Tim Love's World

Tim Love's Blog

March 22, 2015
Ugly American: Uglier Than Ever

This month we witnessed a collision of examples that the "Ugly American" is alive and well, propagating disturbing perceptions of American culture across the planet. This was 1) a rogue, open letter from 47 US Senators to the Islamic Republic of Iran undermining nuclear disarmament talks taking place between US State Department officials, our international partners and Iran, 2) a video of a US college fraternity exhibiting abhorrent racial bias and insensitivity that has gone viral; 3) questioning of a former Secretary of State and former Governor of Florida, both potential presidential candidates, for maintaining private email servers enabling them to communicate with less accountability than with servers provided them as government representatives and 4) an act of vandalism on the Coliseum in Rome Italy by two young female American tourists that also went viral. These events sum up a deadly combination of ignorance, incivility and arrogance, which sorely misrepresent our country.

America's image and brands overseas have been tarnished before by our lack of cultural and historical insight and the unforgivable behavior of a few who represent America. Foreign impressions of the U.S. are shaped by the programs we have contrived to amuse, educate or entertain ourselves, and by what they can see of the U.S. in the media they consume. Our positive achievements as well as events like the Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, issues around the offshore prison at Guantanamo and our ongoing internal conflicts over race are part of the information flow from which our image is perceived.

A key concern is the rapidly changing context for perception that is insidiously enabling greater visibility of any country, company or individual's character and image. This means we need to be more self-aware and get much better at self-regulating how we communicate and behave. Whether you are a company, governing body, religion or individual it is essential to be more conscious and conscientious of one's values and how they are being communicated in the growing and more far-reaching context in which they are perceived.

Throughout our history, there is a long-stated belief that our value system is based on the principle that 'all men are created equal' and are endowed with certain inalienable rights. If these rights are to hold, we must give everyone - here and abroad - the same respect we hold for ourselves.

A war of ideas is being waged today. Game-changing communication technology is fueling the question over who has authority for ideas and how, or should, it be regulated. This technology has made people and their community of friends, family and other individuals, the first media.

This attempt to shed light on what is happening to America's image and brands comes from my area of expertise, international marketing communications, not a political background. Brands, like great societies or companies, crumble from within more often than yielding to some attack from abroad. The worst thing we can do is to loose sight of who we are and not pay attention to what our words and actions say about us.

The Ugly American

"The Ugly American" is a 1958 fictional account of American arrogance, incompetence and corruption in Southeast Asia. The book became a runaway best seller and ultimately a movie. It portrayed the American Foreign Service community, politicians and businessmen as insensitive and unwilling to learn or even acknowledge local cultural differences. The title became an idiom for the stereotypical American traveler abroad who is oblivious of foreign cultures.

History tells us these warnings were generally not embraced, even ignored in Washington DC. Yet, the book became required reading for American Peace Corps volunteers along with Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People." The Peace Corps became one of our most successful initiatives in U.S. foreign relations history.

Changing Context for Brands, People, Even Nations

The international marketing communications industry has learned from its study of belief dynamics: that a person's perceptions are what lead to their beliefs and their beliefs are what lead to their behaviors. Therefore it is critically important to understand the beliefs a person has that are fueling their behavior. Equally important is to understand the perceptions they have or to test new ideas that can alter existing belief systems. It underlies the reason Nelson Mandela said, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." Advertising and marketing communication are forms of education intended to create perceptions.

We all know that freedom of internet access is shifting power away from centralized institutions, traditional content-creating media and information authorities (like books,newspapers, television, radio or even governments). These entities have not gone away, they simply have become a part of the broad spectrum of information individuals tap into with control of information they gain from access to the worldwide web. This is well accepted in the field of marketing communications. Individuals and special interest groups are having more power, more voice. Individuals can create their own content and control the information they allow themselves to receive, but have less control over the content in an increasingly expanding public domain.

