Dignity departs

Rant time, I’m afraid.

A few months ago in Tunisia, hundreds of people died and thousands more were injured during a popular revolution against a hated dictator. Now, it seems, the Tunisia tourism authorities regard all that as a subject for (literally) naked commercial exploitation.

The image in that BBC story shocks me, and makes me deeply angry. Have these people no ethics at all? Do they really think the brutality of a police state is worthy of a joke on a billboard?

They also apparently feel comfortable relating messages of torture and death to images of female nudity – and all in a bid simply to encourage Londoners to spend money feeling good.

It’s sick – and, in commercial terms, bone-headed. For the Tunisian tourist board to publicly allude to the fact that, barely six months ago, state security was trying to suppress popular demonstrations with beatings and killings (during and just before which, I might add, they willingly overlooked the country’s politics, as did everyone in tourism) only perpetuates the idea that there’s an undercurrent of violence.

But I’m fed up analysing puerile, ignorant, insensitive and counter-productive messages in travel advertising.

What the hell is wrong with this industry? Tourism matters to Tunisia, yes – but why, when tourism arrives, does dignity depart?

The ad exec quoted in the BBC story laughs off 23 years of state-sponsored torture and killing as “unfair”. Is she still in a job?

Her knuckle-headed “provocation” must have been approved at the highest levels – presumably by the director of the Tunisian National Tourist Office in the UK, perhaps also in Tunis (where tourism is part of the Ministry of Trade). Yet the minister was yesterday quoted as saying the country wants to use this year to diversify its tourism product away from package beach holidays. So why the stupid London ads?

Reaction on Twitter last night was swift – and negative. Creative director and copywriter Derek Payne said the ad agency “shouldn’t have recommended the ads in the first place“. Abi Dare, a British travel writer, said it was “a huge leap [too far]“. Jordanian economist Hazem Zureiqat was lost for words.

I’d be interested to know what ordinary Tunisians think.


  1. Richard Trillo

    Matthew, I agree with everything you say and it’s hard to imagine anyone with a sense of moral perspective not agreeing.

    But it’s a particularly ill-judged commercial decision to allude to such momentous and violent recent history in a campaign aimed at a market that – let’s be realistic – for the most part is probably only dimly aware of Tunisia’s revolution.

  2. Matthew Teller

    Excellent point, Richard. Thank you.

  3. Nick Donnelly

    Maybe – it’s up to Tunisians to be offended or not though not us.

    Also it’s clearly getting a lot of publicity which probably translates to much needed tourist $.

    It’s not black & white.

  4. Matthew Teller

    Thanks for coming by, Nick. Tunisians can think or feel whatever they like, of course – but surely I can be allowed to be offended by something too?

    And if this kind of publicity – and the Twitter storm I’ve been fielding all day long – counts as good publicity, then I’m delighted for Tunisia.

    In this case, with this ad, it most definitely is black and white.

  5. Richard Trillo

    Actually Nick, I think it doesn’t get much more black and white. This is a crass attempt to square a circle that doesn’t need squaring and can’t be squared – a badly misjudged and deeply offensive campaign that basically says:

    “You know the revolution that’s just been happening in Tunisia? The one that cost the lives of hundreds of people and still hasn’t reached a democratic conclusion? You don’t? . . . well anyway, just to allay any fears, we want to make it clear that nothing untoward will interfere with your holiday. So just relax and enjoy your massage. Only in Tunisia. . .”


    They should be promoting Tunisia full-on, wouldn’t you agree? Telling the world what a wonderful country and people they have. Surely. Not making a mockery of the overthrow of a criminal clique by drawing it into the campaign and thereby belittling it – and doing so, utterly stupidly, to people who probably hadn’t been very aware of it in the first place.

    Every one of those deaths was tragic, disgraceful and avoidable, not some bit of regrettable roadkill to be co-opted. This kind of crisis control/repair work is more suited to workshops with key tour operators. It’s not the stuff of public ad campaigns.

    As you can see I’m not happy about it. Though strangely I think I feel just as angry about the PR f***-up as the offence caused, because it’s a monumentally STOOPID campaign.

  6. Matthew Teller

    Nick, would you like to respond?

  7. Jenny Woolf

    Shows what happens when you let the admen rule – they are in a world of their own and lose sight of how ordinary people think.

    1. Matthew Teller


  8. Hoover

    I agree with Nick. It’s up to Tunisians to be offended, rather than us getting offended on their behalf.

    How do we know it’s an “ill-judged commercial decision”? That will only become clear when the local hotels start complaining and the balance of payments tanks.

    1. Matthew Teller

      Thanks for dropping by, Hoover. Personally, I wasn’t getting offended on anyone’s behalf – I was doing it just for me. Tunisians are free to be offended or not; I’m not laying down the law about it.

      How do we know it’s ill-judged? When we, er, use our judgement. You seem to have overlooked the idea that commercial decisions involve more than accounting.

      And that’s aside from the fact that commercial decisions can make money while still being ill-judged. Lloyds’ purchase of HBOS, for one.

      The ad stinks. End of.

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