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The lost generation

June 30, 2007 10:00 by

advertising, Lebanon

Of all Arab youth, Lebanese aged 18-25 are arguably the Middle East’s cutting edge when it comes to fashion and spending trends. You’d think advertisers would be eager to connect with such an audience, but they face one huge problem: When it comes to traditional media, most Lebanese youth are turning off and tuning out.

The result is that young people are virtually ignored in most media and marketing plans. That’s a mistake, say a number of specialists: Marketers should make a greater effort to reach out to this potentially lucrative generation of consumers using specialized channels such as digital media, youth-targeted radio, event sponsorship and even university newsletters.

Roger Darouni, executive marketing director at leading broadcaster LBC, says advertisers are misjudging Lebanese youth by treating them as mere appendages to the family unit.

As elsewhere in the Arab world, Lebanese teens and twenty-somethings tend to live at home until marriage in Lebanon. This has a tremendous influence on young adults’ choice - to the extent that “choice” exists - of TV programs. “Most Lebanese families don’t have the financial means to own more than one TV set, and that’s usually in the living room,” says Darouni. “That implies that everybody watches the same program at night.”

But advertisers are likely looking at this and leaping to the wrong conclusions, Darouni adds. It’s not necessarily the case that, just because the parents handle the cash, they’re making all the decisions too. “Brands probably underestimate youths’ capacity to decide for themselves,” he says.

Shunning specialization

Nagi Irani, general manager of Choueiri Group’s Press Media, the sales company representing daily An Nahar, agrees that advertisers play it too safe when it comes to targeting youth. “In 2002 we launched a bilingual sports weekly called Time Out,” he says. “We were actually selling 7,000 copies every week, which is more than satisfying for Lebanon. But clients didn’t follow us. They’re not used to specialized press of any sort. They simply prefer to focus on safe traditional media.”

But an even bigger problem is that Lebanese youth are not particularly interested in media at all. “Between university and their social life, which is very important in Lebanon, youths don’t have time to watch TV outside of prime-time programs,” says Rita Younes, an independent media planning consultant and college lecturer. “And Lebanese youths don’t read magazines or dailies. They’re not interested in culture. They either want to be entertained or to hear about politics.” As for radio, a 2005 Ipsos-Stat survey revealed that 89 percent of Lebanon’s youth never listens to it.

Although mass media such as billboards attract a high percentage of Lebanon’s ad budgets, clients targeting the country’s youth are starting to understand they need to adopt a more targeted approach.

Sponsoring radio or TV programs and events such as concerts and music festivals is one step forward. Despite the Ipsos-Stat results, radio stations in particular have managed to attract clients by adapting programming to their needs and creating easy-to-sponsor formats.

Jihad El Murr, executive manager of youth-targeted NRJ, says radio stations’ ad revenues now amount to $7 million, almost a third of TV ad revenues in Lebanon.

The language of youth

Using branded content on air represents a move away from more traditional above-the-line advertising. “There’s a lot of traffic in Lebanon. That’s what made radio interesting for us,” says Brahim Lahoud, deputy general manager at Publicis Graphics. “But we’re not doing advertising on it any more: the brand creates the program and the presenter dresses it up. That’s what we did once for L’Oreal [when listeners phoned in to win cosmetics] and it turned out great. That’s a successful synergy.”

Some brands are going further, addressing youth directly in schools and universities. Ramzy Abou Chacra, media manager of H&C Leo Burnett, which handles Procter & Gamble’s Levant account, says advertisers need to use all the channels they can to develop brand awareness. “That’s why we developed school programs for Crest and Always to educate the youth,” he says. “Of course, these programs need a lot of attention and TV remains the most cost-effective way to reach a wide population. But it’s the combination of both that works.”

Publicis Graphics, working for Kababji fast-food chain, is also developing a field strategy targeting university students through their newsletters. But Lahoud believes the future lies in digital technology. “Youth doesn’t read the press and doesn’t watch TV much. So clients have to be present on digital media,” he says. “But first you have to understand this universe, then speak the same language, which means being connected to youth rather than communicating with them. Some ads tried to use chat-room language on billboards, for instance, but they usually fell flat because they didn’t really understand it.”

Telling the difference

It seems Lebanon’s ad and media industries are as out of touch with youth as a drunk uncle at a wedding disco mainly because they don’t understand who they’re addressing.

“There are major behavioral differences between Lebanese that must be taken into account, according to the region where they live, the language they speak, whether it’s English, French or Arabic, their political affiliation, their age, their religion, et cetera,” says Younes. “Nothing can be taken for granted, so the only way for a campaign to really be cost-effective is to define a marketing strategy based on an in-depth field study. But that work is never done.”

“The problem comes from us,” says Publicis Graphics’ Lahoud. “Agencies are not helping to educate their clients as they should, and we don’t insist on getting much-needed studies. We’re not perceived as consultants any more, but as providers who are seeking a quick profit.”

Unfortunately, the proliferation of media, combined with shrinking ad budgets, means clients are unlikely to finance investments in real market research anytime soon. And the same set of circumstances means agencies are simply not willing to split their budgets between too many TV stations, radio stations and publications.

“We’re to be blamed too,” says Press Media’s Irani. “We don’t insist enough on our specialized media. In difficult times, we’re choosing the easy way.”

This article first appeared in the June 2007 issue of Communicate.

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