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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Lebanon takes a knife to the blight of roadside hoardings

The authorities have begun to tear down illegal billboards sited near prominent tourist sites in Lebanon, but the industry needs to lend a hand

Unless you've roamed through the stalactite and stalagmite-covered caverns of Jeita Grotto in Lebanon, it's hard to appreciate this natural wonder.

But upon emerging from the caves, the sight that greets the visitor is an assault on the eyes.

Littered all along the roadway between the grotto and the Roman ruins of Jbeil are adverts aplenty.

The views of the Mediterranean Sea are constantly interrupted and obstructed by freestanding billboards and corporate posters slapped between metal frames or pasted on the side of a building's wall.

Even if you wanted to head down to the water, you would be likely to have to pass one of the numerous Kellogg's cereal ads with the taunting tagline: "Smile all the way to the beach." It doesn't help matters at all that the giant bikini splashed across each of these billboards is in the shape of a bright red smile.

During one 60-second count when I visited, I spotted 35 billboards on one side of the road. I tallied up the ads aimed at drivers in both directions during another leg of the trip, and the total topped 60 in 60 seconds.

Like a number of other businesses, the clothing company Marie-France seems to favour getting its message across through rapid-fire repetition.

The firm, which describes itself as the Middle East's leader in the hosiery and underwear sector, had 20 ads in a row at one point, with each poster just a couple of metres behind the next. Then there's the Trident gum approach: use lots of colours and maybe that will stimulate cravings to chew.

Its slogans, which were displayed on separate billboards sprinkled along the same road, included "boyfriend playing videogames", written in red, "girlfriend getting ready", in green, and "medical school", in orange. At least the company was consistent in writing a tag at the bottom of each poster in the same colour, although the phrase - "longer than forever" - is nonsense.

My reaction to the onslaught of adverts may seem overblown, perhaps even unwarranted, as Lebanon is bound to reap some benefit from what is estimated to be a US$20 million (Dh73.4m) to $40m billboard ad industry.

But imagine my delight when, upon my return trip from Jbeil's ruins just a few hours later, I watched as a man ran right up to a poster wielding something in his hand.

What he did next made me smile, almost as widely as that bikini bottom on the Kellogg's campaign: using what appeared to be a box cutter he punched a hole straight through the advert.

And he wasn't alone. Groups of men all around him tore into ads then dumped sheets of dead slogans into the backs of trucks.

The day before, my driver informed me, one of these seemingly mad ad-men in another part of the country had been struck by a car during a similar raid. By the time I returned to the stretch of road peppered with Marie-France's ads the company's collection of 20 posters had been cut down to 12.

It turns out my first days in Lebanon happened to coincide with a national crackdown on all unlicensed billboards, which were ordered to be removed by the interior ministry as part of a plan to prevent further infringement on public property, according to a local news report in The Daily Star.

The barrage of illegal ads had become so distracting in recent years they have been deemed a danger to drivers on certain intersections. Even pedestrians had filed numerous complaints, as elevated ad displays had started encroaching on pavements, forcing people to walk on the street.

Clearly, one of the issues with Lebanon's advertising landscape is that there has not been enough control of private advertising companies, which often obtain licences to put up posters in one location but then use other, unauthorised areas that are more easily seen by passers-by.

As the country's advertising industry reconfigures its strategy, there is perhaps an opportunity for the International Advertising Association (IAA), which bills itself as "a pro-active partner and advocate for freedom of commercial speech", to step in to help police some of its own members.

This month, the Lebanese chapter of the IAA announced its 50th anniversary in a press releasepointing to a new book due out later this year that chronicles the country's history of advertising over the past half-century.

"This jubilee will be vital in the history of the [IAA]," the agency said. True as this may be for the IAA, it would be encouraging if it could write a new chapter for the book - one that foresees the strict enforcement of the ministry of the interior's diktat.

 

nparmar@thenational.ae