08/28/2012 11:57 am ET Updated Oct 28, 2012

A Sense of What Can Be

Every election cycle the campaigns get longer, louder, and more expensive. For the advertising business, these are very profitable seasons. Billions of dollars are poured onto the airwaves, newspapers, and the web to shout out the exaggerated failings of our opponents. It is ugly and, as the political rhetoric spews across every channel, print and webpage, it's really no wonder that our polls show grave dissatisfaction, a sense of failing, and a feeling that our nation is heading in the wrong direction. After all, it only makes sense that if we turn on a firehouse of negative marketing telling us we're led by wasteful, cruel, insensitive and irresponsible people, we'll probably believe it. Advertising does work.

But as we head into the convention season, I'm looking at the results of another advertising campaign that tells a very different story about our nation. In 2009, the Obama Administration and Congress, in a rare and admirable act of bipartisanship,came together and passed the Travel Promotion Act, which put aside a relatively small amount of money to promote travel in the U.S. Why? Well, for starters, as every country from Turkey to Thailand to Bermuda has been inviting you to visit, we've been the only industrialized nation without a travel ministry. We believed tourists would simply come, because they always had. But over the past ten years our share of global tourism has plummeted, declining by a stunning 37 percent from 2000 to 2010 (U.S. Travel Association). San Francisco, The Grand Canyon, New Orleans were no longer the draw they once had been. Foreigners thought they could see the best of America on TV or in the movies, and the thought of facing a welcoming committee of wary Homeland Security officials had travelers worrying they might wind up in Guantanamo Bay thanks to a typo on some terrorist watch list. We were losing hoards of visitors to vibrant new economies like Shanghai and Mumbai and exotic places like New Zealand and Bora Bora. Without those visitors we were also losing jobs -- an estimated 467,000 annually. The associated economic toll is estimated to be $606 billion in lost spending. The good news is that it only takes 33 overseas tourists to create one new job in America, less than a plane full. Unfortunately, those planes are now landing somewhere else.

So together with our client, the newly created tourism entity, Brand USA, we launched an advertising campaign in the hopes of welcoming foreigners back to our shores. We executed it across every media: television, print, outdoor, digital, and social. It was a very exciting, once in a lifetime assignment, and with a modest budget, we've already been amazed by the results. Not only in the numbers of tourists we're attracting (intent to travel to the U.S. is up by as much as 19 percent in our initial target markets) -- but even more importantly, in the sentiments aroused about our country from foreigners who'd not been raised reciting the words to the National Anthem and had never heard "The Star Spangled Banner." With only a little encouragement, these people shared what America meant to them, the values and ideals that are so ingrained in our own identity, so taken for granted, that it was actually a surprise for us to hear them said anew. Someone from Japan wrote that our campaign reminded them that America is "a place where you always feel welcome." A person from England wrote that they felt our country was "a place with limitless possibilities." Comments came flooding in from around the world: "Thank you for the freedom you made me feel here", "This is the USA the world loves", "It's settled, next vacation I'm going to America." People used words like "adventurous," "energetic," and "optimistic," to describe their feelings about America upon seeing our commercials, and our whole team was energized by the excitement of bringing these potent ideas to life for the world.

This campaign proved that America's ideals, our principles, and our spirit can still inspire the world. That is one of the fundamental things that makes our country so great. It was another foreigner, Margaret Thatcher, who said, "Europeans define themselves by what has been, Americans by what can be." It was an honor to remind the world, through this campaign, and through the richness of our country, a sense of what can be.

In looking at the work we have created and the powerfully evocative quotes it inspired from so many people in so many countries, I'm left with a very simple hope. As the political conventions begin and the rhetoric heats up, let us take some time to pause and reflect on the many blessings we have here in America. No matter our differences, let's recognize what we share. Before we scream venomous invective, vitriol and discord, let's spend at least a little time reflecting on the common ground of our shared ideals. Because they are powerful. Both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan spoke of this land as a city on a hill, with the eyes of all the world's people upon us. Let's keep that in mind as we speak to one another in the coming weeks.

It's interesting to me that both of our presidential candidates had fathers who were born in foreign lands, one in Kenya, one in Mexico. They ultimately both found themselves in America because our nation truly is a land of limitless possibilities.

Let us act in these days ahead as the nation the world wants us to be. Let's remember our values, have pride in our common strengths, and treat each other respectfully and civilly. Because the world will be watching, and if we can't rise above our differences, if we are shrill and nasty, petty and divisive, well, they'll probably end up on the next flight to Bora Bora.