Michael Karam: Lebanese advertising stuck in a sexist time warp

Despite our reputation as regional leaders in the ad industry, Lebanese originality is still the one-eyed man in the land of the blind.

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According to recent surveys, most gleamed from those useful reports cobbled together by the research departments of Lebanese banks, Lebanon is a better place to retire than, among other countries, Serbia, but loses out to, again among other nations, Azerbaijan. Didn’t know that. It also has fewer road deaths than Brazil but more than Botswana and boasts a cleaner environment than Argentina but is dirtier than Syria.

Make of all that what you will. What I really wanted to know was how the Lebanese man ranks among his global peers when it comes to gender politics. Someone really should start a poll, because if our advertising industry is any kind of barometer, and if recent examples of billboard sloganeering are anything to go by, he is still gloriously unreconstructed.

“Chocolates make her fat” was the tactful Valentine’s Day message transmitted by Khoury Home, Lebanon’s leading electronic appliance and white goods outlet, to convince the Lebanese wooer that the object of his affection would prefer a dishwasher over a box of Patchi’s finest.

Even in this corner of the Arab world such mediocrity doesn’t go unnoticed, and Khoury Home makes a feeble attempt to explain the method behind its insensitivity. A spokesman claimed the message had to be seen in the context of another ad, one aimed at women that encouraged them to pick out something other than, wait for it, a teddy bear. Of course. Why didn’t they tell us? Suddenly it all made sense.

Seriously though, what with the implication that it is verboten for women to look anything but sylphlike (and the fatuous, albeit much less insulting, notion that men secretly crave a soft toy) it was all a bit of a mess. I wonder what Khoury Home has planned for Easter?

Then again the ad was aimed at a tricky demographic. Lebanese men are by and large not the most romantic, a condition possibly explained by the fact that most reach middle age by the time they graduate from university. The Lebanese boy will grow up urged by his parents, his father in particular, to forget about following his dream of being a paleontologist, stuntman or tattoo artist and get a proper job, save money and buy a home.

To be fair it’s probably a sentiment shared by most parents. But trust me, in Lebanon this conditioning is writ large, shaped in part, not only by a tradition of shrewd financial husbandry and a historic bent for business, but also by a realisation that the state doesn’t have your back.

Not surprisingly the latest billboard campaign from the Trillium Development Group, a leading Lebanese real estate company, tells us that “A real man gives her a home”. The ad not only taps into our aspiration to be a first-time buyer, but it also implies that a house is where a real man installs his woman. I wonder what the modern Lebanese girl sitting in traffic and reading the billboard might have made of all this? Should she, presumably a “real” woman, buy her home or does she always need a man to do it for her. Someone’s not been reading his Camille Paglia.

Am I over-thinking this? I don’t believe so. Despite our reputation as regional leaders in the ad industry, Lebanese originality is still the one-eyed man in the land of the blind. In the late ‘90s, I met a British creative, resplendent in a black Paul Smith suit, white shirt and the obligatory middle-aged ponytail. I asked him how he rated our ad industry. Being a guru, he didn’t mince his words: “Atrocious,” he groaned in that world-weary way that gurus do. “Beyond the valley of the atrocious. You are where the Far East was in the ‘70s.”

I’d like to think that with the advent of social media, more shared ideas and a generally more vibrant generation of creative minds, we would now have a fresher worldview that allows us to, well, bypass the valley of the atrocious.

Sadly, it appears that road is still being built.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut

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