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Selling Iraq While Lebanon Burns

There they are -- smiling Iraqi faces praising the military liberation of their country in ads that started airing Friday on CNBC, MSNBC and Fox News.
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The commercial features a 30-second blitzkrieg of images -- young Iraqi boys in nicely-pressed shirts waving American flags; vaguely attractive women, smiling in colorful robes and headscarves; a young man of military age holding out a finger dipped in purple ink.

Many wave American flags. They all say "thank you" to their American viewers. And they all tout the country they call "the other Iraq" -- the country's northern area, Kurdistan.

And I saw this moving commercial Monday -- smack dab in the middle of Fox News' interviews with Israeli soldiers returning from a raid in Lebanon.

Organizers say it is an accident of timing that the first big commercial buy from the Kurdistan Development Corp. to sell American companies on investment in the other Iraq comes just as the outbreak of armed conflict between the Israelis and Hezbollah has some pundits tossing around comparisons to World War III.

But there they are -- smiling Iraqi faces praising the military liberation of their country in ads that started airing Friday on CNBC, MSNBC and Fox News (CNN, which has a policy against airing such ads from places in open conflict, suspended the KDC's ad buy for the mother channel and CNN Headline News).

To the bystander, it may seem like placing an airline advertisement next to newspaper coverage of a plane crash. But the KDC's irrepressible American PR representative, Sacramento-based Sal Russo, sees an opportunity where others might see a horribly misplaced commercial buy.

"It creates such a contrast, it gets people's attention," said Russo of the ads, which were test marketed to American consumers in November. "The biggest difficulty of any advertising campaign is to get people's attention. Well, the world's attention is riveted on the Middle East. And they have a terrific story to tell."

Certainly, it seemed that way last year when Russo and his partners at Sacramento-based Russo, Marsh and Rogers were developing "the Other Iraq" campaign. Announced in November, the effort includes three different TV commercials developed for American and British audiences, a slick-looking Web site, a list of contacts in America and abroad, and a cheery list of all the positive developments going on in Iraq.

But the delay in organizing the Iraqi government made KDC -- a partnership between private investors in Kurdistan and the three regional governments which control the area -- wait to roll out its campaign. Then there was the need for a private investment law, recently passed, to reduce the need for a network of informal alliances to enforce investment agreements.

And just as the KDC was about to air ads nationally and in key cities such as Washington and San Francisco, Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers and began firing rockets into the country -- attracting reporters from every major news outlets and ratcheting up tensions about the Middle East across the globe.

Now, images of Iraqi children playing in green fields and being hoisted on the shoulders of American soldiers are sandwiched in-between reports on civilians killed and wounded by severe shelling in Lebanon and Israeli fears that Hezbollah has activated sleeper cells abroad to attack their interests.

"We decided, you can't ignore the fact that it's been a violent region," said Russo, who noted there was a brief debate about delaying the commercial buys three weeks ago. "(The ads) run counter to perceptions, so they're much more attention-getting. But before someone will spend their money there, they've got to get over the fact there's violence in the region."

Russo touts 15 years of democracy in Kurdistan and the fact that no American or coalition soldier has been killed in areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government. But an April UPI story noted that Kurdistan still needs to become more transparent, less corrupt and more dependable to attract foriegn investment.

"The ads are very glossy and very nice and very compelling. It's a very moving kind of campaign, but the Kurds still face some serious problems," Vance Serchuk, a research scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, told UPI. "I don't think friends of Kurdistan do them any favors by whitewashing that fact."
"I don't think that criticism is fair," said Russo. "You have a democracy in its infancy. It was an area that Saddam Hussein punished, so they didn't get the economic development they deserved. But they show there can be a shining city on the hill in the Middle East."

Perhaps. But they better learn to pick a better time to advertise.

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