Babylon & Beyond

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MIDDLE EAST: Pop stars and soda pop

October 29, 2007 |  1:10 pm

Photo_032a When Lebanese mega pop star Nancy Ajram signed a six-figure endorsement deal with Coca-Cola in 2005, Pepsi took the challenge, and very seriously.

Not content with signing one rival singer, Pepsi assembled a whole team of Arab world pop stars and cast them in a full-length musical, a totally unprecedented move by a multinational in the Middle East.

The two giant beverage companies have been gearing up vehemently to claim the soft-drink allegiance among Arab youth. This comes as no surprise in a region with a burgeoning population of Muslim youths often socially or legally forbidden from drinking alcohol.

Pepsi’s upcoming movie, called the “Sea of Stars,” is being shot in a picturesque village nestled in the green hills of northern Lebanon. It will feature hit songs by Lebanon’s sex symbol, Haifa Wehbé, and is expected to play cinemas across the Arab world by the end of the year.

Pepsi has remained tight-lipped about the movie’s plot. But, according to showbiz gossip, the film tells a Hollywood-inspired story of a small village restaurant on verge of closing down when a brave group of stars save it by organizing a fiesta bringing in customers, music, dance and, of course, a lot of Pepsi cans.

Before the movie, Pepsi cast French soccer star Thierry Henry with Wehbé, a sultry Lebanese singer and former model who landed in the top 50 of People magazine’s 2006 most beautiful people list. Another Pepsi ad featured Christina Aguilera with another Lebanese singer, Elissa.

Coke got the jump on using Lebanese pop stars by emblazoning Ajram’s face on cans. It now floods the airwaves with ads featuring popular songs by the Lebanese star, who presents herself as more innocent and wholesome than Wehbé. In the latest, Ajram walks into one neighborhood, spreading psychedelic images of love and harmony as she sings and distributes Coca-Cola bottles.

Coca-Cola has also put up gigantic billboards of Ajram surrounded by children of different ethnic backgrounds all sort of springing from a Coca-Cola bottle. The ad, displayed along Lebanon’s main coastal highway, promotes Ajram's album for kids, “Scratch Scratches.”

— Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photo: Nancy Ajram (center, in brown T-shirt), appearing in a billboard along Lebanon's main north-south highway, is the face that launched a thousand cola ads. The battle between Coke and Pepsi to sign up Arab pop stars is on. Credit: Borzou Daragahi