As the war in Lebanon raged, the National Brands Index (read current report as pdf download) added Israel as one of 36 countries it would analyze as a “brand.” In other words, it examines in international surveys the reputation and attitudes held by individual consumers toward nations as if they were branded products. And Israel’s brand is about as low as you can go.
Here’s more from Israeltoday on the survey methodology:
The Index surveyed 25,903 online consumers across 35 countries about their perceptions of those countries across six areas of national competence: Investment and Immigration, Exports, Culture and Heritage, People, Governance and Tourism.
Anholt relates the study to the Israeli foreign ministry’s recently announced “rebranding” campaign to improve the nation’s image in the eyes of the world in the aftermath of the shellacing it took during the Lebanon war:
[He] believes that the politics of a nation can affect every single aspect of a person’s perception about a country. In the light of the recent announcement that the Israeli Foreign Ministry has taken upon itself to re-brand Israel, Anholt comments that to succeed in permanently changing the country’s image, the country has to be prepared to change its behavior. He reiterates his strong belief that a reputation cannot be constructed: it has to be earned…
The survey also indicated that Israel came last in each area by a long margin, including the fact that of the 36 countries ranked, there is nowhere that respondents would like to visit less than Israel. Worse yet, the survey indicates that Israel’s people were also voted the most unwelcoming in the world.
And there was one more unpleasant surprise: Whoever thought that the United States is Israel’s best friend and Israel is loved in the US, the index indicated that Americans ranked Israel just slightly above China in terms of its conduct in the areas of international peace and security.
Food for thought for any thinking Israeli political leader. Notice I said “thinking,” because the current crop of leadership wouldn’t know how to follow Anholt’s advice if its life depended on it. And while Tzippi Livni seems a cut above the rest of the ruling coalition, she certainly does not have the political clout to actuate any substantive changes in Israeli policy. So as far as Anholt’s directive is concerned her branding campaign is dead in the water (Anholt put it a little more diplomatically than I did).
It is worthwhile exploring what the report says about the specific reasons for Israel’s ranking:
The Israeli Government is certainly right to be concerned as the international image of the country is in very poor shape indeed. Israel’s brand is, by a considerable margin, the most negative we have ever measured in the NBI, and comes in at the bottom of the ranking on almost every question. Only Bhutan, the first ‘guest country’ we included in the NBI, achieved similarly low scores. However, this was because very few of our respondents in the 35 countries in which the survey is run had even heard of the tiny Himalayan kingdom, let alone held any firm views about it. Israel’s poor scores are clearly not the result of anonymity: it is one of the most famous countries in the world.
It is in the areas of governance that, perhaps predictably, Israel achieves its lowest scores. In response to one of the questions in this section of the survey, “how strongly do you agree with the statement that this country behaves responsibly in the areas of international peace and security?”, Israel scores lowest of all the 36 countries in the NBI. Even the U.S. panel, otherwise one of the more positive panels towards Israel, places Israel 35th out of 36 on this question (China is last).
C’mon, there must’ve been somebody somewhere in the world who likes Israel, you say. Yup, there is–Russia:
Russia gives Israel its highest rankings…On the question of international peace and security, Russia ranks Israel 20th overall.
I guess ranking Israel 20th out of 36 instead of 36th out of 36th must be some kind of blessing. But considering its recent reputation of irradiating its enemies with radioactive poisons, one wonders if Russia is company with which Israel wants to be seen.
Further survey questions plumbed international attitudes toward Israel:
One of the most significant questions in the NBI, that over the last two years we have found to be one of the best indicators of generally positive or negative feelings about countries…asks people how willing they would be to live and work for an extended period in the country.
…Here, Israel is ranked last by every panel including the Americans, and even the Russians only give it a 28th ranking. For the related tourism question about the likelihood of a respondent visiting the country if money were no object, Israel is ranked bottom overall at 35th amongst Americans and 32nd amongst Russians. When we ask whether respondents believe that the people of the country would make them feel welcome if they visited, Israel again comes bottom of the list, 29th amongst Americans and 32nd amongst Russians. [If] Israel’s intention is, as the Foreign Minister says, to promote itself as a desirable place to live and invest in, the challenge appears to be a steep one.
