Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bordering on controversy

Before I landed my first agency job, I was a freelancer who desperately wanted to break in to travel writing. I suppose that's the dream of every well-travelled young scribe with a romantic streak — which is the reason I didn't make much headway.

To this day, I have a soft spot for travel and tourism ads with a historical angle. Whether it's been a branding campaign for the Bytown Museum, or tourist attractions for AT&T long distance, I've enjoyed every opportunity to get my culture on.

I also follow mistakes, such as when an English tourist ad uses a stock photo of Canada, or a photo collage implies that the Canadian view of Niagara Falls can be seen from upstate New York. These are fairly innocent, or even expedient mistakes. St. Peter's Basilica is not technically in Rome — or even Italy — but it's still on the Roman tour agenda. And a trip to Ottawa often includes a visit across the provincial border to the Museum of Civilization. No harm done, really.

And then there's this ad, which appeared in the UK:

Seems pretty average — even boring — but a more detailed examination has caused public controversy leading to a ban by the British Advertising Standards Authority, and has increased tensions over an already tense issue:

The middle pic is of the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock, and is labelled "Jerusalem". But as the Telegraph points out, the view is of East Jerusalem, part of the disputed Occupied Territories of the West Bank.

"'So what,' you say?" You must not be from there, or know many people who are attached to the region.

According to the Telegraph:

"The ASA said the advert breached truthfulness guidelines and ordered it not to be used again, adding: 'We told the IGTO not to imply that places in the Occupied Territories were part of the State of Israel.'

It added: 'We noted the ad stated 'You can travel the entire length of Israel in six hours - imagine what you can experience in 4 days' and 'visit now for more itineraries in Israel' and considered that readers were likely to understand that the places featured in the itinerary were all within the state of Israel.

'We understood, however, that the status of the Occupied Territory of the West Bank was the subject of much international dispute, and because we considered that the ad implied that the part of East Jerusalem featured in the image was part of the state of Israel, we concluded that the ad was likely to mislead.'"

Oh yes, it's political. And as a Canadian guy who has friends with deeply personal feelings on both sides of this complicated and sometimes bloody issue, I don't want to make a judgemental statement here either way.

What interests me more is what the intent was. Advertisers sometimes make mistakes. Or we overgeneralize. Was this an oversight?

The Israeli Ministry of Tourism says no, but insists it was appropriate. "Had the ad omitted a reference to a visit to the city of Jerusalem, it would have been incorrect and potentially misleading" They add hat Israel "took responsibility to support the religious sites of all denominations, a commitment which also formed part of the obligations of an agreement with the Palestinian Authority signed in 1995".

It is interesting to note that last year, the ASA banned another Israeli tourism ad which implied that The West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights were part of the state of Israel.

I won't dwell on reactions to this issue, except to say that one group of people is angry that it ever ran, and another is angry that it was banned.

I am just reminded what a volatile mix advertising and politics can be. And maybe I won't get so irked the next time the Americans take credit for "our" falls, and just quietly appreciate 150-or-so years of peace on that border.

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