Israel and its people are famous for doing a lot of things really well. Putting aside all its Israel antipathies, BBC World has recently been airing a breathless segment about Israel''s incredible water conservation technologies. Israel is also famously good at startup business, digital technologies, defense tech, the arts of war, agriculture, medical technology and research, archeology, sociology, science and (counting some extremely influential Israeli emigrants) fashion and art.
But one area of excellence is conspicuously absent in Israel: communications. Israel has never been known for innovative advertising or marketing practices. On a national level, the country''s own PR efforts, which it has ludicrously labelled "hasbara," is instructively bad.
We see this phenomenon bubble over from time to time, most recently with the Ministry of Absorption''s "advertisements" that, in exhorting Israelis to return artzah, managed to denigrate Israelis abroad, American Jews and American culture all in the space of a 30-second clip.
But even more surprising than this somewhat expected bungle from a bungling ministry is private sector communications. A friend of mine, a brand expert, noted last week that Israeli shmatas company Fox''s new ad campaign actually managed to make Bar Rafaeli look ugly. Another friend, a brand design expert from the world''s leading design innovation firm, IDEO, once said that part of what keeps her from returning to Israel is the dismal state of its advertising and marketing field, in which she works.
It gives pause: a country that excels at almost everything, and against terrible odds, is really bad at doing something that it should be good at. After all, communications doesn''t require natural resources (that Israel doesn''t have). It doesn''t require massive infrastructural or capital investment. It''s not perishable, and it is fungible.
The one condition it does require, however, is the one that Israeli culture still has not achieved. This is the subtle ability to consider the audience. A good ad, marketing campaign, or public communications effort -- including public diplomacy -- has to think first about who the audience is and then about how a given text will be understood and received by that audience.
What it cannot be is a blurt -- an impulsive expression that expresses only the desires and beliefs of its utterer. But in Israel, blurting too often takes the place of communication. The angry car horn, the shouting "conversations," the inept political messaging are all the same form of expression -- which is the rabble''s expression, the expression of someone clamoring to be heard.
And this, the clamor, is in turn a product of not knowing what one really wants to say. Good advertising, marketing or PR is a result of putting the message before the money. It requires the confidence to believe that a well developed idea will eventually pay dividends, even if it doesn''t lead to an immediate sale. But the clamor for an immediate sale either leads to noise, or to abandoning the idea of intelligent communications altogether.
The Ministry of Absorption''s ads failed because the ministry was going for the quick sale. "Let''s scare them into packing their suitcases and returning home tomorrow!" seems to have been the idea. What they ended up producing was a scarily bad campaign.
Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic touched on some possible alternative approaches --for example, reminding Israelis abroad about the good things in life that are available only in Israel. It''s not a bad approach, certainly better than the current one. But it also won''t work.
Campaigning for Israel on a national level requires that Israel first understand why it is a place where Israelis (let alone Jews) should want to be -- i.e. what it has to offer. This requires understanding what Israel is, its inward definition, not as a "brand," but as an organic entity. Only once the country has stopped to think about what it has to say can it begin to have a real conversation.