Considering that tourism is generally considered a significant industry for the Israeli economy (at least when there are no war clouds on the horizon), this would indicate how much more successful it could be if Israel ever became a “nation like unto all other nations,” as the early Zionist philosopher, Ahad HaAm once dreamed. Imagine how much revenue could be earned if Israel were ranked say, 10th instead of 35th.
And lest troubled Israel supporters here doubt the objectivity of the survey or its author, he even personally questions the objective basis for some of the views held by survey respondents:
But even a country like Germany, where views on Israel…are likely to be more balanced, seldom ranks Israel above the bottom 10 places in the survey. The highest ranking given to Israel by the German panel is a mere 23rd place on the question that asks whether respondents agree with the statement that ‘this country has a rich cultural ‘heritage’, a ranking which is arguably very much lower than the country objectively deserves.
But his job was not to judge whether the perceptions were based on objective criteria. His job was rather to determine what those views were. And even if you are an ardent supporter of settler nationalism, it should deeply trouble you that the world has forgotten that Israel “has a rich cultural heritage.” Actually, Israel’s heritage is one of the world’s deepest and most profound. For such a fact to be overwhelmed amongst the death and misery going on in the region is yet another one of the tragedies that stains the honor of Israelis and Palestinians alike.
In this passage, Anholt notes how fully the conflict holds Israel hostage in the eyes of the world community. Every single aspect of Israel’s image, even aspects which should not be affected by it, are.
The political aspects of the country’s image appear to be contaminating perceptions of other areas of national interest which, in theory, should be entirely unrelated. However much one might disapprove of the policies of a country’s government or even of successive governments, this shouldn’t really have any impact on one’s views of its natural landscape or its past cultural achievements. Yet the case of Israel shows that there is no absolutely impenetrable barrier between the world’s perceptions of national politics and its perceptions of national culture, society, economics, history or even geography, and if the politics create sufficient disapproval, no area of national interest is safe from contamination. America should take note.
Now, lets return to Livni’s national re-branding campaign which she announced with some fanfare a few weeks ago. On this, Anholt is savagely dismissive:
I find it inconceivable that any country can change the way the world views it as a whole purely through marketing communications and forms of deliberate propaganda…There is no evidence whatsoever…that national ‘branding campaigns’, where governments attempt to alter international perceptions of their country as a whole, have the slightest effect on the images of any countries that undertake them.
This is surely because all countries, at some level, get the reputation they deserve – either by things they have done, or by things they have failed to do – and it is astonishingly naive to imagine that the deeply rooted beliefs of entire populations can possibly be affected by advertising or public relations campaigns unless these campaigns truthfully reflect a real change in the country itself. With questions of national image, both the problem and the solution always have far more to do with the product than with the packaging…
The only thing that can permanently change a country’s image is a change in the country and in the way it behaves. As I have often said, a reputation cannot be constructed: it has to be earned.
Take that, Tzipi and you other hasbaraniks. It just won’t work. Change the substance of the policy and the improved image will flow from it.
And in case those folks I mention in the above paragraph haven’t gotten the message, the survey author reinforces it yet again:
If Israel feels, as it clearly does, that it is misunderstood and misrepresented, simply repeating its own side of the argument is unlikely to achieve very much, no matter how creatively, loudly or persuasively it does so, and no matter how much it spends on media to reinforce the argument. Fighting negative perceptions with commercial communications techniques is akin to fighting terrorism with conventional weapons…
Indeed, Anholt argues that the foreign ministry campaign won’t just ‘not work,’ it could indeed backfire and create even stronger resistance to Israel’s message throughout the world:
Public opinion on such matters tends to be largely immovable except where it is very lightly held, and this is clearly not the case with Israel…People’s views about Israel are notably passionate. Indeed, major publicity or propaganda campaigns like those Israel seems to be contemplating are likely to be counter-productive in such circumstances. The more people suspect that a foreign power is trying to make them change their minds about something, the more firmly they will believe that it is attempting to deny or conceal the truth, and the more fiercely they will maintain their views.
