Should the advertising world boycott Israel?

Near silence emerges from the advertising community when questioned about potential boycotts of Israel

If actress Scarlett Johansson achieved anything by choosing SodaStream over her ambassadorial role with Oxfam, it was to increase global awareness of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

As BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti told The Guardian at the end of last month: “Oxfam is a human rights organisation. They cannot maintain an ambassador if they are involved in a complicit Israeli company built in a settlement.”

Since then the BDS movement has hit headlines around the world and rattled Israelis fearful of economic isolation. A report in The Economist noted that Norway’s finance ministry has “excluded Africa Israel Investments and its subsidiary, Danya Cebus, from a government pension fund”, while Dutch pension fund PGGM had previously withdrawn tens of millions of dollars worth of investments from five Israeli banks, citing the “banks’ unethical and illegal practices in the West Bank”. All of which followed on from the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions.

But while BDS is making progress, the campaign’s challenge is enormous. In June last year, for example, Google paid just over $1 billion for Waze, an Israeli firm that creates traffic and navigation apps. Earlier this month Israeli messaging app Viber was bought by Rakuten, the owner of online retailer Play.com. For the majority, Israel is just another business opportunity.

But what of the advertising industry? All of the major networks are present in the country, but any discussion of a potential boycott of Israel is avoided, particularly here in the Middle East. As Bana Abu Maizer admits, for a Palestinian to question their employer’s involvement in Israel is a step most are unwilling to take for fear of a backlash.

“The first of your frustration starts to materialise when you verbalise your intent to speak your mind on the matter,” she says. “Thinking it is one thing, but having your name next to your strong, well thought out statement is a whole different ball game. The very first second you mention the thought of boycott, eyebrows jump, eyes flare and frowns form. The question is no longer ‘should there be one?’ The question moves to ‘when will there be one?’ The sad reality though is that no one wants to talk about it, for fear of the ultimate ‘CLM’, a popular term used in the industry. And this would be one hell of a career limiting move.”

There are a few, however, who are free to talk. One is Alexandra Tohme, who heads marketing and acquisitions across MENA for UK-based Palringo. Should the advertising world boycott Israel, or even, by extension, should clients boycott agencies with operations in the country? “Should we boycott agencies that operate over there? Since all media globally is ultimately controlled by about five or six companies this would be nearly impossible,” she says. “As a consumer there is information asymmetry. We might be able to just about know which products are on the BDS list, but what if they are advertised by an Israeli firm or one that operates there? The question therefore is not so much of a should, it is more would it even be possible?”

Does that mean efforts shouldn’t be taken to boycott Israel? “If the outcome is relatively little compared with the inputs required, then yes. Because there are more ways to skin this cat. What one needs to do is spend more time creating media that counters any propaganda coming from there. I believe it’s a question of who has the louder megaphone. It’s all well to say ‘let’s boycott’, but what does that actually mean? You would need a whole ecosystem of independent agencies, which is hard to find. However, in my role as a client we are working with one such agency in Dubai. We are sensitive to the needs of our customers who are in the region.”

But what, realistically, could, or should, any potential adland boycott of Israel entail? “The ultimate goal of BDS is to isolate Israel – academically, culturally, economically – as South Africa was isolated under apartheid, until it recognises our three basic rights under international law: ending the occupation, ending its system of racial discrimination and allowing the refugees to return,” says Barghouti. “However, we do not actively pursue a boycott of every boycottable company. As a decentralised human rights movement, we adopt the operational principle of context sensitivity, which means that we defer to our partners in any given context to decide what to target and how. Some partners boycott only settlement-based industries, while others endorse a full boycott of Israel.

“It may be a bit early to launch a campaign calling on all advertising agencies to quit Israel. At this point in the development of BDS, we feel we must start with asking advertising companies that are complicit in Israel’s occupation and violations of international law to end their complicity. This complicity can take different forms, such as 1) advertising for Israeli settlers in the occupied Palestinian territory. This is a clear infringement on international law. 2) Advertising anywhere in Israel for companies that are implicated in Israel’s occupation, settlements, wall, checkpoints or other grave violations of human rights (e.g. CAT, Veolia, G4S, Volvo, Hyundai, HP and Motorola).”

AN ADVOCATE OF PEACE

Publicis Groupe CEO Maurice Lévy argues that the advertising community should combine its talent to help create a movement for peace between Palestinians and Israelis

Maurice Lévy, the charismatic French CEO of Publicis Groupe and one of the most powerful men in global advertising, was the only holding group heavyweight willing to discuss the advertising world’s relationship with Israel.

The reasons for this are probably manifold. Publicis is the only leading global communications group to have invested in Palestine, with rivals such as WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic concentrating solely on Israel. Lévy has also invested a considerable amount of personal time searching for a solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and is chairman of the international board of governors at the Peres Center for Peace. He is also Jewish. Whether he is a Zionist or not is open to debate.

