Advertising Executive Promotes U.S. Image

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The New York Sun

As China pulled off one of the greatest public relations coups of all time with its recent Olympics, some Americans are also working to transform our image abroad. The former chief executive of ad agency DDB, and the author of the iconic “special sauce, lettuce, cheese, and pickles” tongue-twister that made the Big Mac a staple food for an entire generation, Keith Reinhard, is trying to do just that.

Mr. Reinhard loves America, and is dismayed that his affection is not universal. Consequently, he is trying to spiff up our image abroad through Business for Diplomatic Action, an organization that produces surveys of perceptions of America abroad, creates guides for business travelers and students to help bridge the cultural gaps, and is creating workshops on the topic.

Though some of the worldwide antipathy toward America stems from unpopular policies, Mr. Reinhard says it is not a matter of simply a feel-good issue — Businesses are being hurt by our sagging reputation. In an increasingly competitive world, he says we need all the help we can get.

Having managed a company with offices in 96 countries, Mr. Reinhard says, “I knew something about the resentments people felt about Americans around the world. These had been building for some time — really since the fall of communism. Some of it is envy of our success, some is that the U.S. took on the fall guy role.”

To prove the point, Mr. Reinhard produces surveys showing that in countries such as Germany, Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt, and even Great Britain, the majority of people think America has a mainly negative influence on the world.

Though alarmed about America’s deteriorating reputation, it took the terrorist attacks of September, 11, to spur Mr. Reinhard into action. Soon after the attacks, he commissioned researchers at DDB to conduct a “totally non-scientific” survey of attitudes about America in 17 countries. The results, he says, were consistent across all regions.

“What foreigners liked about America was our youthful enthusiasm, our technology, our benevolence, and our higher education. Also, some, but not all, countries liked our entertainment. The negatives were that we were viewed as exploitative, that we encouraged corruption and promoted bad values, and that we came off as ugly Americans — that we are arrogant, loud, and self-absorbed. We are also considered ignorant. One woman in Germany said, ‘How can you pretend to lead the world when you don’t know anything about it?'”

In response to these findings, Mr. Reinhard asked himself, “What can we do to change the brand? As a marketer, you know that you have to amplify the positive perceptions. As to negative perceptions, if they are true, you have to try to change them. If they are not true, you have to try to modify the perception.”

To help promote his venture, he turned to business. After all, multinational companies such as PepsiCo and McDonald’s have a great deal to lose if antipathy toward America translates into weaker demand for their products. In a recent survey, teenagers in 13 countries listed Sony and Nokia as among their favorite three international brands. The absence of American names on the list is alarming, Mr. Reinhard says.

And with business travelers making up about 26% of the 64 million trips that Americans make abroad each year, what better way to change the overseas image of America than to polish the manners of our traveling salesmen?

With the help of the National Business Travel Association, BDA has produced a pamphlet being distributed by some 800 companies. The guide includes nuggets such as “speak lower and slower” and “leave the slang at home.” The guide points out that “in Japan, it is considered rude to look a person directly in the eye for more than a few seconds” and “in most European countries, the correct way to wave hello and good-bye is palm out, hand and arm stationary, fingers wagging up and down. Common American waving means ‘no’ except in Greece, where it is an insult.” Who knew?

BDA has also prepared a pamphlet for the 300,000 American students who study overseas each year. Under headings such as “You’re Not In Kansas Anymore,” the guide advises kids to keep their brains open and “take note of the culture swirling around you.” BDA is also organizing workshops, with the help of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, to preach corporate diplomacy.

Though he is determined to keep BDA nonpolitical, Mr. Reinhard is frustrated with the current administration’s intransigence on improving our treatment of visitors to America, which he considers an abomination. From our increasingly stingy visa policies to the unfriendly conduct of our border professionals, travelers from abroad are treated with near-hostility, he says. He has met with high-level administration officials, who are, he says, completely indifferent to the issue, arguing that their only concern is security. In Mr. Reinhard’s view, it would be relatively simple, and not compromising of our safety, to instruct immigration officials to smile.

BDA is relatively new, and is just gaining traction. For most of its history, America has not needed to know much about the rest of the world, and our reputation was irrelevant to the unparalleled opportunities that others saw in our country. Times have changed, and it does seem in our best interests to try a little harder.

As Mr. Reinhard says, “In marketing, when you don’t define your brand, someone else will do it for you.”

The New York Sun

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