A World Beyond Spin – Re-branding Nations

Magazine article from 1940 on the New York Worlds Fair


In July Ken Silverstein of Harpers Magazine went undercover as a vaguely defined marketing figure asking lobbying companies for briefs on sprucing up the image of Turkmenistan.

I would have difficulty passing for Turkmen, I knew, so rather than approaching the firms as a representative of the government itself, I instead would be a consultant for “The Maldon Group,” a mysterious (and fictitious) firm that claimed to have a financial stake in improving Turkmenistan’s public image. We were, my story ran, a group of private investors involved in the export of natural gas from Turkmenistan to Ukrainian and other Eastern European markets. We felt it would strengthen our business position in Turkmenistan if we could convey to American policymakers and journalists just how heady were the reforms being plotted by the Berdymukhamedov government.

If flacking for Turkmenistan did not in itself trouble the lobbying firms, my description of The Maldon Group was designed to raise a number of bright red flags. Turkmenistan has vast reserves of natural gas, from which it earns about $2 billion per year in export revenues, but the whole business has been marked by flagrant corruption—as can be ascertained very quickly by anyone who cares to perform a Google search. A 2006 study by London-based Global Witness reported that Niyazov kept billions of dollars in gas revenues under his effective control in overseas accounts. “Perhaps the murkiest and most complex aspect of the Turkmen-Ukraine gas trade,” the report went on to say, is the role of the intermediary companies that have inserted themselves for more than a decade between Turkmenistan, Russia, Ukraine and Europe. These companies have often come out of nowhere, parlaying tiny amounts of start-up capital into billion-dollar deals. Their ultimate beneficial ownership has been hidden behind complex networks of trusts, holding companies and nominee directors and there is almost no public information about where their profits go.

By going undercover and creating a false identity he was attacked by members of the media in op-ed pages. An ironic twist in that one of the strategies the lobbyists mentioned was using the op-ed pages of credible news organizations to put forward a shinier, friendlier images of monstrous figures.

In addition to influencing news reports, Downen added, the firm could drum up positive op-eds in newspapers. “We can utilize some of the think-tank experts who would say, ‘On the one hand this and the other hand that,’ and we place it as a guest editorial.” Indeed, Schumacher said, APCO had someone on staff who “does nothing but that” and had succeeded in placing thousands of opinion pieces.


The new Monocle magazine has taken the re-positioning notion a step further, in an issue devoted to how nations can change how they’re perceived. “With corporate brands more powerful than country brands, there’s a lot of work out there for agencies keen to rethink a nation’s identity. Monocle looks at the construct of countries.” For example, Monocle muses, Liguria and Monaco could merge under the new brand/nation name “Costazurra”. “A failed Italy and a Grimaldi household in shambles presents the perfect opportunity for a marriage of convenience between Liguria and Monaco in 2014. If it sounds like a storyline from our manga series, it might well be, but it also gave us a starting point to do a bit of nation branding of our own. Welcome to Costazzurra – the hub of the Mediterranean.” Monocle gives tips on how a country might make a favorable impression: having an excellent airline, a snappy visual on a flag, don’t release too many postage stamps (this annoys collectors).


The communist era created powerful, visually sensational graphics and obscenely empty slogans but behind the shiny hoardings were dark secrets and deeds. In the post cold-war world it seems that Russia is trying to promote openness by being all message, no marketing. In a speech re-printed in the quaint and visually sombre (no colour, no images, no graphics, no website) INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: A Russian Journal of World Politics, Diplomacy and International Relations.[Issue Number 3. 2007] Russian leader Vladimir Putin says, in the ‘state of the union’ like address to the people instituted by Boris Yeltsin in 1993:

“The protracted economic crisis the country has gone through has had severe consequences for our country’s intelligentsia, for the situation in the arts and literature, for our people’s culture and creativity. To be honest, these difficulties have all but led to the disappearance of many of our spiritual and moral traditions. And yet, the absence of cultural beacons of our own,a dn blindly copying foreign models, will inevitably lead to us losing our national identity. As Dmitry Likhachev wrote, “State sovereignty is also defined by cultural criteria.” Having a unique cultural and spiritual identity has never stopped anyone from building a country open to the world. Russia has made a tremendous contribution to the formation of European and world culture. Our country has historically developed as a union of many peoples and cultures and the idea of a common community, a community in which people of different nationalities and religions live together, has been at the foundation of the Russian people’s spiritual outlook for many centuries now.”


In its July issue, Fast Company magazine profiled Al Gore’s media company and business interests. He’s created a new model for using business and catching the incoming wave of new media trends to create the kind of stewardship usually created by figures in government.

After the 2000 election, Joel Hyatt began talking with Gore about the sorry state of television and the role that the broadcast media play in the public sphere. “The line between news and entertainment is blurred,” as Gore now puts it. “Much of TV is mind deadening. It’s a one-way conduit of knowledge.” The two men discussed what Hyatt calls “an utter lack of innovation in the media industry” — a barely disguised oligopoly, as they saw it, controlling both content and competition. “We decided that we wanted to build a new kind of media company to democratize — small d — television first and the media industry generally,” Hyatt says. They would give viewers from 18 to 34 the means to create and control what went on the air — a user-generated model now familiar thanks to the likes of YouTube and MySpace, but a shot in the dark for TV back in 2002. [This became the company Current TV.]

…Gore sees no reason to apologize for not wanting to jump into the electoral fray. As a businessman, he can speak with a candor few successful politicians can maintain. He has made an enormous amount of money and achieved positions of influence from technology to financial services to media. He and Tipper are even setting themselves up as angel investors for a few early-stage tech companies they believe in. In doing one end run after another around the status quo, he has created a new life: a perfect amalgam of environmental activism and a new type of capitalism in which there is more than one bottom line to consider, more than one master to serve.