Mr. Berlusconi's announcement last month of his candidacy for the March 27 election of the Italian Parliament prompted an immediate firestorm. Government officials are looking into tightening political ad rules, and a consumer group is running anti-Berlusconi advertising.
Popular Italian political leader and ex-Christian Democrat Senator Mario Segni said that even though Mr. Berlusconi resigned as president of his media empire Fininvest to run for office, "the Italian electorate is very aware that Mr. Berlusconi's decision [to enter politics] is driven by his need to protect his own interests rather than those of the general public welfare."
Italy's Parliament, about to recess at presstime, was unlikely to bar Mr. Berlusconi from running while owning media properties. If the issue comes to a head, it will only be in Parliament's next session, well after the election. Should Forza Italia win a majority vote, as predicted by recent polls, not only is such legislation highly unlikely but Mr. Berlusconi could become Italy's next prime minister.
The fear about Mr. Berlusconi's political ads is that endorsements could air as part of evening news broadcasts or programming, as well as the fact that he could saturate his own airwaves with his party's commercials.
The latter has already happened. Mr. Berlusconi has begun airing up to 45 spots on each of his three TV networks per day, ranging from 10-second commercials to two-minute spots.
For a purported $1 million investment, in late January, Mr. Berlusconi's party, Forza Italia ("Go Italy!"), began running spots created in-house, using soccer terminology with patriotic overtones and colors from the Italian flag. Most of the ads feature a banner in Italy's colors and an anthem-type song translating roughly into "We'll build a new Italy."
Other spots show Mr. Berlusconi in his wood-paneled library surrounded by his family explaining that he is running because his country called him.
Mr. Berlusconi's real coup was snatching Robert Lasagna from Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising Milan. Mr. Lasagna, who resigned as chairman of Saatchi Italy and deputy VP Saatchi Europe, said he joined his friend as campaign manager because "You just don't say no to Mr. Berlusconi."
The Berlusconi debate has reached high political circles. Italy's President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro summoned Prime Minister Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and Giuseppe Santaniello, president of the government's media watchdog authority, to remind Mr. Santaniello to monitor the legality of the election campaigns.
Rome shop Nautilus, meanwhile, has created an anti-Berlusconi ad campaign for crusading consumer group Bo.Bi, urging viewers to boycott Mr. Berlusconi's three channels. The print campaign shows a man poised to bite a snake, or biscione in Italian, the symbol of the city of Milan. Milan-based Fininvest is often referred to as Il Biscione. The ad says, "You can do it too with your remote control."
The ad broke in weekly magazines the day after Mr. Berlusconi's official candidacy and is still running. Nautilus Creative Director Bruno Balardini said Bo.bi is set to run a TV campaign as well for a newly formed lobby-a committee to reform Italy's media legislation on anti-trust. While the ads will not target Mr. Berlusconi directly, they would promote changing a 1990 media law which allowed Mr. Berlusconi to own three networks and a publishing house.
For its part, Fininvest has acted quickly to head off negative public opinion, by directing its VP Gianni Letta to guarantee that Fininvest journalists can report objectively. He also is charged with assuring political even-handedness in debates and fairness in the availability of airtime for all candidates.
Despite negative publicity, some observers said Mr. Berlusconi's media ownership might benefit him politically. "TV will play a much more important role in the election," said media analyst Francesco Siliato, citing a new electoral system put into place last spring promoting a vote for an individual rather than the party's designated candidate. "Whoever is most visible-in TV and the press-will have the edge."
True to his media-minded style, Mr. Berlusconi announced his candidacy in a videocassette sent to state-run networks RAI and Fininvest. Forza Italia has also enlisted Fininvest image-building experts, on hiatus from his company for four months. Forza Italia candidates are selected after a videotest to determine their communications skills and if they are photogenic. If so, candidates receive a three-day course with lessons on dressing, grooming and they have their color palettes done.
Mr. Berlusconi's party platform advocates a free market and major personal and business tax reductions. Taxes are a primary issue in this political campaign. Soaring Italian tax rates-Europe's highest-coupled with a two-year political corruption scandal which uncovered billions in illegal kickbacks, has left Italians angry.
Mr. Berlusconi had hoped his party would fill the void left by the Christian Democrats and Socialists hardest hit by the kickback scandal. However, that will be hard to do: Earlier this month Mr. Berlusconi's brother Paolo, was arrested for allegedly paying a $1 million kickback, putting Forza Italia itself under a political cloud.