As with prior advances in information transfer, from the printed word of books which the Gutenberg Press gave us, to the telephone, radio and television, each advancement has caused a reset in who has the authority for ideas. The Reformation, which was sparked by books, gave people access to ideas different from the dogma of religions or other kinds of leaders. Today the reset of who has authority for ideas is happening as greater control of communications is dispersed via the internet to individuals. This is why marketing specialists say the first media today is people, now commonly referred to as social media. Individuals and their network of personal friends and contacts play a heightened role in who has the authority for ideas.

As access to information explodes with advances there is a whole new environment for brands, people, companies and even nations to communicate in. Developed countries like the U.S., Germany, the U.K., France, Italy, Canada, Australia, Japan and Korea, which represent approximately 1.5 billion of the world's 7.1 billion population, already have well developed levels of internet penetration.

Developing markets, where the remaining 5.6 billion people live, are seeing a dramatic leapfrog effect forward. With lower cost smart phones, these geographies are able to gain access without a desktop, laptop or landline. Their shift in the authority for ideas from prior media and institutions to less centralized, individual control of ideas is therefore more severe and wrenching.

There is no hiding

Increased internet access globally has made our individual actions and ideas far more observable. American-originated content is far more dominant with increasing media proliferation overseas than foreign content growth within US media. America's image overseas is greatly influenced by what people see from US content even though that content is not expressly intended for their eyes. Many observers who experience America from this content perceive it as a form of propaganda, proselytizing a culture of ideas that threatens their existing belief systems.

It is like secondhand smoke. Until it was pointed out to us that secondhand smoke was extremely unhealthy for non-smokers, smokers were unaware and insensitive to how their habit was impacting others. As awareness of this grew, we eventually adopted ways to regulate smoking behavior.

The secondhand effect of our communications represented in U.S.-originated content has not registered the concern it should with the American public. The secondhand effect of our communications may be more apparent if you are regularly operating outside the U.S., but we cannot turn a blind eye to it. Our Foreign Service representatives are acutely aware of the secondhand effects of American content, both positive and negative.

On the question of who discovered water, we are pretty sure it was not the fish. Our perceptual context, our fishbowls, is insidiously changed by the new methods of communications. Like all prior advances that reset the authority for ideas, abuses of information exchange occur.

The early days of newspapers, radio and television, each enabled exploitations. Each ultimately needed to have some form of self-regulation plus government guidelines to protect people from misinformation, exaggeration or false messages. A key issue today is how do you regulate when content is increasingly created by individuals? The challenge in a democratically driven society where dystopian control is untenable is to gain broad acceptance of the responsibility we have in creating the more interdependent and transparent environment want to live in.

The Republican Senators' letter opens somewhat arrogantly:

"It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with
our government that you may not understand our constitutional system."

Further on, the letter threatens:

"We will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program
that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement
between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president
could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future
Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time."

This was not an appeal to improve dialogue. Rather, it was about who has the authority for ideas for achieving an agreement with Iran. It is strong evidence of a disingenuous absence of strategic consistency and collaboration among America's leaders and the culture that freely elected them.

The letter has been perceived as insulting and disrespectful to those of both U.S. political parties who have been involved in the deliberations. The Editorial Board of the New York Times said, "[the letter] undermines our freely elected Commander in Chief and the State Department officials who have been authorized to have discussions to protect our security." Partner countries that have been engaged in the talks with us have expressed dismay over what appears to be internecine internal politics given the exclusively Republican, origin of the letter. Importantly, Iranian leaders reacted promptly by demonstrating their superior understanding of international law versus the ideas expressed in the Senate letter. The letter represents an inelegant, ugly way to signal US willingness to resolve conflict without bloodshed.

The letter incident is not entirely surprising given its source from people with relatively little experience communicating across-cultures (or even across the aisles of Congress.) Foreign affairs are typically not a required skill set of Congress, which is why we established the Department of State early in our history.

There is appallingly little effort made to orient our elected officials on international cultural understanding. Nonetheless, we expect them to represent America with diplomacy, humility and insight. Perhaps they should have the same instruction we provide the Peace Corps and our Foreign Service representatives.

Despite our history as a "melting pot" of races and nations, America has little firsthand experience with foreign cultures. Only 30% of Americans have a passport, which includes the military. This has increased since 9/11 when it was only about 18% and well up compared to1989 when only 3% of Americans had passports.

