Oklahoma State University - Tulsa
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OSU-Tulsa News > 2014

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

VANGUARD: Advertising as public diplomacy

Fullerton examines the role of globalized media in international relations, nation branding

Jami Fullerton

As an advertising professor and communications researcher, Dr. Jami Fullerton is interested in how advertising and other globalized media affect international relations. She investigates the relationship through the concept of nation branding.

“Nation branding is at the intersection of public diplomacy and marketing. Essentially, the same strategies and tactics we use in marketing and brand management can be applied to cities, states and nations,” says Fullerton, OSU-Tulsa professor and Peggy Welch Chair in the OSU School of Media and Strategic Communications. “I’m very interested in how all of these areas converge through the use of strategic communication.”

Fullerton and her research partner, Dr. Alice Kendrick, professor of advertising at Southern Methodist University, recently published a study in American Behavioral Scientist measuring the impact of the federal government’s “Brand USA” tourism campaign on Australians’ opinions of the United States.

“In the wake of the 2008 economic downturn, President Barack Obama saw international tourism as one way to improve the U.S. economy,” says Fullerton. “The idea was to bring foreign dollars to our shores since the average international tourist spends about $4,000 per visit.”

The Travel Promotion Act of 2009 established The Corporation for Travel Promotion, a public-private partnership that was later dubbed Brand USA. The bill created a multi-million dollar global marketing effort to promote the U.S. as a travel destination, including a “Land of Dreams” television commercial, which prompted the online experimental study. 

As a visiting scholar at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, during the fall of 2012, Fullerton had a unique opportunity to test the commercials on one of the campaign’s intended targets.

“We thought that by reaching out to people in other countries with these tourism commercials, even to those who will never visit, might also result in a more favorable international opinion of our country,” she says.

Fullerton tested a representative sample of Australian adults to measure their interest in travel to the U.S. and attitudes toward the U.S. government and U.S. people both before and after watching the “Land of Dreams” commercial to evaluate if it would change their views.

“While we were interested in whether the ‘Land of Dreams’ commercial increased desire to travel to the United States, we also wanted to know if Australians expressed more positive views about America after seeing the spot,” says Fullerton. “We found the commercial appeared to do double duty for government and industry, both in terms of piquing interest in travel to the U.S. and as a catalyst for goodwill.”

This latest research is an extension of the work Fullerton has been doing for over a decade. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she became interested in understanding how the strategic use of global media could play a role in changing international opinions of the U.S.

“One of the big topics after 9/11 was why do they hate us so much and what can we do to change that,” says Fullerton. “It seemed to me that there was an opportunity for America to improve its image abroad through some good strategic communications efforts. Secretary of State Colin Powell agreed and brought a famous advertising executive, Charlotte Beers, to Washington to serve as undersecretary of public diplomacy. Powell said that he wanted to ‘re-brand’ America. ”

Soon after the 9/11 attacks, under Beers’ oversight, the U.S. Department of State launched the Shared Values Initiative, a campaign meant to dispel myths about the treatment of Muslims in America. The campaign, containing a series of ads featuring real Muslim Americans leading happy and productive lives in the U.S., was briefly broadcast in several Middle Eastern and Asian countries before being disbanded.

“People in the media, in Congress and elsewhere were saying this was a terrible idea, this would never work, but nobody seemed to have any data to prove it,” says Fullerton. “Since we are in the business of testing communications messages, we decided to conduct the research.”

She and Kendrick conducted a series of tests among international college students and ultimately found the ads worked in improving attitudes toward the U.S. within their experimental study.

“I was a skeptic at first because the idea was so unorthodox, but we found that the advertising campaign moved the needle in regards to opinions of the U.S.,” says Fullerton. “It improved favorability scores by a statistically significant amount. That doesn’t mean that they went from hating us to loving us, but they went from really hating us to only kind of hating us.”

Fullerton and Kendrick published their findings in a number of peer-reviewed research journals and in their 2006 book, Advertising’s War on Terrorism: The Story of the U.S. State Department’s Shared Values Initiative.

Fullerton has received numerous awards for her research, including the national Headliner Award in 2007 from the Association of Women in Communications and the 2008 Tulsa Newsmaker award. Recently, she received the 2013 OSU-Tulsa President’s Outstanding Faculty Research Award and was honored by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication at its 2013 annual conference in Washington, D.C.

Ultimately it’s being able to present useful research that motivates Fullerton. She hopes that lawmakers will utilize her findings to influence policy decisions and implement strategies that will benefit the U.S.

“If you don’t have good data, how can you make good decisions?” she asked. “We have suggested to the U.S. government that programs like Brand USA will not only impact the economy and thus achieve the objectives of the Commerce Department, but also address strategies at the State Department, whose goal it is to win the hearts and minds of people overseas. In that way, the communications program is benefitting our country on two fronts.”

Fullerton plans to expand her research on Brand USA to other countries targeted by the tourism promotional campaign to see if her findings in Australia hold up elsewhere. She also wants to expand into other aspects of public diplomacy and nation branding, examining how government messages can be disseminated to international audiences using new media, and the effects that exported media like movies, videogames and music have on perceptions of the U.S.

“This research is an opportunity to use the knowledge we have about marketing communications to impact global relations,” says Fullerton. “Working in this research area makes me feel like I’m really making a difference in the world, even if it is just in a small way.”

This story originally ran in the 2014 issue of Vanguard.

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