Can Charlotte Beers Sell Uncle Sam?

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When Colin Powell went before Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee wanting to know just what America could do to reverse the image of America as the Great Satan in the Arab world, he found himself explaining his choice of former advertising executive Charlotte Beers to fill the position of Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy. "Well, guess what? She got me to buy Uncle Ben's rice and so there is nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something."

Unless Powell hated instant rice before Beers worked her magic, the analogy is undercooked. The former head of both Ogilvy & Mather and J. Walter Thompson became famous for "branding" products like American Express. Now Beers has to rebrand Osama bin Laden as a mass murderer to millions of Muslims who have never seen a 767 or a skyscraper, much less one flying into the other. She has to do it in languages, like Pashto and Dari, that don't even have a word for terrorist. And all this without having control over Voice of America or Radio Free Europe.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]This would be a tall order for anyone, much less someone with no diplomatic experience whose tools at her disposal don't even work that well when you are just trying to make Uncle Sam all warm and fuzzy. Still, she's doing what she can with leaflets and rapid response. Bin Laden had his say unanswered the first time, but she's been ready with Yankee counter-programming since, shuttling Powell, Condoleeza Rice and, most recently, former Syrian ambassador, Chris Ross, over to Washington's Al Jazeera studios on quick notice. Minutes after bin Laden's latest tape was aired, Ross was taking it apart in fluent Arabic and participating in an international panel of talking heads afterwards.

Then there's the signature publication. In her soft Texas voice, Beers, 66, described the centerpiece of her effort, a just-completed 24-page booklet, available in print and on the Internet, in 14 languages, which features graphic pictures of the Sept. 11 attack, and uses bin Laden's own words to accuse him of masterminding it. She is also working with the Ad Council to create a poster to be plastered all over Arab countries when the current $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest of the Most Wanted Terrorists goes to $25 million. Although she told TIME "sell might not be the operative word" for what she's doing, she does resort to ad-speak when describing her efforts, calling the U.S. "an "elegant brand" and the President and secretary of state "symbols of the brand." she's looking beyond the guys in the suits to getting "a great athlete, celebrity or singer." She has NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon on the line to cut some spots.

When Beers was nominated last spring — a lifetime ago — an all-star ad exec looked like just the ticket for a post that has long been a high-level plum akin to an ambassadorship, or a harmless halfway house for political appointees. Beers's predecessor, Evelyn Lieberman, was exiled there after a brave (but fruitless) effort to keep the president and Monica apart in the White House. Post-Sept. 11, with the battle for the Arab street to whom Osama is a hero almost as important as the battle to capture Jalalabad, the job seems to call more for a minister of propaganda employing psychological warfare than someone employing a Madison Avenue soft sell.

Up to now, Beers has failed at nothing. Starting as a lowly account executive 30 years ago, Beers is the only woman to head two of the largest advertising agencies. She was one of the few women to ever appear on Fortune's cover, legendary for wooing clients, once successfully pitching Sears while taking apart a power drill (and putting it back together again without chipping a nail). Last spring when Powell, who'd gotten to know her on various corporate boards recruited her, she had retired to West Palm Beach, Florida, with her white toy poodle. Recently remarried to a New York art dealer and confirmed on Oct. 2, her salary may be a governmental $133,700 but she lives like royalty, buying one house in Georgetown and then another down the street she liked better. Glamorous compared to Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Madeleine Albright, Beers is close friends with Martha Stewart, dreams of being a country-western singer and favors body length scarves, Jackie O sunglasses (indoors), and puffy bows the size of Uzbekistan around her neck.

In a press conference last week, Beers fidgeted and looked off to the side while Assistant Secretary Richard Boucher was introducing her and bit her lip when he stepped in to field tough questions. "Out of the box" is the explanation throughout the building for how the new undersecretary approaches her job, as her staff seeks to shield her from a "media buzzsaw" that might take as metaphor her dropping a syllable from Islamabad and her comment that a 30% conversion rate for Muslims is a "sales curve any corporation would envy." They insist that Beers is a quick study who should not be judged yet. Impressions of America that took hundreds of years to form will take more than a few months to counter. Still, Beers and pamphleteering might have been Fine before Sept. 11. But that was then and this is now. Uncle Sam is a harder sell these days then Uncle Ben ever was.