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07.14.22

Buying the Narrative: How Lebanese banks exploited the media to influence public opinion

Sami Zoughaib,
Wassim Maktabi,
Sami Atallah

As the Lebanese banking sector drove itself into insolvency for the sake of quick profits, instilling “trust” in the country’s risky financial system was key to keeping new funds flowing in. The banking sector spent big on media advertisements to propagate a narrative of stability and prosperity, even when the country’s economy stagnated. This spending has had a substantial effect on public opinion, both before and during the crisis. It played an instrumental role in prolonging the life of the previous financial model, and by extension, increasing the size of its realized losses. Moreover, advertising spending has facilitated the promulgation of bank-friendly rhetoric during the crisis, including periods when financial services have effectively come to a halt.

While televised advertisements are common, how did Lebanese commercial banks utilize this seemingly typical marketing tool? This article answers this question using novel data on the value of advertisement slots that banks purchased on a yearly basis.

On the surface, bank advertisements tell little beyond the ordinary. From 2012 to 2021, the banking sector bought nearly $1.17 billion worth of televised advertisements, of which 80% were purchased before the crisis in 2019. Most of the ads (97%) were invested across Lebanon’s six most-watched broadcasting media corporations: Murr Television (MTV), Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI), Al Jadeed, National Broadcasting Network (NBN), Future TV, and Orange Television (OTV).1

However, the variation in the volume of advertising spending over time tells a nuanced story. Before the crisis, banks increased their advertising spending to attract deposits into their risky portfolios and score record-high profits. Since 2019, banks sustained a relatively reduced level of advertising spending in the absence of banking services just to influence the narrative on the causes of the financial crisis and who should shoulder responsibility for it.

The Great Swap: Public trust for private profits (2012 – 2018)

Facing capital outflow and a stagnant economy in the 2010s, the ability of the central bank to defend the currency peg was at risk. In response, the central bank offered exorbitant interest rates on risky instruments—in which commercial banks invested aggressively—to attract foreign capital. This increased the banking sector’s exposure to sovereign debt threefold between 2011 and 2019, particularly in the form of deposits at the central bank.2

To maintain this financial house of cards and capitalize on it by recording large profits, a great deal of trust in the banking sector was required. As such, Lebanese banks were generous to a fault and significantly increased their purchases of advertisement slots. Some 57% of these purchases—nearly $530 million of the $931 million worth of ads spent before the crisis—were made during the central bank’s infamous financial engineering operations (figure 1). In fact, after the value of purchased bank ads had leveled at an average of about $100 million per year between 2012 and 2015, they increased significantly (by 75%) and averaged $175 million between 2016 and 2018: $141 million in 2016, $170 million in 2017, and $215 million in 2018. That way, the banking sector owned between 12% and 15% of total media advertisement spaces in the country over this period, capturing the attention of many Lebanese television viewers.3

This media spending campaign seemed to meet its target for bankers, as they secured a large return on their investments, while depositors were deceived. The size of deposits in commercial banks increased from $155 billion in January 2016 to almost $179 billion by the end of 2018, while the sector recorded record-high net profits each year, totaling $5.9 billion in these three years alone.

Of the 33 purchasing banks, the largest spenders were so-called “alpha” banks—the 14 biggest in the country—which spent 99% of the total advertisement value. Of these alpha banks, the largest spenders were BankMed, BLF, and BLOM, collectively spending nearly $400 million worth of ads. As for the media corporations, MTV was the biggest seller during this period, followed by Future TV and LBCI, which collectively received almost $550 million. OTV received the least among the six with $100 million.

Buying a narrative of impunity (2019 – present)

Despite being at the center of the financial crisis and having halted most financial services, many commercial banks have continued to purchase advertising since 2019 (figure 2), albeit to a lesser degree. Unjustified from a business perspective, one plausible explanation is that these advertisements aim to buy “bank-friendly rhetoric” in televised media and propagate a narrative that shifts the responsibility of the financial crisis away from the banking sector.

Based on available data, the exposure of banks to sovereign debt—i.e. their share of deposits invested in the government’s treasury bonds and the central bank’s certificates of deposit—seems to be a determining factor in banks’ sustained advertisement spending. Banks with a higher degree of exposure to sovereign debt relative to their equity size are positively correlated with higher volumes of televised advertising.  During the crisis period, banks with a higher degree of debt exposure generally invested to a larger extent in media advertisements. In fact, 11 of the 23 purchasing banks since 2019 have a debt-to-equity ratio higher than 200% and bought 76% of the advertisement slots during this period.5 The two banks with the highest debt exposure purchased more than one-third (35%) of these ads. 

Three years into the crisis, these practices have not stopped nor decreased in frequency—rather they have only become more obvious. The narrative about potential remedies to the financial crisis across major televised broadcasters has, to a large extent, mirrored that of the Association of Banks (ABL).  Increased political and media attention over the Sovereign Fund proposal, notably following ABL’s rejection of the government’s recent financial recovery plan,6 is an illustrative example.

This dangerous narrative, among others,7 is an implicit killer of any progressive discourse that upholds the principle of a fair and accountable distribution of losses. In a world where news media influences the importance and prioritization of issues on the political agenda,8 Lebanon’s commercial banks, through advertisement spending, have undermined discourse that could threaten their interests, and show no signs of stopping. 

 


1 The Samir Kassir Foundation. 2018. “Media Ownership Monitor.”

2 Calculation based on data retrieved from brite.blominvest

3 According to the Samir Kassir Foundation’s Media Ownership Monitor in 2018, 96% of Lebanese use TV to get news and information, and 79% watch TV daily.

4 Based on univariate analysis, R-squared ≈ 0.4.

5 Banks’ debt exposure data retrieved from Atallah, W. and M. Faour. March 2020. “Brace yourself: Taking the Pulse of our Gigantic Banking sector.” Finance4Lebanon

6 L’Orient Today. May 2022. “ABL rejects rescue plan passed by cabinet.”

7 Association of Banks in Lebanon. May 2020. “Contribution to the Lebanese Government’s Financial Recovery Plan.”

8 McCombs, M. 2011. “The Agenda-Setting Role of the Mass Media in the Shaping of Public Opinion.” University of Texas.

 

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