Steering Clear of Singers and Comedians

With the exception of a few relatives and friends who may be privy to the secret, very few ordinary Israelis will recognize any of the voices delivering the hodgepodge of patriotic songs accompanying the election ads that will be broadcast starting tomorrow on our television screens.

With the exception of a few relatives and friends who may be privy to the secret, very few ordinary Israelis will recognize any of the voices delivering the hodgepodge of patriotic songs accompanying the election ads that will be broadcast starting tomorrow on our television screens. No familiar faces - except those of the politicians themselves - will be visible in the election advertisements either. Gone are the days when Boaz Sharabi lent his warm voice to the Likud campaign, Haim Moshe his tremolo to the National Religious Party's jingle, when the comedy skits of Dov Navon and Rami Heuberger, the Pale Tracker Trio and Sefi Rivlin were the cherry on top of the televised information campaigns by Meretz, Labor and Likud.

"I don't need celebrities. There is no reason, no money and no one is in the mood for it," says Shinui's chief advertising man in the coming elections, Alex Bilzki. "Our campaign is very businesslike. There is nothing emotional in it - it is all goal-oriented and is about our messages. The time when Labor or its predecessors used the Pale Trackers Trio is over. That was basically a decorations committee. That's what you do when your message is weak and you feel that your party lacks legitimacy. In the 1984 elections, I used it when I advertised Mapam. In recent years, politics have become very personal. The parties want to show their candidates, not actors."

Bilzki is not alone. In the 2003 elections, one of the only subjects that unite the parties' advertisers and strategists is their reluctance to use actors, singers and entertainers to promote their messages.

"Elections are not a performance, but rather a crucial decision to be made by every citizen. There is no added value to be gained by an actor's opinion," says Labor's campaign manager, Benny Cohen. Leor Horev, the Likud's campaign manager, speaks in almost identical terms. "The campaign ads are not entertainment. They have to send a message. The moment you include an actor or singer, it turns into propaganda. Reasonable people do not decide how they will vote because of what some artist says."

This way of thinking, which seems to make sense, was not always typical of Israeli political campaigns. In the past decade, in which five elections were held, the democratic rite has lost its charm and become a chore carried out without enthusiasm. In the current election campaign, advertising people for all the parties say that the public will see far fewer flags waving or combines threshing golden wheat and happy children. In this gloomy atmosphere, there is apparently no room for madcap antics.

In the 1984 elections, when the public had to decide which of the parties would extract Israel from the Lebanese quagmire and galloping hyper-inflation that media attention focused the "battle" between Sefi Rivlin for the Likud and the Pale Tracker Trio for Labor's predecessor, the Alignment. Yisrael (Poli) Poliakov of the Pale Tracker Trio does not recall whether Labor asked them to participate or if they approached the party on their own, but says, "At that time, we indeed identified with the party's path. We took into account that mobilizing for the campaign could hurt us, but the situation at the time was such that we felt we had to do something. We took into account that we might have to pay a price for it, but ultimately it didn't cause us problems. The fact that it was turned into an entertainment contest between us and Sefi Rivlin was absurd, because at the time we were stuck in Lebanon and had an inflation of 400 percent. There was no competition, even though the media tried to portray it that way."

Rivlin, who appeared in the Likud's ads for the third time running in 1984, does not know what competition the papers were talking about. He, too, says that his motivation for participating in the campaign ads at the time was ideological and says that for the 1977 and 1981 election campaigns, he received "only traveling expenses." In 1984, on the other hand, "They realized that they had to pay because I could end up paying a financial price. The number of people attending my performances did not drop, but I had to work harder to bring them, because many of the performances were organized by workers' committees controlled by a particular party. I did not and do not regret it, but I remember myself as fearful a number of times that no one would show up for my performances."

Rivlin says that since he has been approached a number of times to rally once again around the flag, but has refused. He, too, says "the gimmick has exhausted itself."

Dr. Tamir Shefer of the Communications Department of the Hebrew University says that the use of artists in election campaigns is a phenomenon almost exclusively unique to Israel. "I cannot recall this type of use of artists and celebrities in the United States, although we usually copycat their campaign style," says Shefer. "In the U.S., support by actors or singers is external, and the focus is on the candidate himself."

Shefer is convinced that the use of artists in campaigns in Israel has stopped because, "The advertising agencies realized that humor didn't do the trick and didn't deliver the goods. Nonetheless, it should be realized that contrary to what the advertising people and politicians, who take the matter very seriously, think, the campaign itself does not usually bring about victory or defeat in an election."

Since the election campaign of 1996, when Dana Berger and Zahava Ben starred for Meretz and Dov Navon and Rami Neuberger for Labor, the role of celebrities has been cut back to the vocal role alone. One possible reason is the beginning of the multi-channel age that flooded television screens in Israel with celebrities, who in Israel became associated in the public mind with selling cheese, ice cream or HMOs, but not with political credibility.

"The public today is far more aware of propaganda that shares the features of a commercial. The use of artists for commercials reduces the credibility of a campaign ad. You don't want a political ad campaign to look like a commercial campaign," says the Likud's Horev.

The only party that will use artists in their campaign ads for this election is apparently Shas, but not in its television campaign. Shas spokesman Itzik Sudri has in recent weeks become an amateur musical director. The party is currently distributing 300,000 cassettes on which Labor and Social Affairs Minister Shlomo Benizri narrates, and which star Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a few other rabbis and 10 Mizrahi songsters representing the various North African and Middle Eastern Jewish communities.

"Some singers will be discovered on this cassette for the first time. It's a wonderful free advertisement for them," says Sudri. "The problem is what to put on the cassette because there are only 45 minutes. The hit of the current cassette is Benny Elbaz, who took it in the direction of club music that can be used at public gatherings to work up the crowd. There was a song by an Iraqi musician that I ultimately decided not to include because it was too heavy, and I thought that most people wouldn't be able to connect with it. Perhaps only Rabbi Ovadia."