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LEBANON: Hot political ads spice up election season

May 30, 2009 |  1:58 pm

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A beautiful woman glances seductively over her shoulder from a billboard on a busy Beirut thoroughfare. But it isn’t perfume or shampoo she’s selling: It’s politics.

The ad, which urges women in French to "Be beautiful and vote," was one of the more controversial campaign advertisements rolled out by parliamentary candidate Gen. Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, which is allied with Hezbollah and is expected to make gains in the coming elections.

Critics say Aoun’s campaign is a cheap grab for attention. But with little more than a week until elections, there's not a wall, billboard or street that isn't plastered with campaign ads, and notoriety is just more free publicity.

“Our strategy was based on one platform, which was that we have to win the elections in 2009,” Sami Saab, the creative director behind the ads, told Babylon and Beyond.

“At the end of the day, we made an ad campaign and we are talking to people,” he added. “I am proud of this campaign because it reflects the beauty of our content.”

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If Saab sounds like the creative director at a competitive commercial ad agency, it’s because he is. 

In fact, he took two months' leave to work full time on the campaign.

The influence of consumer advertising on political campaigns over the years has affected not only the imagery but the rhetoric as well, according to Zeina Maasri, a professor at the American University of Beirut who wrote the book "Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War."


Whereas the small, street-level posters of the 1970s and '80s often incorporated intricate art and calligraphy, she said, the huge billboards of today tend to rely on bright colors and simple, brief text to convey their message.

“The scale has affected the kind of rhetoric used, and this is true of all the parties,” Maasri said. “The way politics are advertised now is not that much different from the way commodities are advertised.”

Maasri pointed to one of the U.S.-backed March 14 Coalition slogans, “I think there14 I am,” as another example of pithy, commercial advertising.

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“The play on words, the Western philosophical stance and the brevity of the message itself,” she said, are clearly the product of a modern commercial advertising culture rather than the amateur artists that produced most of the Civil War-era posters.


In fact, Jean-Pierre Katrib, a political analyst at Quantum Communications, the firm that consulted on the March 14 ads, boasted that his company was “one of the pioneers in introducing satire and pun” to the electoral campaign.

March 14 doesn’t only play with words, but images as well. The coalition’s symbol, a fist clutching an olive branch, seems suspiciously reminiscent of the signature Hezbollah fist holding a Kalashnikov.

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“It could be seen as such. We don't like to limit it to one definition,” Katrib said. “We would be very glad to see a debate being launched on this track as to what this hand represents.”

Katrib went on to say that the scale of the advertisements has grown with the popularity of outdoor campaigning and the competition for public space.

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“What started to grow in 2005 we can say ended up blossoming in 2009,” he said. “We have seen that the political divide has shifted into a media divide through the use of outdoor campaigning.”

But if political advertising has grown in scale, it has not increased in transparency. Although nobody knows exactly how much each party is spending on advertising, the huge billboards and banners as tall as buildings are clearly a significant investment.

“We are talking about major official expenditures, top-down advertising,” Maasri said.

“Then again, before the money would probably have gone to weapons, so maybe it’s a good sign that it's being spent on campaigning," she added, laughing.

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Top photo: The Free Patriotic Movement's controversial "Be beautiful and vote" plays on a French expression, "Be beautiful and shut up." Credit: Joseph Barrak / AFP

Bottom photos, in descending order:

A Hezbollah ad uses bright colors and a short, snappy message to promote Lebanon as a "sovereign, able nation under God." Credit: Meris Lutz

The March 14 ad campaign dabbles in word play. Credit: Meris Lutz

Double meaning? The March 14 fist clutching an olive branch could be seen as a visual rebuttal to Hezbollah's fist holding a Kalashnikov. Credit: Meris Lutz

A huge banner of 26-year-old parliamentary candidate Nayla Tueni overlooks downtown. Giant billboards have replaced posters as competition for space and attention have intensified. Credit: Meris Lutz

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