Controversial billboards on airport road – Hizbullah’s ad campaign

The Resistance

In the aftermath of its 34-day war with Israel, Hizbullah decided to launch its first-ever full-scale PR campaign: the “Divine Victory” blitz. The slogan was emblazoned on hundreds of billboards, primarily in the South, the Bekaa and the southern suburbs of Beirut, in a blissful union of militancy and marketing.

The contract was won by a team from Idea Creation, headed by Mohammad Kawtharani, the 30-year-old artistic director who coined the “Divine Victory” slogan. The campaign would have cost around $400,000, but the agency and the billboard companies offered their services for free. “So many companies refused money for their billboards. They said, ‘This is for Sayyed Hassan, this is for the muqawama—have it,’” explained an exuberant Kawtharani. Today, the slogan can be seen set against images of martyrdom and Israeli humiliation on 100 15x5m unipoles and 2,000 smaller billboards—a total of 12,000 m2 of printed area.

“We realized in the beginning that on the military and political levels, we were about to achieve victory,” Kawtharani says from the agency’s new offices in Haret Hreik, just a stone’s throw from the rubble heap that remains of its former location.

“We also saw the party unifying under the leadership of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. So we started linking his charisma to the victory. You know, ‘Nasrallah’ in Arabic means ‘divine victory,’” he adds.

Not just for Shia anymore

They emphasized red in the billboards to “signify the huge amount of blood” spilled during the war and highlight its civilian casualties, which Kawtharani calls the “real cost of the war.” The thin line of white line running across every image is meant to link the harsh realities on the ground with the ethereal forces of the divine. The green symbolizes the victory of resistance, which succeeded in “transforming death into life.”

Although Hizbullah was marketing the resistance long before this summer—Al-Manar TV station, local print media, and three billboards in the South and Dahieh owned by Hizbullah’s Martyr’s Institution were the crux of its public relations strategy—this is the group’s first attempt to market outside of its core constituency.

“It’s not only important that we won the war, now we have to maintain the vitality of this victory … and prove that the resistance is for all Lebanese,” Kawtharani says of the main objectives behind the campaign.

To communicate the national—as opposed to exclusively Shia—character of the “Divine Victory,” Idea Creation chose the images for each billboard according to its location and the demographics of its target audience.

“We chose different photos for billboards in the North than for the ones on the airport road,” Kawtharani says, “Like for one in Jounieh, we put a Lebanese Army soldier next to a resistance fighter, meaning the resistance is not just Muslim.”

Multi-media campaign

In addition to outdoor advertising, Idea Creation employed three other marketing tools in its campaign: printed pamphlets, banners, and personal items like flags, caps and pins. These elements of the campaign were also oriented towards specific target audiences.

The English-language banners proclaiming “Made in the USA” and “Extremely Accurate Targets” jutting from the rubble in Dahieh, for example, were designed for Western consumption.

“We tried to use the language of American media ironically there,” Kawtharani says, “So Western [news consumers] absorb a double-meaning.”

While the campaign certainly succeeded in getting attention both at home and abroad, it remains to be seen whether it will prove effective in attracting new supporters to the Hizbullah camp or in shoring up the support of disillusioned Shia. Now that domestic political tensions have once again replaced an external enemy as the biggest threat to Lebanon’s stability, the more important question may be whether the campaign was designed to help unify the Lebanese people, or as an opportunistic attempt to stir the sectarian pot.

“No one is disputing the costs of the war, but we are trying to recover now and we have billboards reminding us all along airport road,” says an executive from a mid-size advertising agency in Lebanon who preferred to remain anonymous. “If we want tourism and investor confidence to recover, we cannot show these kind of images.”

Kawtharani dismisses criticism on this count as beside the point: “Our priority is not to attract tourists back to the country—we are not trying to promote commodities, but to show the reality on the ground.”

The same executive said that the marketing campaign has also failed to consolidate increasingly fragmented public opinion within the Shia community.

“A lot of moderates in Hizbullah are thinking, ‘Why do we need to rebuild our homes every four years?’ The campaign pushed them away, and for the rest of the Shia, Nasrallah could have made a TV appearance and had the same effect because they believe everything he says anyway.”

Battle in the media, not the streets

Another executive speaking on condition of anonymity, from the Lebanese branch of a multi-national advertising franchise, agrees that the campaign did not sway public opinion. Although he is optimistic about what the strategy means for the future of the Lebanese political environment, his optimism is based on a kind of tenuous logic that has proven dangerous in the past.

“Effectively, if this is fine,” he argues, “Then Hizbullah will have to accept another political party mounting a similar campaign that they might not like, and they can’t get upset about it.”

However, he also observes that a slick Hizbullah marketing campaign, though controversial, may mark a positive change in the domestic sectarian discourse:

“It is offending a lot of people, but I’d rather the debate happens this way than for it to happen on the streets with riots and demonstrations.”

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