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Lebanon News

Making over Lebanon’s political parties

Billboards for March 14 and the FPM during the 2009 election.

BEIRUT: The past 10 years have seen an election campaign spending race heavily influenced by corporate branding culture, a phenomenon for which the admen of Lebanon proudly take credit.

“You can deliver a creative idea to sell a car, to sell a shampoo, and to sell – and I may use the word ‘sell’ because you are selling at the end of the day – a political party,” said Georges Najm, one of the founders of Clementine, an advertising agency that grew out of the Free Patriotic Movement’s core media team.

His comments were not intended to be cynical. Najm, who has a background in finance and marketing, is a proud supporter of Michel Aoun, but when it comes to devising marketing strategies for what he calls the “Tayyar mother-brand” and its “sub-brands” – individual lawmakers – he is a calculating professional.

Najm represents a growing industry of advertising and marketing specialists who are bringing commercial strategies to political campaigns, luring in a new generation of post-Civil War voters with slick packaging, clever slogans and, increasingly, digital outreach.

“We’ve seen the development of a real corporate identity,” said Serge Dagher, a former communications chief for the Kataeb Party and general manager of the Rizk Group, which is coordinating the party’s election strategy. “Each party has adopted a color, a communication style. ... All of that was not present a few years ago.”

In the 1990s and early 2000s, he explained, most parties were preoccupied with adapting to the post-conflict political landscape. Image was not important, especially to the generation that remained with the party throughout the war and knew its history all too well.

“With the youth comes the demand for a sexier look and appearance,” he said. “They want quick and fast statements, inspirational statements,” he went on, speaking of the popularity of Twitter, now a necessity among the political class. “Before you would see politicians giving a speech for 30 or 40 minutes. I don’t see young people sitting through a speech like that.”

Industry sources across the political spectrum declined to discuss the specifics of their 2013 campaigns, which are on hold until a new electoral law is passed, but all agreed that social media will play a much bigger role in the next round than it has in the past.

None seemed concerned that redrawing districts or introducing confessional voting restrictions would have a serious impact on their strategies, or that a likely delay in holding elections was anything but temporary.

Vincent Chamoun, regional development director for M&C Saatchi, which works for the March 14 coalition, sees the changes in the new media landscape as positive, because they favor content over what he called “propaganda” – messaging intended to shore up existing support rather than speak to the public at large.

“Outdoor [advertising] will remain because it has impact, it has a wide outreach, it has a wide audience, and because also it’s some kind of show of force ... [but] I’m not sure this will affect political choice,” said Chamoun. “I think the game changer will mostly come from other media where the content can be much more developed, such as social media.”

“Today, the debate does not happen through the media, it happens [among] people after they have received the message,” he continued. “The debate will happen in society.”

The first professionally managed political media campaign is a matter of debate, with several parties claiming credit. Some trace it as far back as the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s ‘Kuluna lil-Aamal,’ ‘We are All for Work’ campaign back in 2000, but most agree the political ad wars have been intensifying since the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, when political parties started waging open and aggressive electoral battles.

Much of this competition was fueled by the rivalry between the FPM and March 14 parties for Christian votes, a contest that helped spawn the “I Love Life” and “Be Beautiful and Vote” campaigns, both of which exemplify the aesthetic shift away from the traditional portraits of yesteryear toward a pithier, more commercial approach.

Unsurprisingly, most of those working on campaigns see them as a creative competition of ideas, a testament to the country’s democracy. Parties such as Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, which do not face any serious challengers, eschew expensive consultants and flashy ads for in-house media teams and simple messaging.

This democratic spirit is considerably dampened, however, when one considers the cost of rolling out a professional, national campaign. One industry professional estimated that a major political party would spend “at least $500,000” on election advertising.

Under current campaign finance laws, which are also subject to change with a new electoral law, each candidate is limited to a budget of LL150 million ($100,000) in the two months leading up to elections.

But, as Rania Baroud, a professor of media studies at Antonine University, told The Daily Star, “There is no transparency in the law.”

“It sets a limit to the budget of every candidate but it doesn’t limit the budget of a party. ... This is a loophole.”

Not only do campaign finance laws not apply to parties or coalitions, they are poorly enforced, and violations are so common as to be considered common practice, Baroud added.

Campaign events, rallies, and giveaways are not regulated; the same goes for spending that takes place before the two month period leading up the election. Fees paid to consulting and advertising agencies are also not accounted for in the budget ceiling.

Chamoun echoed Baroud’s concerns about the lack of regulation – or an electoral law, or a government, for that matter – saying of the post-2005 electoral arena: “We have no referee. ... There is an open fight, but there is nobody to manage this.”

The work of advertising agencies doesn’t always end at the polls. Agencies that successfully get their candidates elected will often be rewarded with lucrative government contracts, most often from ministries controlled by their respective parties or their allies.

Clementine has executed campaigns for the Telecommunication and Energy ministries; Rizk group for the Social Affairs Ministry, IDAL and Ogero; IMPACT BBDO for the Interior Ministry; and M&C Saatchi for the Justice, Environment, Finance and Interior ministries.

Most of the advertising professionals who work on political campaigns are also partisans to some extent. For others, elections are strictly business.

“What we do is we tell people the choices available to them, but you don’t have to embrace that choice, do you?” said Joe Ayache, the Beirut managing director of IMPACT BBDO, which works regularly with the Future Movement.

Ayache, who has been in the business for decades, says maintaining healthy boundaries is the key to professional success and warm relations with competitors based on friendly rivalry.

“Probably if I were younger it would have mattered more,” he said with a laugh, responding to a question about the possibility for conflict between private political views and professional duties.

“From a personal point of view, I’m starting to be more and more convinced that change is not possible anymore.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 06, 2013, on page 3.

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