February 23, 2020

Israel trips add hasbara to Oscar swag bags

Israel is in the headlines again, but this time for glitz and glamour rather than politics.

For the first time, the Jewish state is offering free 10-day VIP trips to Israel as one of the gifts in the Oscar “swag bags” given to all Academy Award nominees in the acting and directing categories (as well as to this year’s host, Chris Rock). The trip is one of many luxury items offered to the nominees, at an estimated total value of more than $200,000. Critics are crying foul at the indulgence afforded these already-wealthy, albeit high-profile, recipients.

[Academy sues over $200,000 so-called Oscar gift bags]

“I would say they need to take a marketing course,” Dina Rezvanipour, CEO of 3D PR Marketing, said of the critics. Rezvanipour conceived of the Oscar tradition — now in its 14th year — after Bette Midler once jokingly complained about leaving awards shows empty-handed. Rezvanipour decided to include the Israel tour as a way to bring attention to her client, exploreisrael.com, a New York-based online tourism company. Upon hearing the idea, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism quickly jumped on board to make it a joint venture. Each trip is for the nominee and a guest, and Israel will shell out about $18,000 per couple for first-class flights, stays at five-star hotels and meals at Israel’s best restaurants — a package worth about $55,000.

“There is no better brand ambassador than a celebrity, and the potential benefits to the brands are immense if a celebrity wears their product or visits their hotel,” Rezvanipour said by email. “This isn’t about ‘need.’ Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t need $20 million per film. But that’s what her brand is worth to moviemakers. Similarly, these Oscar nominees certainly don’t need anything for free, but it is fun for them to be introduced to new products since they can’t shop at Sephora like a normal person.”

Celebrity visits to Israel are always a slap in the face to Israel haters and activists in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, who bring out the picket signs, literally and metaphorically, whenever Israel makes its way down the red carpet. Those protestors have had some success in pressuring some artists to back down on performing in Israel, including with Lauryn Hill, Elvis Costello and Santana, but they failed with Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake and Alicia Keys, all of whom have played concerts in Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park.

For Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, the motivation is to boost commercial tourism. The Oscar nominees will be able to tailor their trips to suit their personal interests.

“With millions of fans and followers in social media, these [guests] become goodwill ambassadors for Israel, sharing their excitement as they journey through Israel, as well as before and after the trip,” a spokesperson for the Israel Ministry of Tourism said in an interview. “These initiatives, which generate extensive international publicity, are designed to help boost tourism by exposing Israel’s tourism product through the eyes and experiences of the celebrities themselves.”

Yet to anti-Israel activists, Israeli tourism is political, unlike a 15-day walking tour of Japan, another swag bag giveaway, which no one is talking much about. They are accusing Israel of “bribing” celebrities. BDS founder Omar Barghouti went so far as to compare the gifts to the “Hunger Games” trilogy, likening Israel to the “Capitol” oppressing the “Districts” (Palestinians). 

Rezvanipour, for her part, sees only the positive.

“There has been no backlash,” she said. “Nor do I expect any. I think people are more shocked that I have included a Fiera Arouser for Her [a libido booster] than a trip to Israel! 

“Plus I’m a Jew at heart,” said Rezvanipour, who is not Jewish. “And some of my favorite people are Jewish, including Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, so for any Israel haters out there I simply say, ‘Shalom!’”