Sex, Chalga and Alcohol - Sexual Harassment or Bulgaria's Best Selling Mix

Features |Author: Maria Guineva | August 26, 2009, Wednesday // 16:09|  views

The poster with Andrea for the "2009 Season of the Watermelons" advertising campaign.

The Watermelons' Season

In the peak of the summer season in Bulgaria the sun is always bright, the beaches are full of people and the emblematic summer TV commercials and billboards make a comeback.

One of those summer advertising campaigns, known as the "Season of the Watermelons" or "Passion in Crystals", featuring the top selling combination of alcohol and barely clad pop folk stars hit once again and with full force the TV screen and the roads. It features different personalities, the chalga (pop folk) singer Andrea and three new guys, and the same scenery - carefree beach, sound of sea waves, thirsty men, a folk diva in skimpy bikinis and ample silicone bosom, and alcohol. (The TV commercial clip can be seen here.)

This is just the latest season of the famous, or infamous, depending on the viewpoint, advertising campaign of the Bulgarian alcohol producer "Peshtera" aiming to increase their mastika (anisette flavored brandy) sales.

The 2007 and 2008 season featured two chalga stars (Emilia and Galena), two guys and the same message - mastika, watermelon, and women with body parts looking like it - go together while guys who drink mastika "Peshtera" always get something more than alcohol. (The TV commercial clip can be seen here.)

Bulgarian pop folk singers, Galena (l) and Emilia (r) in the 2008 "Season of the Watermelons" commercial.

In Bulgaria, where there is a profusion of chalga and alcohol, people are used to this type of advertisement, and they either don't care, or don't see it as wrong or just put up with it.

Here, in the heart of the Balkans, alcohol sometimes can be consumed without chalga, but chalga without drinks is simply unheard of.

The Discrimination Suit

In the summer of 2008 something novel happened.

13 women, from different ages and with different carriers, not only felt offended by the "Season of the Watermelons" and "Passion in Crystals" ads, but went further - they filed an official complaint with Bulgaria's Commission for Protection against Discrimination.

The first and only similar move took place in the now distant 2001, when Velichka Hristova from Plovdiv, followed by several female psychologists from the "Animus" Association, filed a complaint against the commercial of the "Zagorka" beer company running under the slogan "What does a person need - a new car, a nice woman and a good beer."

The "watermelon season" complaint targets only the 2008 season. The claimants are yet to comment on the current one, they say.

According to them, the commercials discriminate them as women "deeply and lastingly, in all their forms and appearance". They believe that the advertisement campaign violates the European principle of equal treatment of women and men in the access to and supply of goods and services.

The claimants also ascertain that the advertisement is gender-based harassment, since its content and messages harm their dignity and provide an abusive environment for them and for the majority of women.

Two of those women, Genoveva Tisheva and Daniela Gorbounova, shared their views with

Genoveva Tisheva is Managing Director of the NGO Bulgarian Gender Research Foundation (BGRF). In July 2005, Tisheva was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Daniela Gorbounova is a member of the Board of Trustees of the BGRF. She is a lawyer, specialist in the legal protection of victims of domestic violence.

The Decision to File Suit

Tisheva explains she decided to file the claim in September of 2008, after becoming fed up with being inundated, all summer long, by the commercial during any time of the day and the night and seeing it on every second or third billboard. She decided to seek protection then because the 2008 campaign had been very charged with the loud and directly blunt commercials having a very strong negative effect.

Gorbounova says the idea to file the claim arose as early as the summer of 2007 when the "watermelons" billboard stood on front of the office window of one of the claimants, but the 13 women got organized enough to file the suit in September of 2008.

The billboard with Galena

According to Gorbounova, despite the fact the "Peshtera" advertisement had been shown since 2006, in the summer of 2008 it really flooded people's everyday lives.

"We could not make a step without running into them. The print media piled tons of beauties with ample silicone bosoms looking like watermelons, which we all must consume, forgetting even what exact product has been advertised. The national and cable TV channels circulated 24/24 the sumptuous watermelon-beauties with their primal appeals for sex. On all highways, secondary roads, town and city streets - the same images screamed: "Consume me, I am so sweet", accompanied by the most demeaning sexual hints. And tons of t-shirts, cups, bathing suits, accessories swamped us with this unbearable kitsch. People are outraged, but at the end they get accustomed to these advertisements, something there is no need to oppose because no one will pay attention. This was how we got accustomed to the filth we live in, the mess in public transportation, corruption, fraud - we lost faith as society that we need to actively oppose the disgrace in our lives," Gorbounova says, adding they calculated the "watermelons" and similar sexist ads represented 10% to 15% of billboards all over the country.

