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For the past two weeks, it has been difficult to avoid the slogan dancing across the Azrieli Center, declaring in blue-and-white that "It's In Our Hands!" The caption flutters above an illuminated Israeli flag, framed by flashing lights above and below, like the brake lights of a flashy car that is supposed to grab as much attention as possible from others on the road.

The end result is a gesture that, while perhaps full of good intentions, is loud and typical of many of the country's national advertising campaigns. The inscription is visible from far away. Dazzling and conspicuous, the slogan is not commercial or crude - just like an election campaign.

Does the "It's In Our Hands" publicity campaign have a national quality to it? Is it similar or different from patriotic advertising campaigns in other countries? And most importantly: Who needs a patriotic publicity campaign, and who decides to initiate this type of undertaking?

Israel is fond of national publicity campaigns. Sometimes they are laughable in their unsuccessful attempt to hide serious anxieties ("Come in and update your gas masks - It's a part of life"), sometimes they are obnoxious ("In the meantime, we're turning off the water," or "Anyone who trashes is garbage"), and sometimes they are cruel ("Grandpa isn't coming back. Driver - don't cross a life!"). However, only rarely do they manage to penetrate the public consciousness.

Azaria Alon, a former secretary of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), helped orchestrate a national publicity campaign in the 1960s to save wildflowers. The publicity campaign (which at the time was simply referred to as "information disseminated through the educational institutions") is still cited by advertising professionals as the country's most successful national advertising campaign.

Alon recalls that the campaign, which began in 1963, was a result of the fledgling group's deep concerns over the fate of wildflowers. "We felt the beautiful and rare flowers were dwindling in number," he says. "We decided to act in two ways: The society began an information campaign, and the National Parks Authority took action to enforce the law banning the picking of wildflowers. We didn't have any copywriters or ad agencies.

"The society's counselors approached kindergarten teachers, teachers, policemen and judges, and explained the purpose of the law. Through education we reached every child, and it had an immediate effect. We had authorization to levy fines, since legislative authority was conferred on us, but very few fines were levied. Anyone picking flowers after our information campaign was positively evil, but it occurred only rarely," he says.

"That sort of information campaign takes years. We went back to it year after year, and after a few years its effect was discernible. It was easy for us to measure the effect - flowers bloomed again. Beforehand, for instance, 15,000 people would take part in the Gilboa March, and they wouldn't even leave grass behind them, not to mention cyclamens and tulips. It didn't take that many years for us to notice the change: People would take a picture and then move on. They didn't pick the flowers.

"It was a tough struggle," Alon recalls, while mentioning some of the arguments still voiced against efforts on behalf of the environment. "Owners of flower shops, who would regularly pick wildflowers so they could sell them, argued that we were harming their livelihood; that we cared more about the flowers than about citizens who want to earn a living. They didn't understand how flowers they had procured for free could suddenly be outlawed."

Alon attributes the campaign's success to the painstaking grass-roots work aimed at children in the education system. "The hardest thing is to struggle against economic factors or against bullies," he says. "The public, and especially children, quickly understand the issue and respond."

The wildflower campaign, however, was not the only successful campaign engineered by the group. "There were some local successes in preserving the coral in the Gulf of Eilat: In the 1970s, it was fashionable to break off coral and put it in the Israeli living room on top of the radio. The practice ended after a few years of information and legislation."

Not all campaigns have been successful, however. One example is the campaign waged against contractors who dump construction debris in public places. "It's still more worthwhile for them to pay the fine than to dispose of the rubbish in the designated places," says Alon.

Michael Lipschitz, director-general of the SPNI, is unequivocal over the issue. "Any publicity campaign that doesn't sprout from the field fails. Any publicity campaign that is engineered from above primarily glorifies the politicians that are behind it, which is why there are so many in Israel," he says. "If someone gave me the budget for a publicity campaign and didn't back it up with field work, it would be as effective as if I were advertising cookies or telephone companies. It would have no national significance."

