BEIRUT: A freshly painted crosswalk in blue and white outside the national electricity building in Mar Mikhael underscores the laws of chaos and hostility that govern Beirut’s traffic.
Pedestrians trying to use the designated crossing are usually berated with honks and curses from drivers obeying the city’s only rules behind the wheel: Go, go, go.The new crosswalk in Mar Mikhael and several other foreign traffic concepts, like taxi pickup points, are part of Swedish car maker Volvo’s social experiment calling on Lebanese to break away from the pack mentality.
Stopping at a red light, letting a pedestrian cross out of courtesy and using a turn signal well in advance are all good deeds that fall under the project, entitled “Only the Lonely,” a cheeky reference to the “loneliness” of being the only person to do the right thing.
“It’s all about breaking the norm and making a difference,” said Jihad Harmoush, senior engagement manager at Interesting Times, the marketing agency that came up with the idea while working on a sales campaign for Volvo.
The project has drawn the attention of passers-by in places like Mar Mikhael, where foot traffic is constant, Downtown, Hamra and near Mathaf, where people have stopped to marvel at the new blue and yellow kiosks if not actually use them.
A typical luxury car sales ploy, even a Corporate Social Responsibility campaign promising to benefit a worthy cause wouldn’t easily interest conceptual clothing designers, lifestyle bloggers and even a curious nun.
But Only the Lonely has attracted the attention of all of those with a message that calls for people to be different by doing the right thing.
“We are lonely in a place where everyone wants to do things in the wrong way; we are alone because we want to do it in the right way,” said Marwan Naffi, General Manager of Volvo’s Lebanese operations.
Naffi first went to Interesting Times with plans for a sales campaign in mind. What he got, to his surprise, was a social awareness project of which he’s since happily taken on.
“What we were trying to do at the end of the day was a marketing thing that has taken the shape of a social experiment,” he said.
The project was completely tailored to Lebanon’s unusual driving landscape, said Marta Beilili, senior strategic planner at Interesting Times. For example, telling people to be different by driving safely might seem obvious and irrelevant in a place like Dubai, where traffic is much more orderly, she explained.
Heavy on social media, the campaign has led some to comment on Twitter and other platforms that a few kiosks and TV ads aren’t likely to tame Lebanon’s road rage. That’s possibly true, but the unusual approach to promoting road safety has certainly scored Volvo some brownie points, and even gotten the attention of Lebanon’s security apparatus, which is considering adopting the practice as part of their own policies.
Volvo and Interesting Times also plan to expand the message into the rest Lebanon in the coming weeks.
Internationally, Volvo has a history of campaigns promoting road safety. They have promised zero road accidents involving their vehicles by 2020. And Naffi said he sees the Only the Lonely campaign as fitting well with Volvo’s reputation for attracting educated, conscientious drivers.
For Naffi, Only the Lonely is not just about traffic safety. He also sees them encouraging people to take on any number of things that aren’t necessarily in vogue, for instance saving Beirut heritage or avoiding street-clogging parking services.
“All of these things are experiments that are typical behavior of Volvo drivers,” Naffi said. “Their profile is typically educated, nonflashy, respects order and respects other human beings.”