Traditionally advertisement serves as a communication tool to brand and promote a product, yet in recent years its role is less and less restricted to the corporate world. Today, numerous non-governmental organizations, politicians, military, religious groups and even artists have discovered the power of TV ads and billboards to promote their cause. It is the so-called “information society” that rules and Lebanon is no exception, certainly not in the turbulent times it is currently going through. Most creative work for non-profits.
For both ad agencies and the public, it is an absolute blessing that they can also apply their creative energies in the non-profit sector. As they are less restricted, they often produce their best work. Take a recent campaign for Amnesty International in Switzerland. Under the slogan “It is not happening here, but it is happening now” we see images of human suffering and injustice, superimposed on images of Swiss daily life. In Lebanon, arguably the most visible and well-known non-corporate campaign are the “I Love Life” billboards and balloons we see everywhere. Designed by Saatchi & Saatchi in simple red and white centered on a heart, its message is a simple one. “As Lebanon and the region are increasingly caught up in a culture of violence,” said Ibrahim Eid, one of the campaign’s organizers, “we wanted to emphasize a culture of love and life. We wanted to offer people a window of hope: there’s more to life than politics.”
Notwithstanding its seemingly universal message, the campaign was politicized from the start by members of the opposition who claimed the I Love Life campaign was an attempt by March 14 to stigmatize Hizbullah and the downtown demos. Eid admitted that all of the campaign’s organizers are individuals who met “in the spirit of March 14, 2005,” yet most of them were not affiliated to a political party. “We truly wanted this to be a logo for all Lebanese,” he said. “The message was born out of a deep conviction that Lebanon’s only hope lies within civil society, not in politics.”
The I Love Life campaign was sponsored by a number of individuals, companies and trade associations, including the Chamber of Commerce and Bankers Association, while ad agencies and printers did not demand their usual fees. Still, no matter how much Eid and others emphasized I Love Life was apolitical, within no time the opposition launched a counter campaign.
This time there was no doubt whatsoever that the campaign had a political edge, as it was signed, “the opposition.” The design and main slogan were almost identical but added were the words “with colors,” “with dignity” and “without debts.” On the internet circuit, I Love Life spoofs appeared, “I love Aishti” and “I Love Capitalism” being just a few of the new takes.
Opposition chimes in
The trouble with the opposition’s campaign was that it bore too close a resemblance to the original. The public merely assumed that it was a new take on the same theme, churned out by the same people. An altogether more interesting non-profit campaign was created by H&C Leo Burnett for 05AMAM—Arabic for “forward”— and is an abbreviation of al-mujtama al-madani (civil society). 05AMAM also fell within the spirit of the March 14 movement and was also non-political. Its aim was to reflect the main issue underlying the political divide, which according to those within 05AMAM, is sectarianism. At the end 2006, H&C Leo Burnett created a series of billboard ads that have become something of a cult hit on the internet. The images show, among other things, a Lebanese car number plate with “Shi’ite,” a building for sale to “Druze only,” and a parking lot “for Maronites only.” A number of doctor signs show not only name and specialization, but also their religious background, while another ad shows business cards that state nothing but name and sect. With each of the images the accompanying tag line was, “Stop sectarianism, before it stops us.”
“With an eye on the crisis, we wanted to do something, yet nothing political, but rather something that would spark debate,” said Bechara Mouzannar, regional executive creative director at H&C Leo Burnett. “So, we came up with the ‘Stop sectarianism’ campaign for 05AMAM. At first, we faced some difficulties getting it approved by the censors, as it took them some time to realize the campaign was not meant to insult or upset people, but to make them reflect.”
In an advertising world which generally opts for the beautiful and glamorous, the campaign was unusually edgy and gritty. Surprisingly, there was only one incident. “It was a misunderstanding,” said Mouzannar. “The images should be seen in relation to each other. Unfortunately, in this particular case there was only one image in the area, and some people took it as an insult.”
Overall however, the campaign was an enormous success, not just within Lebanon, but around the world. For many a foreign newspaper, the ad campaign became the peg for a news or feature story on Lebanon’s complicated sectarian society. As in the case of I Love Life, the anti-sectarianism campaign was paid for by sponsors, while ad agencies, printers and billboard companies waived their usual fees.
The Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) liked the campaign so much they sent a letter to all agencies to produce a TV ad, for which LBC would offer the studio, equipment and free air time. H&C Leo Burnett created two clips. The first shows a series of cars, each with a “sectarian number plate,” after which the camera slowly zooms in on a broken car with a Lebanese number plate. The slogan, freely translated from Arabic: “Drive the sectarian way and this is where you’ll end up.” The second was a critique of the state’s employment practices, which place maintaining the sectarian balance over qualification. Ad a powerful indictment of sectarianism
Elsewhere, Grey International produced a film on the same theme, showing people from around the world in front of their flag, stating their nationality. It ends a number of Lebanese, who instead state their sect in front of the Lebanese flag. Finally, the private sector had its say with “I Love You in Winter.” Sponsored by Aishti, ABC, Banque Mediterranee, Banque Audi-Saradar, the Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel, Virgin Megastore and MEA, the campaign encouraged the Lebanese (and any tourists that happened to be here) to shop like hell during the festive season. A similar campaign, by more or less the same group of companies, was launched in the summer of 2005 following the assassination of Rafic Hariri and the string of bomb attacks that followed.
According to Maya Matalani of Aishti, special discounts were offered and special events were organized, while MEA offered 23 free tickets. Anyone buying for more than LL 30,000 worth of products had the chance to win an air ticket. “The last two weeks of December were very good,” said Matalani. “People really did go out, although in downtown it depended a lot on where you were located. The area closer to Riad el Solh Square, where the demos were, did not do as well as other areas.”
And “I Love Life”? The billboard campaign has already expanded. After the New Year’s party, a new website is imminent. It will include news, a blog, forums, an article archive and plenty of interactivity. I Love Life downloads will also be available, with visitors encouraged to propose their own activities within the virtual community. Will the opposition respond? We will have to see. But as an I Love Life spokesman pointed out, “What better subject is there to debate?”