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Constraints check nascent Iran advertising

By Kaveh Basmenji

TEHRAN, May 28 (Reuters) - A man's hand emerges from behind a door, puts down a bottle, turns it towards the camera, and disappears.

This is as far as a television commercial for a shampoo can go in Iran.

The ban on showing any naked part of the body with the exception of hands and the face, or any picture of women without hejab, or Islamic dress, is only one of many taboos for advertising in the Islamic republic.

A law passed by the conservative parliament last year prohibits ``using women as tools'' in the media, leaving interpretation to authorities who regulate advertising.

Under the law, close-ups of women's faces or hands and cosmetics advertisements are not allowed.

Once virtually banned as ``capitalist vulgarity,'' advertising in Iran is now seeking to reach world standards despite religious and political constraints and competition from state media.

Advertisers say they now enjoy greater freedom than in the late 1980s. Until a few years ago, showing attractive women or men was banned altogether, but this is no longer an obstacle.

Commercial advertisements have managed to splash Iranians' lives with a touch of colour compared to a decade ago, when revolutionary fervour and an eight-year war with neighbouring Iraq run by politicians loyal to a state-run economy cast a staid shadow on social and economic life.

``Post-revolution advertising is an infant which was born in the late 80s with the advent of new economic policies. Now it is crawling and trying to stand up. It is growing but very slowly,'' said Alireza Sadr Mohammadi, managing director of Gostaresh Tablighat, a large domestic advertising firm.

``In advertising, we have been re-inventing the wheel because of particular cultural and political conditions,'' he told Reuters in the offices of his firm, which employs 40 people.


Advertisements have become omnipresent. They beam at the public from buses, billboards, airport and store trolleys, airline boarding passes and at soccer and wrestling matches.

Seeing a popular one-hour soap opera often requires the patience to watch up to 15 minutes of commercials for anything from cheese snacks to pasta and the latest local films.

``I sometimes get fed-up with all this, but my kids just love it, and I believe it's made everything a bit happier,'' said Hassan, 42, in a Tehran shopping mall.

The revival of advertising started in 1989 with the economic liberalisation policies of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the appointment of Tehran's former maverick mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi, now jailed for corruption.

``Before that, advertising was considered anti-religious, vulgar and a symbol of the so-called blood-sucking capitalist economy,'' said publisher and advertising expert Hamidreza Rezaei. ``Furthermore, during the war when nearly all goods were rationed, there was virtually nothing to advertise.''

Then in 1988 parliament approved a bill allowing private advertising firms that would have to be licensed by the Culture Ministry, after approval by security officials.

``It was the Karpay firm that made the breakthrough by launching hundreds of billboards across the capital with support from Mayor Karbaschi, who had embarked on a Herculean venture to change the face of the city,'' Rezaei said.

As imports boomed after the war ended, new billboards advertising Western and Asian goods went up every day.

The mayor's Hamshahri, Iran's first colour daily, won a big market share from bland competing newspapers.

``Although this quantum leap stopped in 1995 with Iran's foreign debts problems, it made a great impact on advertising business,'' Rezaei said, referring to a tough curb on imports after Tehran developed problems in repaying its debts.

After years when membership of the International Advertising Association was seen by hardliners as ``affiliation with Zionists,'' advertisers recently formed their first independent trade union.


But the business still faces major challenges imposed on this nation of 60 million by a slump in oil prices.

``Advertising budgets have shrunk because of the economic situation...Only a possible improvement in imports can help the situation,'' Mohammadi said.

Market forces are main determinants of advertising business anywhere, but in Iran advertising ventures are also susceptible to political pressures.

Many advertisers believe that the demise of the successful firm Karpay was linked to its promotional work for moderate candidates in the 1995 parliamentary elections.

State-run television with its five channels poses a major challenge to private advertising companies, which have mushroomed to about 1,000 after moderate President Mohammad Khatami's culture minister eased licensing rules.

``Distribution of advertisements among the media is not logical. Most of the ads go to television which is a state monopoly and offers much lower rates than the press,'' the marketing manager of a daily newspaper said.

State television is run by conservatives who control key levers of power despite Khatami's landslide election in 1997 on a platform of political and social reforms.

Some 80 percent of advertisement spending goes to television and much of the rest is grabbed by four state-affiliated newspapers, Rezaei said.

Sadr Mohammadi said state television sold an estimated 40 billion rials ($13.3 million) worth of advertisements in the past Iranian year which ended in March, and that it planned to multiply its income as much as tenfold by selling time for commercials to private contractors.

Advertising is inseparable from Moslem and revolutionary teachings in Iran and authorities require that five percent of all outdoor advertising be dedicated to ``cultural guidance.''

On a crowded central intersection in Tehran, a changing billboard alternatively displays an advert for a French perfume and a slogan reading ``Rush quickly to your prayers.''

($1- 3,000 rials official rate)


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