In this final passage, Anholt practically pleads for Israeli policymakers to rethink both their re-branding campaign and the entire rationale for their brutal strategy to fight Palestinian nationalism:
Countries are judged by what they do, not by what they say. As America is discovering to its cost, when public opinion is strongly against a country, even its most praiseworthy and disinterested actions are likely to be ignored or interpreted in a negative light. Nothing less than a sustained and comprehensive change of political, social, economic and cultural direction will ultimately result in a changed reputation. Therefore, it is no surprise if most governments feel that unpopularity is the lesser cost of the two (some even find a grim sense of vindication in their very unpopularity). It is also unsurprising that, like the Israelis, so many governments are tempted against all logic, experience or common sense to pursue the chimerical third option of directly manipulating international public opinion. But it is clear that propaganda can only work well in closed and controlled societies, and in our massively interconnected, media-literate and healthily sceptical globalised world, it is a currency whose value has fallen virtually to zero.
These are very wise words. I only wish that Israelis and their leaders would hear them and ‘harken unto them,’ as the Jewish prayer book say.
The nationalist IsraelInsider site quotes a pro-Israel activist denigrating the survey results because they were taken from July 27-August 18th, smack dab in the middle of the Lebanon war:
“Of course people didn’t think it was a good idea to come to Israel at that time,” Mizrahi said, in a note to the brand survey representatives. “Heck – not a lot of people from around the world wanted to come to NY city right after 9-11, did they? Shouldn’t you have pointed out that such a study is a snapshot of people’s opinions at the time — and that this was a highly unusual time?
To which I and Anholt would retort: the survey makes very clear that while national reputations may take a deep hit during a catastrophic event, they only bounce back to positive if the reputation was positive BEFORE the event. It seems clear that while Mizrahi’s comment has a certain validity, in the broader sense it is mostly peripheral. Israel’s already shaky reputation was further harmed by the war. But it will never bound back because it was never healthy to begin with (at least not in many years).
UPDATE: Mr. Anholt responded to my question on this subject with this statement:
“The survey was carried out at the same time as the Israeli military action against Hizbullah in Lebanon. However, it should be understood that unlike most of the research that people are accustomed to seeing on these kinds of topics, the NBI is not a public opinion survey (i.e. we don’t ask questions like “what is your view of Israel’s current military action in Lebanon?”) – it is a brand study, and rather than ask people their views on current events, the questionnaire is geared to finding out about people’s fundamental, underlying beliefs about countries (e.g. “how much do you think the government of this country contributes to international peace and security?”). Typically, these views don’t change very much over time, and even though events (such as the Danish “cartoons episode”) can create changes in the scores, they tend to go back to where they were fairly soon afterwards.
I certainly think that it would be interesting to measure Israel’s brand again in a few months time so that we can see how the scores change depending on events in the Middle East, and we might well decide to do this. However, all my past experience suggests that the changes will be undetectably small. People around the world have rather fixed views about countries which they have formulated over decades, and it’s very rare indeed for events in those countries – even major events – to affect those views in any long-term way.”
And in her final comment on NBI, she shows a complete misunderstanding of what the survey was meant to evaluate:
Multiple very reliable polls show that support for Israel in the US went UP during the war. At the same time, support for the Palestinians, Iran and Hezbollah went DOWN across Europe at that time.”
NBI was not seeking to determine whether the respondents supported Israel’s political position or military strategy. It rated how well the nation was thought of throughout the world. I may have sympathy for the political-military predicament of a particular country fighting a particular war, but that doesn’t mean that I must, perforce think very highly of that country in broader terms. Admittedly, this is a somewhat subtle distinction, but it’s one that Mizrahi missed entirely, subtlety not being a strong suit of the ultra-Israel crowd.