Why Middle East marketing and politics don’t mix

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Growing up in the region, I was (and still am) far too talkative. To keep me from getting into trouble, I was told, in no uncertain terms by my late father that I shouldn’t talk about politics, religion and sex (this always made me laugh as he’d proceed to do exactly what he advised me against).

His words should have been heeded by the marketing team at Pizza Hut’s Israel franchise. For those who haven’t yet read the story earlier last week. the fast food chain’s Israeli branch doctored a picture released by Israeli police allegedly showing Palestinian prisoner Marwan Barhgouti breaking his fast by eating a chocolate bar. In Hebrew, Israel’s Pizza Hut marketing team wrote: “Barghouti, if you’re going to break a strike, why not pizza?” The chain also Photoshopped a pizza box onto the floor of the prison cell along with a slice of pizza in the sink.

Unsurprisingly, the stunt backfired and caused a backlash on social media. Pizza Hut International moved to limit the damage by posting an apology and announcing that the marketing agency behind the initiative had been fired (there was no mention of what happened to the person on the client side who approved the image’s creation and posting).

Pizza Hut has learned the hard way that marketing and politics don’t mix, especially in the Middle East. There’s a couple of basic points that marketers need to take from this debacle:

  • Politics polarizes to the extreme: Few brands would want to touch any issue relating to Israel and the Palestinians, due to the intensity of emotions on both sides. By appealing to one audience, you’ve essentially alienated the other side, no matter what your content or message is.
  • Digital is borderless: This concept may have worked before the internet, when advertising was restricted to TV, print or radio, and didn’t go viral. However, there’s nowhere for bad advertising to hide in a digital world where billions of eyeballs can see your content. Advertising intended for one audience can – and in this case did – spread to an audience who have a contrasting opinion. Likewise, calls for a boycott are no longer local, but are regional or global in nature.
  • An apology only fans the flames: Pizza Hut’s apology on such a controversial issue may have only made the situation worse. Whilst the original post alienated Palestinian activists and their supporters, the apology would have upset many Israelis who are opposed to the Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike. The chain would have lost fans, and sales, on both sides.

Politics can be leveraged in a manner that can build brand equity – Heineken proved that with its latest #OpenYourWorld ad which attempts to promote debate and dialogue between people with differing political persuasions. However, for every Heineken, there’s a dozen Pepsis. A marketer will to use Middle East politics in his or her content would be a much braver soul than me. I’ll continue to follow my father’s advice, at least when it comes to advertising, and keep away from politics, religion, and sex.

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