Global: Venezuela ad shops reopen

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[Caracas, Venezuela] Marketers and ad agency staff trickled back to work last week in Venezuela after an economically disastrous general strike failed to oust populist President Hugo Chavez, who has already started reprisals against Venezuela's media.

Commercial advertising, by agreement between the National Association of Advertisers and the media, disappeared until the strike, called Dec. 2, ended. For two months, the only commercials on Venezuelan TV were the opposition's relentless barrage of powerful and often witty anti-Chavez spots (See Work, Page 34).

"We made over 200 commercials," said Arturo Casado, president of the Venezuelan Federation of Advertising Agencies and of Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett Venezuela. Fifteen agencies worked together, although most shops and clients were closed until Feb. 3 in what one agency executive called "a collective personal decision" to support the strike.

`talk about scared'

Mr. Chavez's often-violent supporters took note of the ad blitz. "I got threatening phone calls," said one agency executive. "I couldn't believe it. Talk about scared."

Now Mr. Casado says the effort will continue. But the Venezuelan economy is in tatters.

"Packaging companies have been on strike. The gasoline shortage makes it hard to get goods to market. And now exchange controls make it problematical for manufacturers to import raw materials," said Gloria Chibas, exec VP at Publicis-owned A.W. Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi.

At Procter & Gamble Co., the largest advertiser in Venezuela's fast-shrinking $1.8 billion ad market, about 60% of workers were out during the strike, said Antonio Boada, P&G's director-corporate communications in Caracas. Now they're back, but without much to do. Production is down because raw materials are scarce and distribution channels are disrupted, leaving supermarkets running low on P&G brands, he said.

"It's impossible to foresee what is going to happen," said Bobby Coimbra, president of WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson, Caracas. "We are going to survive, but getting back to normal will take a long, long time."

Fears are growing that Mr. Chavez will seek to punish both the media and business community who continue to oppose him. His government last week added leading network Venevision to the four TV channels under investigation for alleged violations of the Telecommunications Law, which could lead to fines, suspensions or even closure.

The networks attacked Mr. Chavez throughout the strike, and his supporters reacted with violence. The opposition Democratic Coordinating Committee's commercials, which aired frequently, criticized his record, advocated early elections and tried to promote harmony among Venezuelans to counter the populist president's tactics of fostering enmity between rich and poor. Aimed at an ad-savvy population, one spot parodied MasterCard's "Priceless" campaign and another used rival brands like Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola to stress that differences can exist without violence. The popular "Chavez vs. Chavez" series juxtaposed the president's promises with his contrary actions. In one spot, using real footage and Queen's "We Are the Champions" as a soundtrack, Chavez supporters turn up at an opposition march. Instead of fighting, the two sides play an impromptu scoccer game in the street.

One commercial, responding to a government official's ridiculous claim that satellite channel DirecTV recorded everything that went on in subscribers' homes, showed a man reaching through a TV screen to gather cassette tapes.

In addition to his battle with the TV networks, Mr. Chavez has also threatened to punish his foes in the business community, whom he refers to as "coup plotters," by withholding access to U.S. dollars they need to import the raw materials on which the Venezuelan economy depends heavily. He imposed foreign-exchange controls last month.

the unplannable

A few ads are reappearing on TV and in print. TV channels have notified advertisers that any space remaining from their 2002 upfront purchases can be used to buy airtime until March 15.

During the strike, agency staff met periodically to try to plan for the unplannable, and took to the streets at night in massive, flag-waving protest marches. With no income for the last two months, agencies are coping differently. In January, JWT, Saatchi and WPP's Ogilvy & Mather told staff to take their 2003 vacation time. WPP's JMC/ Young & Rubicam has had about 20% of staff working half-time for half their usual pay, and the rest on unpaid leave.

Economists say Venezuela's economy may shrink 25% this year as a result of the strike, the continuing stoppage by oil workers and the government's economic policies.

Opinion is divided over whether the strike was worth it.

"It brought international attention to the situation in Venezuela," Mr. Casado said. "It also made citizens aware that the only way out is electoral."

Not everyone agrees. The strike "didn't achieve its goal," said Maribel Lopez, creative VP of JMC/ Y&R. "The cost is gigantic."

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