Sunday, May 13, 2007

We Don't Want Your Business, Just Your Understanding

"We are not promoting culture for the economy, but for good and understanding," states His Royal Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi. "I would never bring tourists just for business. It is for people to understand us and vice versa. We like peace, which makes people come together. We should first come together, understand each other and peace will come. This is my main goal."

So begins the TWELVE PAGE ADVERTISING SUPPLEMENT purchased by the Emirate of Sharjah, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, in Sunday's New York Times Magazine. (Sharjah has a population of 636,000 - about the size of Baltimore, MD) Mixed among the headshots of government and business leaders with traditional male Arab headdress are smiling white people like Sue Underwood, Winfred Thompson, Peter Richards and Bertrand Giraud, proving to you that Sharjah likes Western Good and Understanding. The Times includes a disclaimer that says none of their staff were involved in the content creation of the piece and that it was the production of Summit Communications, who specialize in "raising the profile of the world's most dynamic emerging markets...through an exclusive arrangement with The New York Times."

To be assigned this job as a creative would be a nightmare. The copy is sterile, as if it's been reviewed by a very large team of editors, who were extremely sensitive to cultural and governmental concerns. Even the headlines lack any sort of "grab." Examples: A Thriving Nation that is Also a Modern and Dynamic Commercial Center and University City Takes Education to a Higher Level. How about this gem: Achieving the Best Port Operations Productivity with Speed and Safety First.

The pictures are very generic: ports, buildings and universities. More like a textbook written from a nationalist's point of view, this heavy propaganda piece makes great efforts to appeal to business leaders while attempting to dispell the Western stereotype of the Arab nation. Summit Communcations is in the business of puff pieces for The New York Times - and the client is always right. When your client is an oil-rich nation paying a giant bill, you happily do what makes them happy, swallowing your artistic pride.

And I'll go ahead and take His Royal Highness at his word; he is at least reaching out. And it had to have cost him a small fortune in production and placement. Imagine Baltimore, MD taking out a 12-page ad in the NYT mag. We don't need to go into the sex and drug trades of the UAE, and that wouldn't be fair anyway. It's not like the Los Angeles Tourism Board tries to sell you on the porn and drug industries of Southern California. (In case you're visiting Sharjah, there is exactly ONE place in the region to get a beer, an expatriate sports club and bar called Sharjah Wanderers. You won't find that in Summit's piece. Nearby Dubai is a little more lax on alcohol laws.)

So, three cheers for Sharjah and their efforts to promote good and understanding with the West. Now, maybe they can apply some of that money, power and influence by helping us find some good and understanding in Iraq.

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