Brand America: Of False Promises and Snake OilOn the streets of Beirut, a vernacular of graffiti, political posters, cloth banners and stenciled portraits of leaders and martyrs—and the effacement thereof, whether intentionally or through natural causes—produces a lively debate. Various individuals and groups effectively claim existence, label their territories, as well as write and re-write their histories— Lebanon has no one history. I refer to this as a “debate” because of this back and forth, of placement and replacement, which lies in stark contrast to the monologue that rises above buildings and highways, the one-way beaming of high-priced messages as represented by billboards and advertising space.
Recently, these two “conversational” spaces have mixed, if not melded—with corporate messengers vying for equal footing with straightforward political, theological and economic discourses. On closer inspection, however, they are unequal: messages moving from the street upwards have a rebellious aim; those moving from the ad space down have a much more sinister source.
On March 14, 2005, a large percentage of the Lebanese population hit the streets of Beirut, protesting Syrian domination of its political and economic infrastructures. The demonstrations, which arose after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, coincided with the almost immediate emergence of “Independence '05” banners, stickers and other merchandise like flags and hats. Designed collectively by some of Beirut's top ad agency talents, the red, white and green logo soon appeared everywhere [see Fig. 1]. Not missing a beat, the U.S. State Department renamed the locally known Intifada of Independence as the Cedar Revolution, and for a brief time, to the outside world at least, it seemed that Lebanon was going down the road paved by other “branded” revolutions, such as those in Georgia and Ukraine also underwritten by American NGOs.
The manufactured logo's invasion was striking during those first weeks of co-opted activism, its prepackaged message disseminating rapidly through the streets. Eventually, Syria withdrew its troops, and by the time Christmas arrived, Dar an-Nahar (the publishing arm of an-Nahar newspaper) came out with a glossy coffee-table book documenting The Beirut Spring—complete with a kit of patriotic artifacts—almost as if to say, yet again: “Mission Accomplished!”
For the past two years, however, a series of bombings, assassinations and all-out warfare has redefined those original ideas of “Independence” and has led to the surreal situation where the absence of dialogue on the governmental level is contrasted by an endless stream of mediated messages.
Since Israel's war against Lebanon last summer, these different levels of discourse—street and ad, local and global—have scrambled for prominence. Advertisers, mostly banks, plastered the country with ads touting their role in rebuilding; Johnnie Walker, among many others, made reference to the destruction of the country's infrastructure in both its imagery and ad copy [see Figs. 2, 3]. The line between advertising and public expression often blurred: billboards for General Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement featured “hand-drawn” orange checkmarks, only to be rivaled by huge “homemade” banners—mostly featuring Condoleezza Rice as purveyor of bombs for Lebanese children or as schoolmarm to Prime Minister Fouad Siniora—draped across buildings downtown.
Likewise, in Dahiyeh, the southern suburbs, another advertising campaign had taken shape, startling in its assimilation of these “designed messages” and distance from the insular iconography and Arabic-only statements formerly seen on the ground. Aimed at international journalists, it documented the wholesale destruction of entire neighborhoods with a retort of victory— Nasr min Allah or “Divine Victory”—playing on the name of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. These banners, in French, English and Arabic, and featuring other messages such as “The New Middle (B)east,” were hung from every building even remotely left standing [see Fig. 4].
The political dialogue that should have been taking place on a national and international level has been reduced to empty sound bites by agencies such as Saatchi & Saatchi and H&C Leo Burnett, which made sectarianism its target in a new campaign for al-Mujtamah al-Madani (Civil Society). The first run of print ads featured personalized objects like mailboxes, doctors' office signs and license plates, identifying not only names and numbers but also sect affiliation, a commentary on the factional system that governs all aspects of Lebanese life [see Figs. 5-7].