At this point the 13 women felt that they could no longer remain silent and subjected to this large-scale humiliation and decided to oppose the commercials with all legal means in order to protect their dignity as human beings and women.

The Roots of the Outrage

"We are offended by the exposure and the equalizing of the woman with merchandise for sale; the comparison of the female body parts to watermelons, something to consume along with alcohol. This public belittling of our role as women is placing us in a discriminatory position; it encourages the perception of a woman as a consumable object, a sex object accompanying alcohol drinking. The large circulation and distribution of the commercial creates an offending and humiliating environment for us as women; this is sexual harassment.

"The representation of the female body in this manner on such large-scale and with such public exposure interferes with our personal life and our identity as women and spreads out stereotypes about the role of the woman. And this humiliating perception creates obstacles for our social realization and breeds violence because it implies the expectation that the woman will be always ready and willing," Tisheva explains.

Gorbounova joins in, pointing out the offense and the insult were rooted in the feeling of being discriminated as women by gender, personal and family situation.

"The woman is shown as an accessory to man. The ads invite men to bet on their primal instinct, the woman and her body are bind with the availability and pleasure of alcohol, the summer and a slice of watermelon. She is nothing more than that, always accessible, always open for sex, with her everything goes, even with unknown men. This is gender profiling, the imposing of stereotypes that undermine the various roles of the woman, her abilities and her opportunities for realization in society. This mass public representation of a commercial female image as a sex-symbol is for us a form of sexual harassment," Gorbounova says.

The Commission for Protection against Discrimination

Tisheva and Gorbounova told that the Commission has delayed the decision of the case for one year - both say they do not understand the true reasons behind such drag.

The complaint, they explain, was filed in the beginning of September 2008 and it was not examined until the end of the year. The first decision of the Commission had been to send the case over to the Consumers' Protection Commission with the argument the issue was a consumers', not a discrimination one.

"In fact, the Commission for Protection against Discrimination refused to consider our complaint without doing any research, summon us or request proof from the defendants, including the maker of the drink and the commercials - the "Peshtera" company and its distributors - Sofia City Hall, the Bulgarian National Television (BNT), the TV channels bTV and Nova Televizia, the daily "24 Chassa" (24 Hours) and "Trud" (Labor)," Gorbounova says.

The claimants then appealed the decision of the Commission before the Supreme Appellate Court, which ruled in favor of the 13 women. In February 2009, the case was returned to the Commission for Protection against Discrimination as the competent authority to examine the issue.

Three months later, the Commission finally scheduled a trial date only to reschedule it because the subpoenas were not sent on time.

June 18, 2009, was the day when the Commission met for the first time. The claimants were asked to, once again, describe in detail, how exactly they felt, what they found offensive in the commercials, why they thought it was discrimination.

"According to the Protection against Discrimination Act there is the so-called reverse discrimination. Article 9 of the Act states that if the party that is insisting they are victims of discrimination shows facts that could lead to the conclusion discrimination is indeed present, the defendant then must prove that the right of equal treatment has not been violated, meaning in this case the defendants must prove the commercials are not insulting and discriminatory to women and treat them equally," Gorbounova explains.

At the June meeting, the Commission's members decided they needed further clarification and appointed a three-member panel of a sexologist, psychologist and an advertising expert to report if the commercials have indeed elements of sexual harassment and bias.

Gorbounova says it became evident to the claimants then that the Commission was seeking competent expert opinion, but such act, at the least, created doubt the Commission had the ability to even see the commercials as problematic, adding the expert report had not been requested by either side as proof.

In the mean time, nine months ago, two of the Commission members withdrew from the case and an Ad hoc committee was appointed, Gorbounova points out.

"Maybe the Commission does not dare to rule on the case in order to not interfere with somebody's interests? And the commercials keep airing; they are even newer ones, even more insulting," she says.

The next meeting is scheduled for September 17 when the expert panel is supposed to report on their findings. will keep their readers posted on the latest developments.

Esen Fikri, from the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, member of the team examining the case and the person behind the proposal to appoint the expert panel also spoke for

Fikri insists such expertise is very necessary because the issues raised by the complaint require deep knowledge in different areas while in order to rule correctly, the Commission needed proof on which to base their conclusions about the grounds of the complaint.

She further explained that the Commission had their own reasoning to send the case to the Consumers' Rights Protection Commission due to two previous instances when the Court had dismissed their rule that certain advertisements were discriminatory with the motif the ethics in preparing the ads were not subject of sanctioning by the Commission for Protection against Discrimination and there is another institution dealing with the protection of the consumer against such advertisements.

