In Israel's Advertising World, Criminal Equals Mizrahi, Intellectual Equals Ashkenazi, Gay Equals Weakling

Nati Tucker
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A TV ad for Hot Telecom that stirred a fuss for ridiculing Mizrahim, and was later taken off the air.
A TV ad for Hot Telecom that stirred a fuss for ridiculing Mizrahim, and was later taken off the air.Credit: ערוץ היוטיוב של ה
Nati Tucker

The WIZO version of the Razzie (or Golden Raspberry) went to the ad agency of Baumann Ber Rivnay in 2014, for its ad for Elite brand Turkish coffee. The campaign features two light-skinned women choosing a Mizrahi flat-mate so he could make fish for them, protect them from thieves and preserve their parking space on the street. WIZO declared the ad to be offensive.

Yossi Lubaton shrugs off the dubious honor: “We still don’t think feminism and humor contradict each other.”

>> The Mizrahi Revival: A Special Project

Two years ago, when another Baumann Ber Rivnay ad, in which women were asked to forward their photo in a bra, also won the WIZO razzie. It almost ended in court, and the ad agency was urged to apologize. But now Lubaton has something to say. At a conference by Facebook and the city of Tel Aviv last week, called “Advertising coming out of the closet,” he delivered a lecture entitled, “Are we chauvinistic?” to which he had a categorical answer: “Yes. That is the reality of the advertisers and the agreement agencies.”

People who know the advertising industry inside and out and are familiar with the cynical way the players exploit lofty social values admit that something has changed. This was the first time that a leading advertising agency, accused of racism and sexism, simply tells the truth and calls for change in the way companies treat minority groups.

Slave to concepts

“Intellectual equals Ashkenazi,” Lubaton spelled out the concepts to which the advertising industry is enslaved. “Family equals man, woman, boy, girl. Criminal equals Mizrahi. Homosexual equals a ridiculous, weak, effeminate man.”

He even presented internal emails written by casting directors at ad agencies, such as one seeking “an actress aged 21-26 with a light-haired Israeli look.” Another production wanted “women with light to medium light skin”. The result of casting in this manner is ads where the positive, intelligent image is always an Ashkenazi woman and the boy is always blond; the negative personality is always Mizrahi.

The Bezeq phone company, for instance, presented ads in 2012 showing a young man turning to another guy and saying, “You must know where there’s a good criminal lawyer here.” The other guy was, of course, Mizrahi. In another case, social organizations claimed that a Schweppes ad showing black men as language-less cannibals was racist.

“This has to end,” Lubaton wrote in a slide in his presentation, adding that it isolated initiatives wouldn’t help – what’s needed is conceptual change. He called for the Israeli ad industry to adopt a treaty under which ads would represent the entire population, without resorting to discrimination and prejudice, without distinguishing on the bases of religion, race or sex, that eschews stereotyping, that shatters stigmas rather than perpetuating them.

Each year the Second Broadcast Authority fields dozens of complaints about racist or sexist ads. David Regev, ombudsman, notes that the advertisers enjoy the freedom of expression and creation and in most cases, argue that the ostensibly offensive ad is funny and that by nature, not everybody shares the same sense of humor. Intervention is rare.

Yet the advertising world is increasingly moving away from the paradigms and towards showing people as they really are. Lubaton points at insurance companies that show single-sex couples in their ads. An ad for Dove soap that used women who weren’t models or actresses was very successful.

A violent discourse

His own conversion was fairly recent Lubaton told TheMarker. “For years I thought it wasn’t the function of the ad agencies and marketers to educate the public. But I saw what’s been happening in Israeli society in the last year, the mounting extremism, and the violent discourse in the social networks. With all the good things that Facebook and the social networks brought to the world, they also made their contribution to extremist, inflammatory discussion.” And he decided, he says, “that it is our role and that we need to do the little we can to influence awareness. If we and the content creators do that, it could start creating change.”

TheMarker: That sounds a little precious. The advertising industry is the one feeding off those stereotypes. It contributed to them.

“I don’t think we created them, but we – the brands and the advertising agencies – operate and adjust to the environment in which we live, and it’s a bigoted environment, which shuns that which is different and is not tolerant towards it. Such advertising grew out of such society. But the marketing world is definitely part of the bigoted, violent society that does not accept the different. I don’t purport to say we will change society, but we can try to institute change.”

TheMarker: Towards women too? You starred in the WIZO disgrace list.

“I tried to clarify, in my lecture too, that there is no attempt here to accuse a specific agency or advertiser. It’s a plague in the whole industry, and we have it too. We’re all in the same boat in this context.”

TheMarker: Why hasn’t the industry changed so far? Is it the conservatism of the clients?

“Obviously, without the clients on board, change won’t happen. What’s needed is a pact between the advertisers and the agencies, declaring they will do things otherwise. The pact wouldn’t lay out dichotomous laws with rules like 20% Mizrahis in every ad. The intent is to create a compass if we become too politically correct it will kill advertising and creativity.”

Characters that rate

Amira Buzaglo, who casts for television and advertising, knows the considerations guiding the choice of characters very well. Speaking at the Facebook conference, she more or less eulogized advertising as we know it, damning it for being too conservative and unwilling to foster change.

“Millions of shekels are invented in ads just to break Internet, but they don’t work because the advertisers are more and more conservative,” she told TheMarker. “I can understand why: they’re spending big money and a lot is at stake, so they want to play it safe.

TheMarker: What do they choose and what are the alternatives?

“There is blatant discrimination in advertisements,” Buzaglo says. “There is certainly more representation of white people of a certain population group. This misrepresentation of our society is exclusive of women, Mizrahis, Arabs, Ethiopians and any other minority. The themes are outdated. I’m not a saleswoman, but the assumption is that sex sells, and a woman erotically licking ice cream is good for sales. But I can give them other creative concept and connection to the brand’s values. In the world outside they understand that in recent years, to create a smarter, stronger brand, they need to act with social and public responsibility.”

She actually feels that television and reality shows have grasped the change and have been trying to show a wider range of characters, not only for reasons of values, but because they’re more interesting and boost ratings. But it hasn’t reached advertising, she says.

“Advertising is always the last bastion,” she says: It changes last because of the big money involved. “But the audience is already voting with its feet. It wants to be challenged. It has regained the power and if something bothers it, the people write about it on social media.” It would pay not only morally but economically for advertisers to join the trend, Buzaglo advises.

She admits to being part of the mechanism that casts white men for bank ads and Mizrahi women for couscous ads. “But I’m trying to change things in my little acre,” Buzaglo says. “We have to take responsibility. We grew up with these stereotypes and our goal is to change.”