Of Americans with passports today, it is estimated 86% have visited Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, hardly immersing themselves in foreign cultures. The next most visited places are England, Ireland, Italy and Germany, which are the largest heritage groups in America. No wonder America might be a little out of touch with other cultures and is perceived as arrogant.

President Eisenhower famously suggested during the time The Ugly American was published: "Whatever America hopes to come to pass in the world must first happen in the heart of America." On that basis, the Senate letter communicates a discordance in America's intent to resolve differences on a domestic and international level. The Editorial Board of the New York Times called the letter "a blatant, dangerous effort to undercut the President on a grave national security issue."

Senator John McCain, a Republican voice of significant stature and respect supported the letter to raise concerns about the deliberations with Iran. He later acknowledged on Fox News "maybe this wasn't exactly the best way to do that." We all have a responsibility in representing America in a more interconnected and interdependent world.

More Evidence of American Culture

Unfortunately, another powerful evidence of American ugliness exposed via advanced communications technology is last week's video of U.S. college fraternity students' unconscionable celebration of bigotry.

At the core of the American value system is an inspiring and appealing belief that "all men are created equal." It is the most fundamental tenet of our American belief system. However, there is a disconnect between perception and reality in America which is being seen across the globe.

Then, two young American women tourists were caught carving their names into the Colisseum. They and the students exposed in the bigotry video may have never expected their behavior would be observed or have such rapid and far-reaching negative impact, but they should have. They are the generation of "selfies" and can hardly plead ignorance.

Finally, there has been much in our news questioning former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and former Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, for maintaining their own private email servers in addition to the servers provided them as government representatives. Both of these potential presidential candidates have acknowledged they used their private servers for some government-related communications. The issue is whether this enabled them to be less accountable for their government-related communications.

What we can do

In 1958, Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas called "The Ugly American" book "sterile, devoid of insight, reckless and irresponsible." What was truly irresponsible was how little impact the book had on our international diplomacy and strategies leading into the subsequent war in Vietnam. What is irresponsible of America today is that we still seem to be oblivious of our reckless behavior in a world made more interdependent and connected.

I came away from my career in international advertising with an insatiable desire to understand cultural differences before making judgments. It taught me, we can do far better than to assume we all think the same or that our communications are containable.

I came away from my career of working in international advertising with an insatiable desire to understand cultural differences before making judgments. It taught me, we can do far better than to assume we all think the same or that our communications are containable.

The experience of seeking favor internationally for American brands taught me that America is less a location than a set of principles and values which have inspired tremendous appeal across the planet. People want to come to America, but they are increasingly observing a disconnect between what we say and what we do. This provides dangerous ammunition for those who don't share our expressed values, like ISIS, and who now have equal power to communicate and propagate their own messages and to redefine our actions as evidence of false character.

Einstein said the most important decision one can make is to decide whether the universe is friendly or not. It is hard to overcome ideas of fear, borne by evidences of unfriendliness from human history. Yet, overcoming centuries of multicultural discord is made more possible by the increasing access digital communications enable in connecting us together into a more diverse community of people and ideas.

Outside the U.S., America's dominance in the evolving communications landscape is considered more and more as cultural propaganda for better or worse. Freedom of speech is a remarkably positive tool and the public outcry over the letter to Iran, the ugly celebration of bigotry video, our concern over the integrity of our public servants and reactions to those who defaced the Colisseum shows that we are not insensitive.

These incidents indicate there is much all of us need to learn about our role in better conveying the appealing founding tenets of our culture. More often than not, everybody is watching:

"On spaceship earth, there are no passengers-everybody is a member
of the crew. We have moved into an age which everybody's activities
affect everybody else."

Marshall McLuhan on Earth Day 1969

We can no longer assume we all think the same. We can no longer assume our words and actions are only communicating where we intend. In fact it is dangerous to do so. Our economy and personal security, as well as our nation's, are at stake.

Tim Love

March 17, 2015
Ugly American: Uglier Than Ever