Fikri added that the decision of the Supreme Appellate Court to return the "Season of the Watermelons" case to the Discrimination Commission was clearly a different view regarding the issue compared to preceding cases, but also a demonstration that the Protection against Discrimination Act is still in a developing stage.

Regarding the withdrawals of the two members from the Discrimination Commission from the case, Firki explained that their motif had been previous membership in gender organizations.

The decision might be expected in October, Fikri says, after the expert panel reports on their findings in September.

The Defendants

"Vinprom Peshtera SA" is a leading Bulgarian producer of wines and high-alcoholic drinks. It is a private company with main offices located in Plovdiv, the second-largest city in Bulgaria. Its winery is based about 50 km away from Plovdiv, in Peshtera -- a small town situated in the traditional vine growing region Trakia Valley.

Vinprom Peshtera is also known also for their bold and often controversial TV commercials, especially the ones for the "Flirt" vodka and the "Peshtera" mastika in question.

The story began in 2001 with the slogan "She said that..." of the then S Team Ideas Group. In 2003, McCann Erickson produced the first truly provocative clip and the sexually charged Peshtera commercials went downhill with full speed.

The "She Said that She Was Making Cake" poster

In 2004, the Flirt campaign offered free postcards, in 2005 the angels came to the rescue, in 2006 Flirt came up with yet one more clip, which shamelessly plagiarized Kylie Minogue's "Agent Provocateur."

2007 brought to the Bulgarian consumer the trite print poster series and a Flirt commercial featuring the Hungarian porn star Brigitta Bulgari. In 2008, a new series of Flirt clips was launched on the market.

The 2007 poster series: "She Was Studying Enough to Pass"

In the 2007 apogee of the Flirt commercials, on the footsteps of several mastika posters and clips, literally "blinding" the viewers, the spirit maker opened its first mastika "Peshtera" "watermelon season".

The "blinding" mastika "Peshtera" poster

The person behind the first "watermelon" commercial, now subject to the 13-women complaint is Gencho Genchev, director and scriptwriter of some of the most popular Bulgarian commercials, (the "Leki" hot dogs, the "Vezhen" salami, the "Makedonska" sausage, the "Peshtera" and "Karnobatska" mastikas, and the "Polar Bear" vodka, among others).

While Genchev's (picture left) food commercials rely on reminiscence of some older, famous Bulgarian movies, the alcohol ones prominently feature chalga stars and sex.

"I am a scriptwriter; I produce art. One needs to think about and respect the viewer. The most successful and memorable Bulgarian commercials such as mine are made with Bulgarian flare. Bad or good - let's be Bulgarians," Genchev says in an interview for e-vestnik.

When asked about the connection between pop folk stars and mastika, Genchev says he had produced the commercials on the customers' requests to having pop folk characters in their ads.

"My clients believe chalga will attract people who drink mastika. They rely on the sex appeal for years now. They came to me with an idea, wanted two folk stars and action on the beach, and I had to make an interesting story. They have their right to do so. I don't refuse. I make the commercials, but never leave the script to the chalga singers. They are only part of it. To deliver the message I actually rely on the actors (the male characters). Do I respect those women? Everyone has the right to have their own opinion," Genchev explains, adding there was nothing vulgar in the clip, just some clever pun.

"As much as people believe sex is the force that makes the world turn, this is actually not true, Where is sex in Mona Lisa? There is a mysterious smile and femininity that continue to intrigue people. If it was just boobs, everything would be clear by now. Sex is always the simplest message. If you rely only in sex - you are doomed. But when one advertises alcohol, there is no way sex would not be involved. Because sex is the other vice that follows alcohol drinking. And we use it. It would be silly to advertise winter tires by showing boobs. But when one advertises alcohol, there is a different story...," Genchev points out.

The then "Peshtera" marketing manger, Svetoslav Iliev, also maintained the commercial was within the lines of good taste. "Sex appeal, puns and sea - these are things our brand relies on," he said at the time.

"13 women are not a representative sample of the Bulgarian ladies; we show the beauty of the Bulgarian woman. We don't aim to offend her; to the contrary, we wish to glorify what she has and what we are proud of. I don't think there is anything to be ashamed of. To me it is incomprehensible how showing the beauty of a Bulgarian woman can be deemed offensive," the current "Peshtera" marketing director, Tihomir Trendafilov, told Darik radio when commenting the claim.

In an interview for the daily "24 Hours", one of the pop folk stars featured in the commercial - Galena, chimes in with the following statement: "Humiliated? Who me? No, no, to the contrary - this is part of the business I am in. If I felt humiliated and used, I would not take part in this commercial. Recently, I noticed on the beach many young girls with baiting suits looking like watermelon peels. And a group of 20 young men brought me a whole, real watermelon. The watermelon season remains my trademark."

