Posted on | December 14, 2009 | No Comments
Ecra Creative Group
1. Europe still struggles with the integration of Muslim immigrant populations; this recent Swiss ad campaign speaks to popular fears.
2. The symbolism is unmistakable: Minarets rise like missiles from a Swiss flag with an ominous burka-clad woman in the foreground. Powerful stuff.
3. Shock advertising worked in this case (the Swiss referendum in question was approved with 58 percent of the vote), but there is no mistaking what it really does – exploiting fear, racism, and xenophobia for political gain.
You just don’t see ads like this one in the United States.
As far as advertising “cultures” go, we’re pretty “word-based”. We like rational arguments, snappy headlines, and clearly articulated points. That’s not to say advertising agencies in the United States are not careful visual communicators – they are – but even a cursory review of international advertising exhibitions would show a stark difference.
The ad below is case in point. Translated it reads, “Stop. [Vote] Yes to the minaret ban.” A bit of background: Minarets are to the mosque what steeples are to the church, an architectural feature common in classic designs, but (just like modern Christian churches) not a requirement. Switzerland is home to about 400 thousand Muslims, or about four percent of the overall population. Of the 200 mosques in the country, only four have minarets.
As you might have guessed, this is no ordinary campaign for a new zoning ordinance.
Minarets are not a building code issue. They are a symbol. And a powerful one at that.
The ad is the product of Switzerland’s ultra right wing. Political winds indicate a growing concern over the “Islamization” of Europe. The issue has become something of a flashpoint in Western Europe, with sectarian riots, civil unrest, and the 7/7 terror attacks in London. It also helps to understand the famous “Swiss Neutrality” is solely a foreign policy position. Inside the country, political parties jockey for position the same as any other vigorous democracy.
From a political perspective, the campaign is unlikely to achieve anything explicitly substantive (minarets are not a “problem” in that sense). In addition, the referendum (that did pass, by the way) will likely be ruled unconstitutional. Singling out a religion for special treatment is as off-limits there as it is here. Rather, the referendum was a litmus test for politicians to test message their fear appeal.
But before we drift too far into a political discussion – others have done that far better than I – let’s refocus on the advertising itself.
Whether you like or dislike the ad or its aims, one cannot dispute the symbolic power employed. Let’s briefly tease apart the key elements.
First is the Swiss flag itself. We see that it is in the background, almost “trampled upon”. Be that as it may, the flag represents an obvious and powerful symbol of national pride and identity, seen as “under siege” from foreign invaders.
Next, emerging from the flag we see “minarets” themselves. But they don’t look like minarets, do they? They look unmistakably like missiles poised for an attack. To the diplomatically neutral Swiss, anything that smacks of military threat is anathema to its culture.
Finally, we see a burka clad woman in an ominous pose (those eyes!) staring at the viewer. There is double-symbolism here. For one, it represents a starkly counterculture image of women in Europe – covered, shackled, and oppressed. It also represents the fear of bringing the burka into the school, community, and workplace. But more than that, the threat of a female suicide bomber and religious extremism is unmistakable.
Of course, as you might also guess, this is not the first shockvertisement to spawn from this group. In another striking visual, a group of “black” crows picks apart the Swiss flag (“A free passport for everybody? No.”). Another ad juxtaposes a burka clad woman and another blonde Swiss woman under the headline, “Maria, not Sharia” (as in Islamic Sharia law).
Sure, the ads are banned in many places in Switzerland, but that hardly matters. In fact, that response creates the opposite affect, increasing their popularity. The ads spread virally through traditional and social media channels. For a very limited budget, the ad receives near-complete market penetration.
To be frank, I considered that as I wrote this article. Am I – by showing the ad to you – inadvertently feeding their strategy? Am I perpetuating this message, with whatever small audience I might reach?
I am not sure what the correct answer is. Sometimes, I think it is correct to ignore the proverbial screaming child having a tantrum in the supermarket. To recognize the behavior is to validate it. But there is another part of me that says sunlight is the best disinfectant to hateful creative garbage – no matter how symbolically effective it might be. It must be exposed for what it is – racist, fear mongering, and exploitative.
Switzerland may aim for neutrality. In this case, I cannot.