Analysis

Sexualizing Smurfette: How Israeli Advertisers Exploit ultra-Orthodox for PR Stunts

Public relations at the expense of the ultra-Orthodox community is too tempting for shameless advertisers to resist.

A Hoodies ad in Ramat Gan in which the image of model Bar Refaeli has been defaced, 2014.
Tomer Appelbaum

There are some 900,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, and at least as many other Israelis who love to hate them. This situation is nothing new, which is why advertisers can build entire ad campaigns on the knowledge that a single small trick can successfully trigger those feelings of antipathy: Run a “provocative” ad campaign in a Haredi neighborhood, raise a symbolic shout of “Oy gevalt!” – and, hey presto, the media will be all over you and the buzz will do the rest.

This time, the public relations company behind the latest Smurfs movie didn’t even wait for the outcry. Its main efforts were invested in a press release with the story and picture of the billboard in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak (near Tel Aviv), in which the blue, modest and God-fearing image of a female smurf (Smurfette) was missing – even though no one had requested her removal, and no one would have asked to do so, either. This time, the PR was so effective that the story went viral globally.

The ad campaign for “Smurfs: The Lost Village” didn’t even pay attention to the fact that the Haredim was not the target audience for this movie. “Personally, I was amazed to see the advertisers think that the public is so stupid. In my opinion, it was just dumb; it didn’t even make me angry,” says Benayahu Yom Tov, a political consultant whose clients include the ultra-Orthodox political party Shas.

The Smurfette story reminds him of a request he received from a certain municipality last year. A well-known political operative in that city approached him with a request to “organize” opposition to a new open house for the LGBT community. “He called me and said, ‘We are opening a center, fight me!’,” recalls Yom Tov. “Even though it would be bad for us, the method is one hand washes the other – that is how politics works.

“I refused the offer,” he adds. “I told him that the politicians were benefiting, but the public was losing out. When you blow up a balloon, you don’t know when it will pop.”

In the past, politicians and advertisers at least put some effort into their wannabe provocations. In 2009, the Fox fashion chain caused a (profitable) outcry when it put up a large billboard along the Ayalon Highway (Route 20) in the center of Tel Aviv, on which the nearly naked bodies of models Bar Refaeli and Noam Tor lay together on a bed.

The ad for "Smurfs: The Lost Village" in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, March 28, 2017.
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

>> From the archive: Inside the world of ultra-Orthodox media: Haredi journalists tell it like it is <<

Fox succeeded in wringing out a particularly impressive “gevalt” from a well-known Haredi wheeler-dealer, Rabbi Motke Blau, chairman of the Bnei Brak group Guardians of Sanctity and Education. Even though the billboard was located far from Rabbi Akiva Street in the heart of the Haredi city, and in a totally non-Haredi location in Tel Aviv, Blau threatened a complete boycott of Fox by the ultra-Orthodox – doing the company a great service. The Haredi websites celebrated, while Fox announced that it would replace the billboards with more modest ones, a move that made the prime-time news on Channel 2.

Win-win situation

A number of Haredi advertisers and PR people said they knew of cases in which negative anti-Haredi campaigns were conjured up out of thin air, but refused to name names. Yanki Bichler, a well-known political consultant in the Haredi world, says he knows of big firms in secular society who want to provoke a Haredi outcry.

To illustrate his claim, Bichler points to an investigative report broadcast by Channel 2 last week – about benefits provided by health maintenance organizations to customers in the Haredi sector – as a classic win-win situation. Numerous times, he says, the management of the HMOs tell their Haredi marketing managers to “put out the word about the privileges, and then it will become the conversation. The minute you leverage it, and the nonreligious attack you for it ... everyone sees that the HMOs are willing to draw criticism on behalf of the Haredi customer – and it works for them,” he explains.

Moti Rubenstein, who edits the ultra-Orthodox Pashkevil website, gives two examples of negative ad campaigns in Bnei Brak, one successful, the other unsuccessful.

The failure occurred because the ad’s text was written in English. The successful campaign, back in 2013, used the face of a pretty model as bait. The ad, which looked like an ad for a consumer product, actually hid another ad beneath it. A large part of the ad showed the woman’s face, while the rest of the ad displayed the word “Violence.”

An unknown local took the bait, ripped off the woman’s face from the ad and inadvertently revealed the “true” message underneath, which read: “International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.” The perfect ad: Provocation plus “gevalt” plus punch line.