Watermelon Mania

Despite the controversy, the watermelon season does indeed enjoy huge popularity in Bulgaria. Posters are plastered all over grocery stores, bars and restaurants, along with numerous souvenirs such as t-shirts and coffee mugs while watermelon bikinis are walking on many beaches.

There is even a "top watermelon" contest, already held twice (thus now traditional) in the southern town of Luybimets, known as the growing place of the largest and sweetest watermelons in Bulgaria.

Galena appeared in person last year, while her partner in the commercial Emilia, and the 2009 watermelon star, Andrea, honored with their presence this year's contest.

Andrea (l) at the "2009 Top Watermelons" contest in Luybimets.

The audience received a glass of mastika and a slice of watermelon while the best growers got cash awards and an entire case of mastika. The winner of the 2009 contest became a 21,12 kg watermelon. The highlight and the culmination of the event was, however, the "top lady watermelon" contest with Andrea and Emilia personally doing the measurements.

Fun in Luybimets

Mastika Scandals

"Peshtera's" biggest rival - "Karnobatska" mastika also relies in its commercial campaign on well-known Bulgarian actors, pop folk divas, summer and alcohol. The scandal broke when it was revealed Gencho Genchev was also the author of the "Karnobatska" clip.

"There isn't a conflict of interests," Genchev says, "Both ideas are totally different. Svetoslav Iliev, the then "Peshtera" Marketing Director, however, explained that they did not know Genchev was working for a competitor at same time when making the "Peshtera" commercial and qualified his move as "unethical."

A second scandal happened as recently as June 2009 when Andrea was, allegedly, caught topless and of guard by a paparazzi while smoking a cigarette during a break from filming the commercial. The clip uploaded on ends with the security guard beating and chasing the intruder. It has been seen hundreds of thousands of times since then, and even made headlines in print media.

"Peshtera" firmly denies having anything to do with the clip and says the contract with Andrea did not allow them to show anything else with her, but the mastika commercial. "It was a negative incident that was potentially damaging to our brand," marketing director Tihomir Trendafilov claims, but sources close to the situation confirm that the clip was staged and planned ahead of time.

Andrea during the 2009 "Season of the Watermelons."

The Blog and Forum War

The complaint received some media coverage, but the alleged perpetrators of the discrimination, TV channels and print publications alike, seemingly did not pay much attention to this extraordinary for Bulgaria undertaking.

The 13-women act, however, stirred a frenzy on the internet and fired up numerous blogs and forums. Men and women alike quickly divided in two opposite camps, some admiring the move and vowing staunch support for the claimants, and others accusing them of false morals, and hypocrisy. More vicious attacks were launched with name-calling such as "lesbians", "females with low self-esteem, opposing the public display of beauty," "unsatisfied feminists"...

"I do not intend to respond to these attacks. In internet forums much more people are on our side and they applaud us. The fact that it has occurred to someone, without knowing me, without knowing us, to attack us, is irrelevant to me and I don't care. The most I can do is to accept it as distant information. I am right and have my rights and do not intend to discuss stupid comments because this is how I see those attacks," Tisheva says

Watermelons and the EU

Almost a year ago Swedish MEP Eva-Britt Svensson urged EU members to use existing equality, sexism and discrimination laws to control advertising.
A September 2008 report by the EU's women's rights committee at the European Parliament wants regulatory bodies set up to monitor ads and introduce a "zero-tolerance" policy against "sexist insults or degrading images".

"Gender stereotyping in advertising straitjackets women, men, girls and boys by restricting individuals to predetermined and artificial roles that are often degrading, humiliating and dumbed down for both sexes," Svenson said then.

The report was supported by a waste majority of the MEPs. The EU vote on the report is not legally binding, but it could be used by governments to justify the biggest shake-up in the industry for years.

Almost immediately after the new rules were endorsed by the EP, the Bulgarian Association of Alcohol Producers, Importers and Merchants (APVTSN) issued a letter to the media promising they would not order, approve and conduct advertising campaigns including sexist insults or degrading images of women and men.

"Bulgarian alcohol commercials will not make a connection between alcohol use and business, social or sexual success," the September 2008 letter declares.

The "2009 watermelon season", however, certainly shows that pop folk, silicone and mastika are higher instances in Bulgaria than the European Institutions.

As Galena says in her own war with the EU rules: "Not everyone can be beautiful."

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Tags: Commission for Protection against Discrimination, TV commercial, pop folk, mastika Peshtera, women, discrimination


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