Dr. Yehiel Limor of the Tel Aviv University Communications Department differentiates between grass-roots publicity campaigns responding to a genuine public need and campaigns that come "from above." He contends that the slogan "It's In Our Hands" is a belated reaction to the patriotic publicity campaigns that became popular in the United States after September 11. "There, the public wants to enlist on behalf of the city, whereas here it seems forced," he says.

Limor argues that the SPNI wildflowers campaign was successful due to the focus on children. "The children persuaded their parents. Children always have power in publicity campaigns, because it's hard to resist their requests, and they are considered an audience that readily devotes itself to a cause," he says. "It's more customary today for children to goad their parents into buying all sorts of commercial goods. Harry Potter stickers are just one example. That is why some countries strictly limit advertising aimed at children."

He believes that Israel is particularly suited for national publicity campaigns. "The needs exist, and are based on well-known, manifest feelings, particularly in Israel. There is always a need here for national unity. In that respect, even listening to the news every hour is a sort of national publicity campaign, creating a feeling of unity and shared conversation subjects each time. There is always a need to feel and be comforted by national unity; it's an obvious and well-known human requirement."

Limor says a national publicity campaign's success can be judged only after some time has passed. "There is no magic formula that indicates when it will succeed or fail. But one obvious criterion is a publicity campaign that emanates from the field - from the classroom or from the neighborhood. Collecting plastic bottles for recycling is a good example - there were few advertisements about it in the media, but the public understood that the metal receptacles were for collecting bottles, and it began to use them," he says. "Conversely, the government's publicity campaign to encourage tourism is unsuccessful despite the explicit emphasis on the national interest, as if the prime minister himself was appealing to us in the advertisements."

Limor adds that the implementation of a large number of national publicity campaigns is not a standard trait for a relatively young country under continuous pressures, as is the case with Israel. "A national publicity campaign generates a sense of involvement by the public," he says. "But it isn't always clear what a person is supposed to do with a campaign meant to boost morale: How am I supposed to react to `It's In Our Hands'? How can you measure the encouragement I get from this publicity campaign, and how is it expressed? But maybe the mere fact that we're talking about it is diverting attention from the bad mood of the public."

The "It's In Your Hands" publicity campaign is a private initiative of the Azrieli Group and its director-general, Menachem Einan. The slogan, coined by ad-man Miki Kaufman, came about "after we went through a long line of copywriters and advertising people," says Einan. "Most of the work in the campaign is done on a volunteer basis. We received commercial spots on TV, while the ad agency is volunteering its services. We fund everything else.

"The campaign was born out of my feeling that we have to make the people stand tall," he says. "The security situation is hard, the economic situation had produced a harsh reality, so we decided to unfurl the flag, create the sense of being part of a broad collective. I'm not sure the publicity campaign is a sort of belated response to what is happening in the United States. But I would be very interested in our learning from them how to respect symbols and how to be less cynical. I would be happy if we imitated their model."

Despite Einan's good intentions, Netivei Ayalon - the company maintaining the highway next to the Azrieli Towers - has criticized the campaign, claiming the the buildings' flashing slogan is a driving hazard. "It's a bizarre complaint," Einan says, adding that whether or not the public approves, the Azrieli Group has the right to decorate the building.

The display might seem artificial, even forced, but it appears to be having an impact. Last week, more cars were flying flags - reminiscent of Independence Day - buses sported patriotic slogans and newspapers ran similar-spirited advertisements.

The patriotic spirit in the United States has engendered numerous volunteer publicity campaigns, for example, encouraging tourism to New York. The ad agency BBDO received broadcast time from the national TV networks and produced several short films in which well-known New Yorkers - including Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal, Yogi Berra and Barbara Walters - talk about their love for the city. The films, directed by Woody Allen, Barry Levinson and Martin Scorsese, could be downloaded from the Internet, were screened at a number of important ceremonies and radiated optimism and emotion. (They can be accessed at the Advertising Age website - www.adage.com.)

As for the local "It's In Our Hands" campaign, Einan says that despite growing popularity, it is nearing an end. "We will be pulling it soon despite the fact that we are getting a lot of requests - numbering in the hundreds - from the public to continue it. But for its effect to grow, we have to stop it."

At least until the next publicity campaign.