Jewish Journal

Pro-Israel Ads Hit the Airwaves

by Joe Berkofsky

Posted on Oct. 3, 2002 at 8:00 pm

Ads trumpeting Israeli democracy and the country's cultural and political similarities to America came to TV sets nationwide.

But not without a fight.

CNN rejected requests to run the pro-Israel ads nationally, leaving the two Jewish groups behind the ads scrambling to buy air time from individual cable TV operators in local markets. The operators will be able to place the ads on CNN in local markets, but not run them throughout the country at once.

"In the end, the ads are running on CNN around the country," said Kenneth Bandler, director of public relations for the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which produced one of the ads.

The ads have been rolling out in 100 major cable TV markets. The two 30-second spots -- which together cost at least $1 million for production and air time -- are the centerpiece of an unprecedented public relations effort by American Jewish organizations to improve U.S. public perceptions of Israel.

The ads began airing in the Washington area on Sept. 12. They hit CNN and Fox News in New York and CNN and CNN Headline News in Silicon Valley in mid-September, according to spokesmen for the two groups behind the ads. The ads are set to run in these cities throughout each day through December. Beginning this month, they will appear in dozens of other top media markets as well, including Los Angeles.

"The ads emphasize that Israel is a democracy, very much like the United States," Bandler said.

The second ad, which airs in the Bay area, is being produced by Israel 21C, a group of Silicon Valley high-tech entrepreneurs based in Cupertino.

Both ads, which paint similar portraits of Israel as the lone Mideast democracy with political freedom for all its citizens, began running back-to-back last week in Washington on CNN, CNBC, Fox News and MSNBC. The ads' imagery and message are nearly identical: Israel is a pluralistic democracy and shares bedrock cultural and political values with the United States.

"Israel is America's only real ally in the Middle East," the AJC ad declared. "Israel is a democracy that respects the rights of individuals and gives all its citizens the right to vote in free and fair elections. And in Israel, unlike in other countries in the region, all people -- Christians, Muslims and Jews -- enjoy freedom of religion, press and speech."

The narrator concluded: "Israel and America -- shared values, shared visions for peace."

The audio is set against a backdrop of images including Israeli newspapers, the Israeli Parliament building, an Arab woman at a ballot box, a high-tech scene and the faces of Israelis of all ages and ethnic backgrounds.

Americans "feel a close affinity to the Israeli people because we're both democracies, and we want to build on that support," Bandler said.

Israel 21C's ad follows the same pattern.

The two ads are "virtually the same, if not identical," said Larry Weinberg, executive vice president of Israel 21C. "The whole point of our ad is that we think Americans really don't understand the true nature of Israel's democracy. Our job is to educate them about that."

That was the central theme of a public relations strategy laid out this summer by the Israel Project, a campaign led by Washington Democratic political consultant Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg and Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Mizrahi was the initial force behind the effort, stirred by what she felt were misleading media images of Israel during the Palestinian intifada. The effort included a series of focus groups and opinion surveys about Israel and the Palestinians that showed American backing for Israel slipping.

While Americans still support Israel over the Palestinians by a 4-1 margin, they have grown frustrated with Mideast violence. About 40 percent of respondents said they support both sides in the conflict equally or favor neither side, according to mid-summer polls by the Israel Project. But Americans see Israel in a more favorable light when they recognize its common values with the United States, the polls showed.

Their surveys also found that Americans reacted negatively to Israeli spokespeople who tried to deprecate Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. But Americans warmed when told of Israel's efforts to make peace, the pollsters found.

That revelation prompted the pollsters to craft a series of talking points focusing on Israel's democracy and its history of peacemaking initiatives.

The AJC ultimately signed onto the pro-Israel PR campaign, along with Israel 21C and such groups as the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella of the North American federation movement.

The public relations comes at a price. The AJC partly bankrolled the initial surveys and polls for the Israel Project, and earmarked another $500,000 for the first ad buys in the cable TV campaign, Bandler said. Together with Israel 21C's ad, the national TV campaign will cost at least $1 million, the two groups said.

It was Laszlo Mizrahi, along with Media Ad Ventures, that arranges media exposure for political candidates and issue groups, who first submitted the pro-Israel spots to CNN headquarters in Atlanta for approval.

But CNN refused. Matthew Furman, a CNN spokesman, said the network does not run "international advocacy ads concerning regions in conflict," including areas CNN reports on. In recent months CNN also refused ads by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Furman said.

Media Ad Ventures' Brad Mont said he was "surprised" by CNN's position. The ads are "very tame," Mont said. The ads "are just a very positive message about Israel."

In the end, the pro-Israel groups went to cable operators such as AT&T, Cablevision and Time-Warner to purchase air time.

The ads will still appear on CNN and elsewhere, but Laszlo Mizrahi said the national buys would have given the Israel Project the ability to pick specific times and TV shows.

While it's too early to know what kind of impact the ads will have on public opinion, the backers are optimistic.

"When Americans understand how much we have in common with Israel, it will be better for both America and Israel," Weinberg said.

Meanwhile, more pro-Israel TV spots are likely to be coming to a living room near you. The AJC is producing a second ad focusing on Israel's historic quest for peace in the Middle East -- another message that resonated well in polls -- and is working on buying TV time for that ad as well.

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