Here’s a copy of my latest “Media Uncovered” column for Bold Magazine.

Excellence Isn’t An Attitude


By Habib Battah


ew billboards capture the social ailments of post-war Lebanon better than the latest piece promoting Lebanese bank Société Générale de Banque au Liban, known as SGBL. Plastered across Lebanon’s highways, the advertisement features renowned television personality Marcel Ghanem with his trademark ear-to-ear smile. The caption: “Excellence is an attitude.” 

But is it? Those who achieve great things will probably tell you excellence is neither an attitude nor a smile we put on our face. Excellence is about hard work, usually unseen hard work, earned by blood, sweat and, sometimes, tears. 

But in the local context, SGBL may not be totally off-base. The notion that excellence is indeed largely about appearances is one we encounter frequently in Lebanon, evident in our failed institutions and crumbling infrastructure. The fact that news talk show host Ghanem, one of the country’s most visible journalists, is the poster child of such a campaign is fitting in an oligarchical media environment that is dominated by press conferences and other events staged by public relations firms. 

In fact, SGBL lives up to its whimsical motto in the high-production television commercial that goes along with its latest campaign. Set to soft piano music, it tells the cliched account of Lebanon rising from the ashes of the war. Actors play the role of citizens looking up to the sky – Ghanem is among them reading the poetic narration, rich in metaphor. Despite the “dark nights … we never surrendered … we always returned (to our country).” Toward the end of the clip, the sun is rising on a destroyed town, and in the morning light, a crew of dozens of workers marches with shovels in hand toward the horizon. 

The scene is reminiscent of the hit US television show, “Extreme Home Makeover,” in which benevolent local corporations pool their workers together, marching through the streets to build a new house for an impoverished family. But how often has this happened in Lebanon? How many times has SGBL – or any other Lebanese bank for that matter – sent its employees to build a home for a poor Lebanese family? God knows there is no shortage. About a quarter of Lebanon’s population, or around 1 million people, live in poverty according to government estimates. But you would never know that watching banking commercials promising rebirth, development and the like. 

Perhaps it is just about the “attitude” or appearance of doing good, just as the SGBL billboard proclaims. These are actors in a commercial after all; the bank is not actually building a home. So what then of the promise of “We stand beside you” in rebuilding the nation? Is this also just an attitude? 

Of course there is no need to single out SGBL. It is one of dozens of uber-wealthy Lebanese banks, and the PR devices it uses are not new at all. The soft lighting, the rising sun, the inspirational music, the violins. All these are the well-worn elements of the Lebanese bank commercial. Often there is a ballerina or a child with flowers, such as the one famously employed by Fransabank during its 90th anniversary, inserted a la Forest Gump in old newsreels of Lebanese history, gathering white roses along the way. 

Bank Audi, Byblos and BLOM have all used similar symbolism to connote innocence, nostalgia and wholesomeness. They are taking a page from major US corporations, like telephone and oil companies, desperate to re-work their image, having been accused of fleecing consumers and damaging the environment. 

In the Lebanese context, the banks cast themselves as the defenders of national unity, the builders of the state, pillars in the reconstruction process. But was Lebanon ever reconstructed? Over 20 years since the war ended, wages have stagnated, taxes and the cost of living have risen dramatically, and poverty is widespread. Yet, over the same period, the banks have only gotten richer, counting $120 billion worth of deposits – some three times larger than the gross domestic product – and growing. 

Much of their wealth has been made off the absurdly high national debt, which stands at 140% of GDP, one of the highest ratios in the world. At the end of the war, local banks were paid exorbitant interest rates, reaching annual averages of around 30 percent on government bonds to fund “reconstruction” projects. Yet today citizens lack basic services such as electricity, water and health care. Meanwhile much of the government’s revenues from taxes go toward servicing that massive debt owed to the same Lebanese banks. It’s no secret that many of those banks are owned by incumbent politicians or their close associates. 

As Lebanese society emerges from the crises of its own civil war to deal the the crisis of the Syrian one, perhaps it is time local banks pitch in some of their stellar earnings to help out. Infrastructure projects that provide jobs for the poor could be a good place to start – a way to demonstrate real citizenship by putting real money behind all the talk of “corporate social responsibility,” which has become the latest catch phrase in marketing circles. Because in reality, the true beneficiary of bank dividends seems to be those production companies that create an image of excellence, but only long enough for the cameras to capture.

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