rather than the word itself, adds Mr. Trout, who runs a marketing firm in Greenwich, Conn. "Democracy is confusing. And [the campaign] should say very clearly to the Iraqi people, 'We're not trying to sell the US form of government here.' "

That's precisely the plan, says Patrick Ryder, an Air Force major who manages the project for the CPA in Baghdad. The imagery in the ads, he says, is meant to encourage Iraqis to think beyond the US occupation.

"If it can promote discussion among Iraqis about their future and how they can get involved, and what they need to do, then we've succeeded," Major Ryder says. "[These] are essentially ads for Iraqis about Iraqis."

Perhaps most important, to some degree the ads also are by Iraqis.

The CPA chose the Bell Pottinger group, Ryder says, partly because of its alliances with two other firms with a keen ear for cultural sensitivities: Bates PanGulf, a Dubai agency whose creative manager on the project is Iraqi, and Balloch & Roe, an Iraqi-run firm in Baghdad that handles frontline work including printing and distribution.

The ad team even runs focus groups with the International Republican Institute, a nongovernmental organization that sends Iraqi pollsters into the field to help gauge the impact of the ads and shape new ones.

Anger over Abu Ghraib

Ryder says Iraqi anger over the Abu Ghraib prison photos will not trigger a major adjustment to the campaign, but notes that public mood is something the CPA and the Bell Pottinger group watch closely.

One ad that showed a mother and crying baby was shelved, for example, after it aired just as a broadcast on Al Jazeera - one of four satellite stations that carry the CPA spots - showed images of dead and injured women and children.

The ad campaign is more than just a battle for sway over sentiment, its planners say.

"You can't just sell people hope," says David Bell, a senior consultant to Bell Pottinger (but not the Bell in the firm's name). He says the ads have been generally well received, based on the firm's own surveys. "You have to be able to point to milestones and accomplishments."

Mr. Bell cites the Nov. 15 agreement on the transfer to Iraqi sovereignty, the subsequent agreement on the TAL, and the establishment of an electorial commission, now pending.

"At at each point along the way we need to be able to nod to these [milestones] and build confidence" for the future, he says, calling even serious setbacks "part of the drag and friction of conflict and conflict resolution."

Ads vs. events

"It's sensible to look to the future," says John Quelch, a professor at Harvard Business School and an expert on global branding. As long as ads avoid deception and stay consistent with the CPA's stated objectives, he says, they should play a useful role in laying the groundwork for public discourse.

"Though in terms of shaping public opinion," he adds, "events will always beat out ads."

Middle East observers are waiting to see how Iraqis will react to the release Tuesday of a videotape showing the beheading of American contractor Nick Berg - reportedly in response to Abu Ghraib. Several Arab media outlets were ignoring the tape Wednesday. Some commentators condemned it, noting it could erase any sympathy Iraq had gained from the prison-abuse scandal.

Abu Ghraib served to deepen cynicism among mainstream Iraqis, says Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. Professor Gerges doubts whether the ads - culturally sensitive though they may be - can be effective in the new climate.

"Not only are they unlikely to influence public opinion [for the better], but they could have a counter effect because of the widening gap between the rhetoric of the US-led occupiers and their performance," says Gerges. "No ad campaign can repair the damage in the near future.... No PR gimmicks will dent the crisis of trust."

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