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Lebanese Advertising: Manipulating the Post-War Spirit | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- Lebanese advertising industry, both audio and visual, changes depending on the country’s mercurial moods and protean political events. Last year, advertisements were primarily focused on notions of independence and freedom, with slogans such as “each to his own words” and “everyone has the right to do what they want”. But today, advertisements have sharply shifted their emphasis onto the reconstruction and revival of Lebanon. Almost every political or commercial advertisement in Lebanon nowadays articulates the people’s desire to see their country flourish and be prosperous once again, whether expressed on television, radio, or on street billboards. Advertisements assure citizens that their yearning for rapid reconstruction is supported – but they must remember to either pay, or elect [particular representatives] in return for it. A political party rebuilding a plundered bridge adopted the motto: “They destroy, we build. Our hope is eternal”. One bank tells the people, “We will build bridges with you,” but what is the price for that?

Upon the return of the displaced Lebanese from their forced exile after the recent Israeli war, the first vision to greet them on the plundered roads was that of billboards (mainly belonging to banks) pledging to rebuild what had been destroyed with unanimous determination. A billboard carried the word “dammar” (destruction), where the first letter of the word was dropped and replaced with the Arabic letter ‘e’ so that the word became “e’mar” (reconstruction). With a simple play on letters, the situation is transformed, changing the negative into positive. Another billboard bore the slogan: “He who has reconstructed once, will reconstruct again”, displaying the dates of previous wars that had once devastated the small country. Another billboard had the image of a bridge being rebuilt with the caption, “together, we build the bridges between today and tomorrow,” underneath. This intensity in advertising, both in number and spirit reassures Lebanon’s citizens, who had returned from their painful journeys frightened, disheartened and mourning the loss of their lifetime achievements that had become nothing but rubble. Such advertisements tell their viewer that there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, that matters are not as tragic as initially assumed, and that the rebuilding of ravaged houses is a seemingly easy task. Advertising efficacy is empowering to a dispirited pedestrian on a damaged road.

But the advertising industry is not new; it is as old as history itself. Starting out with naive and rudimentary methods, it continued to develop until it reached today’s level of effectiveness and presence. Perhaps messengers who were dispatched by kings and rulers in ancient times to inform the masses of imperial decrees were the most primitive form of advertising. The messenger would first beat on his drum to attract the people’s attention until they gathered round; he would then recite the decree that he was assigned to deliver. The auctioneer who strives to bring a particular commodity to the people’s attention in the marketplace can also be deemed a cunning advertiser whose main goal is to convince customers of the quality of the commodity – without necessarily being honest. The art of advertising in such cases runs parallel to the art of make-up in terms of concealing defects and highlighting advantages – at any price. In this day and age, the principle seems to remain unchanged, despite the number and variety of means used to achieve it.

The television scene that welcomed the Lebanese on their homecoming to the ruins of their nation was equally significant: Bank advertisements dominated the screens and the eyes and minds of the people. Employing what was intended to be a more interesting and compelling approach, one advertisement retained its old image sequence from the pre-war period only changing the words, which were replaced by words that have more relevance to the circumstances. Terms such as ‘solidarity’, ‘sacrifice’, ‘volunteering’, and ‘loss’ were substituted with words like ‘success’, ‘achievement’ and ‘excellence’, reinforcing the idea that the new era requires the appropriate terminology.

Before the latest war in Lebanon, the country had witnessed several pivotal stages; perhaps the most prominent of which were two events that followed in succession: The first was the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri followed by the evacuation of the Syrian forces from Lebanon. The Lebanese recall a mobile phone operator that took advantage of the political climate and public mood, which veered towards liberation and independence, by launching a distinctive advertisement that said: “each to his own words”.

The advertisement was referring to the ingenuity of mobile telecommunications in expressing what it had to offer to its customers in terms of independence and efficacy in communication, all the while running parallel with the dominating political atmosphere that clearly pointed towards a new era in which individuals have freedom of speech after many years of compulsory silence.

Syria’s departure from Lebanon also left a marked presence on another televised advertisement that sought to promote national industries. Catchy and clever, it starts with a group of university students discussing what they had sacrificed for their nation, each student voicing his own political vision. One of the students boasts that his people had liberated the land from the Israeli occupation, another speaks of being jailed, alluding to a former era, while a third recounts his forced exile, which had been imposed on the leader of his political party. As they speak, a girl walks past the charged young men, noticing their consumption of foreign goods, and says, “If you love Lebanon, then love its industries.”

It seems odd that advertisements would rely on politics to strengthen the advertising of a product to the target audience, which begs the question: is advertising in Lebanon politicised? Or rather, is it the abundance of empty slogans in politics that brings it closer to the advertising game? Without a doubt, the current state of advertising reflects the overwhelming presence of politics in the minds of the citizen ‘consumers’, which is a fact that could be attributed to the inherited and instinctive Lebanese inclination towards politics. This raises the question: is it a case of inherited genes, or is it more of a need to identify a deficiency in everyday life, which is the other face of the so-called ‘politics’?

We will leave this question hanging to continue exploring the brilliant rationale behind the innovative minds in advertising; with their ability to invest in mass tragedies and tremendous historical events in the process of attracting consumers to one product or another. How could the terrifying and deadly war become a contributing factor to promoting one bank over another? The answer may be that the competition between people of the same profession is a war in its own right that derives its means from the traditional tools of war. However, members of this profession see it differently…

Distinguished advertiser Carlos Amsian stated that “advertising is a realistic representation of a given country’s state. It reflects the image of the country in its citizens’ minds as well as in the minds of others. A country without advertisements is a country in stagnation and isolation.” As for the advertisements that have filled the streets of Lebanon, in his opinion, this is an indication of the nation’s stoic determination to survive in the face of barbaric aggression. Amsian added that he understood that some people would question how he, or anyone else, could think of money and ways to invest at a time when the nation is caught in the heart of battle. His response was that, “monetary activities are one of the essential means to escape a tragedy, rather than succumb to its consequences. A bank’s duty, as the source of money to be utilised to regain the country’s bright image, is to support the citizens, at least by re-instilling their confidence and reminding them that what has been demolished can be reconstructed. Our task is to re-establish a sense of hope.” He added: “We are not interested in marketing a particular commodity under these circumstances, but we believe that our simple duty is to support our country during such difficult times. For us, advertising is our strong point, and so that becomes our contribution for solidarity.”

For her part, Malak Al-Baba, a public relations officer of a Lebanese bank, refutes the idea that the advertisements all over Lebanon’s streets since the war are a means of promoting their activities. She said, “We simply wanted to say that we are part of the community which has undergone the same crisis, and that we are keen on moving the economic wheel forward after the war had stalled its motion. We wanted to say that we are capable of that task and have the means and vision to reconstruct our homeland, despite the enormity of the loss.” But doesn’t the situation expose the desire to strengthen the presence of a particular bank at the expense of others banks, especially in light of such catastrophic circumstances? Amsian affirms that the issue is far from that. He said, “The current advertising campaign has been launched after an agreement and synchronisation between several existing banks. The reason behind such a campaign stems from an awareness of the importance of advertising and its profound impact on the general public spirit.”

Still, the question remains: How do the citizens fit into all this? Has the aforementioned campaign helped to boost morale? One of the citizens liked the idea of advertisers attracting customers to banks so he inquired about the necessary prerequisites to obtain a loan in order to rebuild his demolished house. After a series of exhausting efforts, he managed to get hold of the person in charge of one of the banks. The reply he received was somewhat diplomatic but also carried a blunt suggestion that his house was best left demolished until the message of the advertisement could become a tangible reality.