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Arab Star Academy is a popular Arabic adaptation of a French TV reality show that has been broadcast on the Lebanese Broadcasting Cooperation (LBC) and on its satellite, LBC International (LBCI), since 2003. The programme hosts a group of potential youth performers from all over the Arab world for four months where they take singing, dancing and acting lessons under the supervision and guidance of experts. Candidates are voted out regularly over the course of the series by viewers’ telephone calls, or through a website, and results are announced in weekly prime time programmes.
This year’s Arab Star Academy is aired daily on LBCI from about 6.45–7.45 pm and for 24 hours on another affiliated channel (Nagham). The show has found tremendous popularity among all ages, but especially among young viewers. This year the show is hosting a total of 19 youths (9 girls and 10 boys) from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, Palestine, Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Egypt.
In one of the programme’s advertising breaks, a Davidoff cigarette ad is shown—Davidoff is a brand of British-based Imperial Tobacco. The advertisement format and content is not particularly associated with youth, rather it is a typical brand ad like those shown in cinemas. The health warning is in minute script, and ends with Davidoff’s catchphrase, “The more you know”. Interestingly, other ads in the same programme carry positive messages for young people about conserving the environment, for example, or youth-oriented product ads (with Pepsi as the official sponsor).
This is not the first time that Davidoff has broken ethical boundaries; previous examples have included activities connected with a “Friendship Tour” in which young people are taken around Lebanon. The Arab Star Academy is just the latest in a series of overt tobacco advertisements aimed at young Arabs everywhere. It is an issue not only of promotion to young people, but also of cross border advertising. LBCI extends its programmes throughout the world reaching millions of Arabic speaking viewers in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, America, South America, and Australia. In the United States, LBCI is reported to have up to 100 000 viewers. In addition, in Australia where there is a large Arab speaking community, Arab Star Academy is listed as one of the highest ranking TV shows by viewers watching LBC. In Lebanon, ratings have reached 80% among viewers aged 15 and 25 years. In Saudi Arabia, 53.6% of the programme’s viewers are in the age group 15–24 years, 27.9% in the 25–34 age group, 9.7% are 35–44 years of age, and 8.8% are 45 and over.
Tobacco advertising through satellite TV stations poses a major threat for countries that are trying to impose restrictions. Such ads can smartly achieve several valued goals of the “new” tobacco industry. This case study confirms the importance of the two issues of marketing to youth and cross-border advertising. Health advocates must lobby their governments to ensure it is stopped, by national action, regional cooperation, and through the Conference of Parties to the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.