- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 30, 2002

The Saudi Arabian brand name is not an easy sell in America.
To counter what they believe is an American media and cultural bias against their country, the Saudis have embarked upon a reinvention of their image with mixed results.
"The People of Saudi Arabia: Allies Against Terrorism" a $10 million TV campaign that uses quotes from President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to drive home the Saudis' message has met roadblocks. Some cable channels won't air the pair of 30-second commercials, already called "controversial" by one media group, despite their lucrative potential.
"The idea behind this is that the media here does not portray the Saudis in a favorable light," said a spokesman from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia yesterday. "News reports say we haven't closed terrorist-related bank accounts, or that we have closed our air bases to America and are not doing our part. This is all untrue."
Qorvis, the public relations agency with offices in McLean and the District that produced the TV spots, used direct quotes from American leaders to enhance a sense of Saudi allegiance. With the aid of sophisticated graphics, the ads try to "correct" misunderstood statements on the screen.
The ad shows a "misquote" from Mr. Bush that reads, "The Saudi Arabians have been less than cooperative." The ad then corrects the phrase to read, "They have been nothing less than cooperative."
Which is accurate? In a press conference Sept. 25, Mr. Bush said that Saudi Arabia has been "nothing but cooperative" in the war on terrorism, later adding, "There's been no indication, as far as I'm concerned, that the Saudis won't cooperate once they understand exactly our mission."
It is a delicate business.
"We are not using our words, but those of President Bush and Mr. Powell," the Saudi spokesman added. "We are following the recommendations of our public relations agency, who know the American mind-set better than we do."
Still, the TV spots did not sit well with leery cable networks, according to Electronic Media (www.emonline.com), a print and broadcast media analysis site. No one, apparently, wants to be first to take the money and add credibility to the Saudi cause.
A&E;, AMC, Bravo, History Channel, Lifetime, USA Network and the Weather Channel have turned down the spots, which could mean as much as $400,000 in revenue for each network.
None disputed the taste or aesthetics of the messages. The content, however, set off alarms. One "major" network consulted with its legal department before turning the spots down as "not appropriate." Another network said its "standards" forbade the ads, and a third said the ads sparked a "raging debate" in-house but were turned down anyway.
But elsewhere, money talks.
The Saudi spokesman said the ads are slated to run in smaller markets in every state but New York and California, and are running at several Internet sites.
According to Electronic Media, the ads were placed in 21 local markets. The ads, though inserted on regional systems, may "appear to be" originating from national networks.
"They're trying to get in the back door," one network spokesman grumbled.
Meanwhile, the Saudi image problem persists. Sundry polls reveal that Americans already hard-pressed to differentiate between Middle Eastern countries have some uncomfortable feelings about Saudis.
A Fox News poll taken in mid-April found that 54 percent of the respondents said Saudi Arabia was not "a friend."
A CNN/Gallup poll released in March found that 75 percent believe the Saudis are not "trustworthy," and 63 percent said they are not "friendly." Also, 68 percent said they are "arrogant."
But Americans are unsure: The same poll found that 19 percent reacted "somewhat favorably" to Saudi Arabia, 29 percent "somewhat unfavorably" and 24 percent "very unfavorably." Twenty percent simply didn't know.
The cable TV campaign is just one side of the Saudi public relations outreach, though.
The Qorvis agency has been hired to target "the average American" in print and broadcast for about a year. Ads have appeared in several major newspapers and magazines that include a dove of peace and the phrase "two nations, one goal" and the American and Saudi flags.
The campaign strategy also will include an emphasis on "values we share."
Once those values and commonalities are determined and creatively packaged, will Americans buy it? Time and media clutter will determine that.
Some believe the Saudis have only modest gains in mind. "The hope is to give balance to the Saudi image," media buyer Barbie Johnson told Electronic Media.
Better relations with the American heartland, however, remains on the Saudi wish list, even as diplomatic relations in the Middle East grow ever more complicated.
"I believe the Saudi relationship with America will fail or continue, based on how successful we are to reach the Americans in their homes and villages," Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan said earlier this year.
"If we fail there, everything we do with the American body politic, with the elites, government to government, will be irrelevant," he said.

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