My word: When diplomacy ‘ads’ up

Along with the flickering images and a tune that is hard to get out of your head, today’s ads are nearly always reinforced by a short slogan.

Obama meets Miss Israel 390 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Obama meets Miss Israel 390
(photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)
I’m not much of a cinema buff, but I have a weak spot for TV commercials which, as my mother likes to point out, are often “mini movies.” I don’t usually fall for the message, but I can appreciate the beauty of a well-made ad.
Ahead of Passover, for example, Israeli screens were full of slots for perfumes – a popular gift for Seder night hostesses. These are 30 seconds of pure escapism. The power of advertising is so strong that the commercials can apparently persuade viewers to spend their hard-earned money on the basis of an image and a brand name alone. After all, in a TV ad for a fragrance, the one sense that matters – smell – does not work. Perhaps common sense, too, is neutralized under these circumstances.
Along with the flickering images and a tune that is hard to get out of your head, today’s ads are nearly always reinforced by a short slogan.The more ads I see, the more I wonder if human copywriters haven’t been replaced by a computer that jumbles words and phrases together to come up with something that is meant to sound good rather than be meaningful.
The Diet Coca-Cola commercial, for example, urges us to “Stay extraordinary,” yet there are those who think I’m not only “extraordinary” but downright peculiar since I can’t stand the taste of Coke, with or without sugar. I have given up seeking any deep significance in the Tel Aviv-conceived Schweppes ad with its “Drink different” slogan; it just makes me want to raise a glass to commemorate the death of the adverb. And I’m still trying to figure out Renuar’s “Dressed is more” motto. More than what? If an ultra-Orthodox group promoting modesty were to put out the same message in the same words, it would probably receive a dressing down.
And here lies my problem, also, with President Barack Obama’s speech in Jerusalem last week. It was brilliant, feel-good, escapist – and full of clichés and phrases that, when you actually take the time to think about them, don’t necessarily add up. Obama’s visit, in effect, turned into one long commercial break.
Ahead of his trip, Channel 2’s Yonit Levi gained an in-depth interview with the US president, preparing the ground, like a promo for a new movie. Indeed, his whole trip took on the dimensions of a visit by a film star. And he certainly knows how to deliver his lines, even when he can’t deliver the goods.
In the March issue of the British Standpoint magazine, Andrew Roberts, analyzed the president’s second inaugural address in a piece titled “Barracked by Obama’s oratory.” He noted the banalities, common to most political speeches, but he also pointed out Obama’s own style.
“‘A decade of war is now ending,’ said the president, only two days after Islamist terrorists seized a gas plant in Algeria and killed the first of 37 innocent hostages,” Roberts points out.
If you ever wondered why Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize ahead of bringing about any peace, here you have it: The US president is excellent at promising promise. His is an eternal message of hope, and that’s certainly more attractive than a constant note of despair – even if it is not realistic. Seeing him speak is more like watching the commercials than watching the news.
I would not, of course, turn down the opportunity to interview Obama, but I think it would be more interesting – and more revealing – to spend time talking with his speechwriters.
I was not surprised to learn last month that Jon Favreau, the 31-year-old head of Obama’s speech-writing team, has chosen to stop being his master’s voice and elected to pursue a career as a Hollywood screenwriter. The required skills are clearly linked.
Obama’s visit was – at least for people not stuck in the Jerusalem traffic and public transport nightmare – a pleasant diversion. News stations around the free world carried the pictures of the president and the Israeli prime minister casually strolling together; laughed at the breakdown of one of the presidential limos, and wondered at the meaning of Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu suddenly being on “Bibi” and “Barack” terms.
In my opinion, this was part of the show – and probably much nicer than what they continue to call each other in private.
Although I’m as relieved as the next citizen that the threatened showdown between the two turned into show time, I can’t help but wonder at what we were missing while the performance was going on.
Here a few news items that almost got away as we were watching the glitzy advertising campaign.
While Obama was wowing his audience with his ability to say “you’re not alone” in Hebrew – on the day when missiles were again launched onto southern Israel from Gaza – many missed the significance of the first state visit by China’s new President Xi Jinping to Russia.
The buzzwords of friendship and common interests were heard there, too; they’re part of what Xi likes to refer to as “The Chinese dream.” Even as people followed with trepidation the financial downfall of tiny Cyprus, within the context of the breakdown of the euro, they neglected to note that part of the island is still under Turkish occupation.
Turkey, of course, was on Israeli minds this week. No sooner had Obama left, than Israel issued an apology for any “operational mistakes” in the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident almost three years ago.
Just in case we should be fooled into thinking we’re back in paradise, the first step of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was to call Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal.
Obama’s nice words – and the hard work of his speechwriters – cannot change the fact that today’s Middle East is not the same as it was when the US president was first elected. And it hasn’t changed for the better.
While the world obsesses over every building permit for every balcony in certain Jerusalem neighborhoods and suburbs, thousands upon thousands of Muslims are being killed by their brethren.
Turkish friends, and colleagues who have visited the country recently, note that today’s Istanbul is different from the one I saw on a visit when Erdogan first came to power in 2003. The Islamic – even Islamist – rise is evident in the number of women giving their own interpretation to the Renuar slogan, and covering themselves from head to toe.
Given the current meltdown in Syria, and the increasing Iranian threat, it makes sense to try to patch up the relationship with Ankara. But we should not be fooled into thinking that Erdogan suddenly has the commercial soundtrack “It’s a beautiful day” buzzing in his head.
Since the Turkish capital is now sporting huge billboards thanking the national leader for bringing about the Israeli apology, you don’t have to be an expert in either marketing or international affairs to understand what message Erdogan is trying to convey as he sells himself.
Erdogan sees Turkey as a regional superpower, the natural heir to the Ottoman Empire, and the world seems happy to let it build its influence.
(When was the last time you heard of a UN debate on the continued Turkish presence in Cyprus?) Diplomacy, after all, usually reflects common interests, not righteousness.
The danger lies in ignoring the line differentiating the real world from the screen image. It’s fine to enjoy commercials as long as you realize that they are a marketing tool, turning an imaginary life into an art form.
However much people enjoyed the positive atmosphere surrounding the Obama visit, it was a fleeting pleasure. When reality bites, more is required than good marketing, oratory skills, beautiful smiles and sound bites.Liat Collins is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.