BEIRUT, Lebanon, (AP)- A giant billboard east of Beirut shows a dapper figure with a top hat and cane, striding across a broken bridge with the slogan: “Keep Walking.”
The advertisement is for Johnnie Walker scotch whiskey, and the bridge is a reference to the more than 90 bridges destroyed by Israeli airstrikes last summer. The billboard is just one of dozens of biting or witty ads providing commentary on the Israel-Hezbollah war by companies clamoring for a share in Lebanon’s reconstruction.
Many of the new billboards were erected by banks advertising low-interest loans — and touting the country’s entrepreneurial spirit and resiliency despite the devastation of war.
“No matter how cloudy it gets, Lebanon’s sun will shine again,” reads an ad for Bank Audi, one of the country’s leading financial institutions.
“Rise up, we’re behind you,” says another bank ad that shows a man pole-vaulting from a rubble-strewn scene into a colorful frame with a new house and car.
The country’s leading manufacturer of electronics has issued special offers on washing machines, refrigerators and other home appliances.
“Our contribution to the reconstruction of your homes,” one ad says.
More than 850 Lebanese, mostly civilians, were killed by Israeli airstrikes. About 160 Israelis also died in the fighting, which started when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.
The primary battlefield was south Lebanon, where thousands of homes, roads and other infrastructure were destroyed. Prime Minister Fuad Saniora has said more than 90 bridges were wrecked.
Bridges feature prominently in the new war-inspired billboards.
A popular yellow Hezbollah banner in south Lebanon reads: “You destroyed the bridges, so we crossed through people’s hearts.” And a local bank promises: “Together we will rebuild the bridges between today and tomorrow.”
An account executive with Pikasso, Lebanon’s leading outdoor advertising company, said it was normal for ads to reflect the mood of the nation. The latest ads aim to raise morale, she said anonymously, in keeping with company rules.
“It’s very clever — it creates a bond between the client and customer. I like it,” said Mona Hosri, 32, a graphic designer who has worked on some of the ad campaigns.
Others note that a similar ad campaign has not taken place in parts of northern Israel targeted by Hezbollah rockets during the war. Alicia Tetlow, a spokeswoman with Diageo, said Friday she did not know if there were plans to run a similar campaign in Israel.
The Johnnie Walker advertisement was by far the most popular — and most criticized. It was circulated widely on e-mail distribution lists, but some Internet bloggers said it was in poor taste, while others heralded the ad as an example of brilliantly targeted advertising.
Nayla Mubarak, creative director at the Beirut division of Leo Burnett Inc., the U.S.-based advertising agency which created the Johnnie Walker ad, said the attention the campaign received was a sign of its effectiveness.
“The message we wanted to get across is that life will go on, despite all the destruction,” she said.
Even Hezbollah has joined the advertising blitz. The guerrilla group paid a public relations firm $140,000 to design a campaign called “Divine Victory.” Hundreds of billboards have sprung up across the country — in Arabic, English and French — glorifying what many in Lebanon see as a Hezbollah victory over Israel in the 34-day war that ended with a U.N.-brokered cease-fire on Aug. 14.
Posters line the road to downtown Beirut from the country’s only international airport. Some of them feature Hezbollah fighters launching Katyusha rockets, presumably toward Israel, with the words “Divine Victory” — which in Arabic is almost an exact translation of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah’s name.
Other posters show scenes of destruction, death and wounded Lebanese children with the words: “Made in U.S.A.” and “Extremely Accurate Targets.”