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Value of duty-free fun at Beirut airport can't be discounted

The flash mob concept is nothing new - Air Canada and Verizon are just two global names that have used them in ads - but it is new enough for the Middle East?

More than half a million people have now watched the flash mob ad that is doing the rounds on YouTube and Twitter of the spontaneous dabkeh, Lebanon's national dance, at Beirut Airport. It has become the most successful viral ad yet in the Middle East.

The four-minute film is also the fourth most popular YouTube clip in Israel, while The Huffington Post, one of the world's most powerful online publications with more than 50 million unique subscribers, blogged about it, cooing that "good old-fashioned fun broke out at Beirut Airport's duty-free shops".

"You can't just buy that sort of advertising," enthused Barry Brand - yes that's his real name - the head of art at M&C Saatchi Middle East, one of the creative forces behind the ad for Beirut Duty Free.

"Using traditional media like TV, you can never guarantee how many people will watch your ad. In this case, we have put it in front of half a million people. Normally, if you want to reach out to that many, you buy time during the Super Bowl."

Saatchi hired the 30 dancers from a dabkeh troupe and dressed them as passengers. "We wanted the event to have a life of its own, to see if we could coax passengers and airport staff into participating." Did they? "Well, we had all the sales girls from the cigar humidor and the Doha rugby team joining in at one point." says Mr Brand, who, despite having worked in the business for 25 years, retains a wonderfully boyish enthusiasm for his craft.

"We just wanted to create a bit of good news from Lebanon. We wanted to say: 'Yes we have our problems like any country, but this country also has a lot of vibrancy and spirit.'. It was essential that we capture that."

Still, even a few Lebanese managed to somehow ignore the joy and find a political agenda where none existed. "Someone tweeted me asking why did we call it Rafic Hariri International Airport and not Beirut International Airport. Someone tweeted back 'because that's its proper name, you '."

Mr Brand stops short of adding the expletive and slumps back in his chair before perking up. "Other people wrote that it made them cry. If an ad can get that kind of response then surely it's a good thing isn't it?"

For a nation of travellers, Beirut Airport has a special place in the hearts of the Lebanese. The dabkeh was sure to appeal to an intensely nostalgic and sentimental diaspora and the setting of the relatively new shopping area will help to wipe out the unhelpful image of Lebanon as a place where bad stuff happens.

"I mean how many people out there would have imagined Beirut duty free to look like that?" asked the irrepressible Mr Brand, whose blog is called "The musings of a cockney ad man in Beirut".

The flash mob concept is nothing new - Air Canada and Verizon are just two global names that have used them in ads - but it is new enough for the Middle East.

The client, Mr Brand says, is happy. He is convinced that the thousands of Lebanese and others across the world who have seen the ad will now always associate the retail area with fun, joy and a bit of innovation.

Across town, at the ministry of tourism, someone must surely be asking: where did it all go wrong? While Saatchi's ad is riding high in the charts, the government's latest campaign, Beirut Blues, has come in for criticism from a brace of local feminist groups who say it objectifies women.

The commercials, which are supposedly to be set in London, Paris and New York, focus on two young men and a woman who drift into reverie when asked about their recent holidays in Lebanon. They are suffering from the post-Beirut blues geddit?

The French, of course, are bistro people, while the English are dart-throwing lager louts who live in dimly lit pubs and who say "mate" and "oi" a lot. The unwitting exception to the groaning cliche is our man in New York who has a woman from the north-east of England as his boss.

Be that as it may, the creatives at Impact BBDO, the agency that produced the ads for the ministry, need to brush up on their Camille Paglia. The men, naturally, miss the nightlife and suffer from flashbacks of scantily clad Lebanese women amid the madness of the Beirut club scene. (The more wholesome French woman, on the other hand, misses the cuisine and the activities such as skiing and sightseeing.) On the strength of these ads, Beirut is selling itself as a destination for Europeans wanting to stage the mother of all stag nights. Thankfully, the airfares are still too expensive.

Mr Brand finishes his pot of jasmine tea and says he must head back to work. He has lived in Lebanon for three years. Is he happy? "I love it here," he beams. Always the ad man!

Michael Karam is a publishing and communication consultant based in Beirut

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