In corresponding television spots, actors representing other countries proudly declare, in their respective languages: Je suis français, and “I am an American” [see Fig. 8]. Yet the Lebanese claim: Ana Sunni, Ana Shi'i, Ana Dirzi, and Ana Marounieh, not Ana Lubnani (“I am Lebanese”). Shots ring out, and our Lebanese protagonists are left with their heads hanging in shame [see Fig. 9]. The ads seem to blame the Lebanese population itself for its “backwards” nature instead of blaming the outside political and economic forces that have long imposed those divisions, and offer an ignominious, orientalist cliché that is absurd in its reduction and shamefully outdated in its casting of a blond-haired, blue-eyed man as the American. Are Americans not multicultural? Do they not take pride in their own hyphenated identities?
Another advertising project reminiscent of the “Independence '05” campaign appeared as well, featuring “martyr” Christmas trees, trilingual billboards and mobile ad trucks animated by live actors, broadcasting the message: “I love life” [see Fig. 10]. The slogan is offensive in its equation of the Shi'a of Lebanon as, culturally speaking, “lovers of death.” Further research revealed it to be a campaign sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and reflective of other U.S.-sponsored initiatives in Ukraine and Africa.
In this world of meta-communication, the reality of the situation becomes increasingly obfuscated. What the West interprets as a clash of civilizations is really about class differences—the haves and the have-nots, capital and labor, the first world and the other four-fifths of the planet. Seen through these advertising campaigns, “America” and “Democracy”—and by extension, free-market capitalism—become simply a product to sell, a brand to push, and logically (and cynically), advertisers have been hired to do the job. The greater problem for the pushers of the product is that the peoples of the world have grown wise to the pitch—especially when those pushing this local variant of the global “brand,” Saatchi & Saatchi, are simultaneously working on the rebranding of Israel, to create a “narrative of normalcy” after the war this past summer.
“You say you want a revolution...”
In the past, brand identity was based intrinsically on the notion of an untarnished image. Trying to sell something that was below par was once considered hucksterism; salesmen thereof were seen as peddling snake oil. So ingrained is this accepted notion of pushing a lie that it is part of American folklore and imbedded in its culture, seen in everything from tall tales and The Music Man to the infomercials of Ron Popeil.
As free-market capitalism progressed, this marketing evolved, and at a certain point (as No Logo by Naomi Klein points out) the product ceased to matter. A brand name represented not so much the product itself—sneakers, clothing, perfume, and now, democratic society—but the lifestyle pushed by the company whose logo decorated the product's exterior. Nike, Gap, Calvin Klein, and now, America—a brand ready for export.
Today no one is sufficiently outraged when images of radical icons are licensed to pimp products (postmortem): think Dr. Martin Luther King for Alcatel and Cingular; William S. Burroughs for Nike. No one gets upset when the environmental movement is effectively stifled by the co-opting of environmentalism as a marketing sales point; when former outlets for the expression of anger by marginalized groups are turned into revenue streams; when “Revolution” by the Beatles is heard in a Nike ad; when AIDS and breast cancer are used as marketing ploys.
And so it follows that no one in the West is fazed by the simplistic notion that a country as incredibly complex as Lebanon, with its millennia of history, should be reduced to its people's religious differences. Present-day America lives vicariously through the democratic movements of other countries and a projected sense of universal wellbeing that is ever harder to find at home. For just one example, the falling Berlin Wall became the backdrop for the false concept that all ideals of democracy emanate from the U.S., and, furthermore, that advertising is a proper venue for the dissemination of this ideal.
Now, the concept of a “revolution” beneficial to Lebanon is ignored unless it can be used as a feel-good device for Western democracies to perceive themselves as having played a part in the country's “independence” which, in fact, goes back half a century; the inaction of these countries this past summer paints a completely different picture in terms of their intentions. Whereas here in Lebanon the battle is still being played out (literally and figuratively), the bigger picture is much more serious—and horrifyingly more disastrous—for those of us living on the periphery of global capital's various expansionist projects.
Countering the Lie
This empty brand identity, the Lie, is betrayed when a demonstration (seen as pro-U.S.) is painted as a “Cedar Revolution,” while the more recent, broader-reaching demonstrations are called “a pro-Syrian/Iranian threat” and an attempted “coup d'état.” As stated by economist Samir Amin in the book Obsolescent Capitalism, the only political Islamic groups in this region targeted by American opprobrium—Hezbollah and Hamas—just happen to be those that are anti-imperialist in nature; they also happen to be democratically elected. In his article “Mid-point in the Middle East?” Tariq Ali concurs: “Western enthusiasm for rainbow revolutions stops, as is to be expected, when the color is green.” Similarly, South American countries, overturning the pro-imperialist governments that replaced their former democracies, are perceived as “threats” to this new world order, when in fact they only threaten the given economic status quo. Why aren't their “democratic revolutions” celebrated and advertised?
The Lie, as marketed by Leo Burnett (et. al.), goes back to Woodrow Wilson, who, when the Ottoman Empire was carved up among the post-War imperial powers, stated in his Twelfth Point: “...the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.” Security of life—sounds catchy. But we didn't get it then, and despite the current ad-based efforts to convince us of the contrary, we don't see it on our horizon now. Furthermore, when foreign policy goals of globalizing entities in the region explicitly state their desire to continue to “carve up” Arab countries into more manageable ethnic or religious cantons, these calls to difference hidden behind anti-sectarian messages can be seen to be even more loaded, as well as more lethal.
In response to the advertisers, designers and cultural sign-makers selling “Democracy,” opponents have spoken back by sending up the original ads themselves, thus forcing a dialogue. In Dahiyeh, those Arabic posters with the words “I love life” are now followed by “in colors” (referring to the multi-colored representative rainbow of all of Lebanon's political parties) and “with dignity,” among others.
Other intrepid activists have added their own messages to the mix—such as “I [heart] Aishti” (both a reference to the local chain fashion outlet and aish, the Arabic root for “to live”) and “I [heart] Capitalism” [see Figs. 11, 12]. But real opposition posters can be hard to distinguish from mock ones. Take the Arabic “We want to live...in tents” (referring to the ongoing protest downtown), which had this author fooled until it was revealed to be the work of Leo Burnett [see Fig. 13]. When those who craft the ad campaigns circulate their own “opposition” tools, we begin to see the vested and invested interest(s) in these message battles. Quoting Samir Amin once again:
The ideological discourse designed to rally public opinion in the central Triad [the United States, Japan and Europe] has been revamped to focus on a 'duty to intervene' in the name of 'democracy,' 'national rights' or 'humanitarian considerations.' But whereas the cynical instrumentalization and double standards involved in this discourse seem evident to people in Asia or Africa, Western public opinion has fallen in with it as enthusiastically as it did with the discourses of earlier phases of imperialism.
The visual creators and designers of this “ideological discourse” of ad campaigns currently running in Lebanon today should consider the ethical ramifications of their efforts, which focus on the purely reductive surface level and are representative of an unproven, and therefore unknowable, base ideology (although we can theorize about what is driving it); compared to, say, a political group with a stated political agenda. The fabricators of the larger discourse behind the ads should know that their message, and their media, are seen for what they are: shills for snake oil.
The bleak cynicism of message makers and the powers they serve—simultaneously blaming the Lebanese for sectarianism while playing to the segregationist, if not “anti-other,” sentiments of a subsection of the Lebanese population; claiming one revolution while condemning any other; placing economic blame on the current opposition movement while fronting an economic reality that will plunder the country; harping on the concept of Lebanon as a unified nation while fomenting discord that would render the nation asunder; working for the destroyers of Lebanon as well as “for” the destroyed—approaches something deeply and darkly Orwellian, especially when using words such as “love” and “life.” There is a huge difference between wanting to live at the expense of others and wanting to live a dignified existence. In light of events this past summer, it can be stated that the current influx of cash to pro-American NGOs, state militias and advertising campaigns is just a continuation of the aggression recently suffered by Lebanon.
Paul Rand stated: “Design... is also an instrument of disorder and confusion. Design for deception is often more persuasive than design for good; seduction is one of its many masks.” Those pushing the current discourse in Lebanon should not be surprised that it should thus be unmasked; that much of the world outside of their frame of reference is no longer buying their line, their lie, or their lifestyle; and that the Revolution, when it comes, will not be to their liking.