When the Publicis Groupe became the first major communications network to enter the Palestinian market in June 2012, purchasing a 20 per cent stake in Ramallah-based agency Zoom Advertising, Lévy said the transaction was important on several levels. “One key element, of course, is Publicis’ desire to serve our clients wherever they work,” he said. “But the impact of this operation extends much further than that. It comes immediately after our announcement of the acquisition of BBR in Israel – symbolically, this speaks to every man’s dream of seeing peace in the Middle East and between the Palestinian and Israeli peoples.”

 

Why isn’t the advertising world boycotting Israel? Why does it support the Israeli economy via fully owned and affiliate offices when companies from other industries are choosing to boycott?
ML: It is, first, a sensitive subject, and second, extremely complicated. There is no easy answer. But are there really any global companies that are making such decisions, which, by the way, would be illegal? A boycott is something that has to be decided at the level of the United Nations, not by an NGO, as respectable as that NGO may be. It has to be something that’s decided at an international level, and not at any other level.

Companies can make individual decisions though. Dutch pension fund PGGM, for example, has liquidated its holdings in five Israeli banks. Other companies are making similar decisions
ML: I have been involved in the region for more than 20 years, and not only in words, but in action. If you want to do something that is beneficial to peace in the region, as a company you need to do what Publicis has done. We are the first and only ones so far in our industry to have invested in Palestine with the participation of Zoom in Ramallah.You can’t only invest in Israel. You have to invest in Palestine and in other Arab countries. Invest in order to help the people get a good job, to improve their education, to grow and bloom, and to have a more decent life. Companies should not have a political point of view, they should have a point of view that’s based on
humanity, and that is what we do.

For many years I have been a tireless – and I must say fruitless – campaigner for peace. I’m working with Israelis and Palestinians in order to try to convince the two sides to come to an agreement. As long as there is dispute, war, terror in the region, it is extremely difficult to have a reading of the situation that is clear. The kind of reading we may have sitting in Paris, in London or in Madison Avenue is a macro reading. If you really want to have something that is real, that is human; you have to help the region to come to an agreement. And you have to help the region to live better, and for that I think it is important that we invest, but invest properly. Our role is to grow business, and if we can do this by doing good, we are good CEOs. If we are doing good business by doing bad things, that’s no good.

Recently I was part of a meeting that was organised by Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, and in Davos we had a meeting called ‘Breaking the Impasse’. The idea was to put together Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, French, American, whoever would like to be of good will and help. We had a very good meeting and we worked very hard in order to find the avenues towards peace. This is what we should all be doing, instead of breeding hatred and taking decisions that are negative. My approach has always been that, instead of blaming anyone, I should help everyone.

But it’s been 60 years so far and nothing has really changed. Dialogue has not worked. If anything the situation is worse, which is why people are moving towards boycotts and sanctions
ML: I don’t agree with that. There have been wars, there has been terror much worse than today, bombings, the killings in Munich, so you can’t say that the situation is worse. The situation has improved markedly, but it’s not yet where it should be. Because of the security situation it is very hard to have a point of view that is disconnected from the reality of both sides. I believe that one of the key reasons why we should – everyone of us – encourage peace is because it’s for the wellbeing of the people. We must encourage peace. And there are a lot of ways to encourage peace. What is important today is to ask how can we, as an industry, do a better job of helping the populations of both countries open the channels of conversations and come to an agreement.

You say things are better, but what about Gaza? There is a complete blockade and it would be hard to imagine a worse situation.
ML: Gaza is a very different issue. Even Palestinians don’t have a clear view about what should be done in Gaza. The issue of Gaza is, first and foremost, about the various Palestinian parties coming to an agreement.

The BDS’s campaign goal is to isolate Israel, as South Africa was isolated under apartheid, until it recognises Palestinians’ three basic rights under international law: ending the occupation, ending its system of racial discrimination and allowing the refugees to return. These are perfectly reasonable things to ask. Shouldn’t illegal settlements be removed?
ML: I don’t believe personally that it is constructive to isolate Israel and to promote boycott. South Africa was a different situation where a nationality of white caucasians were imposing their laws on a majority of citizens of the same country. The role that we should all embrace is to help cooperate co-existence and peace in the region. If an NGO wants to help, it could start by helping peace happen.

What would you encourage the advertising community to do?
ML: We should put all our talent together in order to create a better understanding between the two populations and create a movement for peace. That is what we should be doing. We should be working with our hearts, our minds, our creativity, to help bring the populations together and to help them come to a common understanding, and to encourage their political leaders to sit down to sign an agreement.

Why isn’t that happening?
ML: Publicis is working on it. I am working on it. But the industry should be doing much more. Why others aren’t, you’ll have to ask them.

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