Beirut developer shows how to fail at advertising

Domestic abuse strategy lead to an outcry and eventual pulling of the advert for new homes.

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Over here in the UK, the media, social and otherwise, was in a lather last week over the merits or otherwise of a seasonal TV advert produced by the high street hardware store Robert Dyas. In the short clip, staff members describe their sexuality and hobbies before telling us that the goods they sell – drills, mops, plugs etc – can be appreciated by everyone. Yeah, right.

I presume the ad wants to be edgy and, while it may be a bit weird – and done on a budget that wouldn’t pay for the sandwiches on the set of the glitzier festive ads that have become something of a tradition in recent years – it provoked a debate.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of the marketing effort by IGroup, a Beirut residential development company, which decided to advertise its properties by targeting the victims of domestic abuse. This it does with an ad depicting an otherwise well-groomed teenage girl with a black eye and asks her: “What are you waiting for? With zero per cent down payment, you can be free.”

What was going on in the heads of the IGroup’s marketing department is anyone’s guess, but very soon pointed questions were being asked on the company’s Facebook page, where a moderator made an unconvincing attempt to explain. “The IGroup took upon itself [sic] to help in its OWN and ONLY way in dealing with this issue by offering this promotion as a call for help to all abused women in need.”

The problem is that, rather than being edgy and different, IGroup inadvertently trivialised domestic abuse by assuming that favourable financing is all it takes to escape an abusive relationship.

But there were other questions? Was the zero per cent down payment offer only open to women (or men) trapped in a violent domestic arrangement, and if so, how would they prove they qualified? Who would assess the claims? And even if the funds were available, and the bruising was deemed serious enough, what was the abused woman (or man), supposed to do during the four-year delivery period on the apartment? Stick it out? It is hardly surprising that IGroup’s Facebook page was riddled with accusations that it was using a serious social issue for profit.

Eventually IGroup attempted to put a positive spin on its outlandish campaign by claiming, and I paraphrase, that the photo merely showed the sad reality of domestic violence in Lebanon, but that, while the company knew it was taking a risk in highlighting the plight of many abused Lebanese women, its motives had clearly been misunderstood. The ad has since been taken down.

Women have had a rough time of it in Lebanese ad land. If they are not sex objects or accessories, they are often portrayed as scheming social climbers who want to advance themselves through a favourable marriage. But the reality is that many Lebanese women hold down serious management jobs at home, in the Arabian Gulf, Europe and the US, and it is their professional achievements and their financial independence that should be recognised. IGroup should leave the dark side of society to the NGOs and the activists, and instead help empower and emancipate women by encouraging them to buy their own home and live the independent existence that is taken for granted by their peers in other countries. It is this tranche that should have been targeted, perhaps putting to the sword the notion that good girls live with their parents until they can find a husband.

And if IGroup really wanted to help victims of domestic abuse it should propose to the dozens of other real estate development companies that they all team up with a charity and build and support a women’s shelter. It would be wonderful PR tonic for a sector that is seen as exploitative, unscrupulous and profiteering. But more importantly, it would create a sustainable solution for a very nasty and real problem.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton