"They say Tunisia is nothing but ruins" Ogilvy Memac

The Tunisian tourism board's audacious new ad campaign is raising eyebrows in Europe.

One poster features a topless young, foreign woman getting a massage, the side of her breast exposed.

Beside her is a bold message, meant to allay a common fear about travel to the North African nation-in-transition:

They say that in Tunisia, some people receive heavy-handed treatment.

Actually, the campaign is audacious, not because of the woman lying, but because of the wording, said Syrine Cherif, the woman behind the Tunisian Tourism Board's new campaign. Cherif is the managing director of international advertising giant Memac Ogilvy's bureau in Tunis.

It is meant to address fear. Fear has been identified as the main issue facing European tourists on Tunisia as a travel destination, due to post-revolutionary perceptions on security and the country's stability, Cherif said.

Tourism is Tunisia's main source of foreign currency. But since Jasmine buds started sprouting late last December-- when fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself alight and ignited revolutions around the Arab world-- Tunisia's bustling bazaars, luxury hotels and Roman ruins have been virtually empty.

Facing a second wave of protests to demand more public spending to raise the quality of life for Tunisians, the nation's interim government is also looking at a major budget deficit. The Washington D.C.-based Institute of International Finance (IIF), predicts that the deficit will amount to some 4.5 percent of GDP, frustrating the 14.5 percent of the population expected to face unemployment.

Despite a marked post-revolutionary slump, analysts say Tunisia will need a strong economy to inspire the Tunisian people's support for the new regime and act as a foundation for the country's post-revolutionary democratization.

Hard-pressed for liquidity, Tunisia's interim government, along with Cherif, are ready to shock Europe-- once the primary market for Tunisian tourism-- into returning to its sun-kissed Mediterranean beaches.

Perhaps more controversial than the heavy-handed massage, another ad features the crumbled columns at Carthage, a Tunisian city renowned for ancient Roman relics, alongside another dark pun:

They say Tunisia is nothing but ruins.

But it's all in good fun, according to Cherif.

The focus is on humor, on fresh and free speaking [voices]-- which is the New Tunisia, today, she said.

The Tunisian response to the ads is mixed, according to Tunisian-American sociologist and professor at the University of Texas, Mounira Maya Charrad.

I think that opinions in Tunisia are very much divided as to the explicitly sexualized message of the ad. While some people find it acceptable and an appropriate way to do an advertisement, others are seriously offended by it, Charrad said.

Cherif notes that if Tunisians find the ads acceptable, its only because no Tunisian breasts are exposed.

Of course the visual of the spa wouldn't have been accepted with a Tunisian woman featured in it, because nudity is still a taboo in our country. It cannot be represented, Cherif, the woman who created the ad said.

Do not forget that this campaign is targeting a European public.

Analysts say there's a wide gap between the sexual openness that the ousted President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali has long-portrayed for Western audiences and the relative sexual prudence with which Tunisians conduct themselves within Tunisian society.

I think for me, the problem with ads of this sort, especially in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, is that they try to play up to Western values of how the West defines sexual liberation, said Osama W Abi-Mershed, professor of history at Georgetown, and part of the university's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

Ben Ali once championed his Tunisia to the West as a purveyor of Arab women's rights as well as sexual and reproductive freedoms.

Satin Rouge, a 2002 film subsidized by the ousted dictator's government's National Agency for the Promotion of the Audiovisual, depicts the story of a middle-aged widow who becomes a belly dancer in a nightclub and eventually sleeps with her own daughter's fiance.

The film's credits feature French -- which is not even an official national language since Tunisia's independence from France -- above Arabic.

Championed as a big step in a foundling sexual liberation movement in the Arab world, the film won awards in Venice and Seattle. But analysts say that despite gestures like the film, Tunisian women are generally expected to observe a degree of sexual modesty observed across the Arab world.

Abi-Mershed expressed worries that the ads are an example of the new Tunisian government not accurately representing the attitudes of the Tunisian people, in the fashion of the old regime.

One of the things we learned from the revolution is that Ben Ali didn't speak much for Tunisian society, said professor Abi-Mershed.

My suspicion about these ads is that there is still this idea that Tunisian society has to play up to Western perceptions.

I wonder if the people who fought the revolution would take offense.