- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2002

Osama must be in the eye of the beholder, apparently.
These days, the terrorist is appearing on several giant billboards along the scenic highways of New Zealand, stretched upon a cozy recliner at the beach, complete with a little radio and a sand pail. Save for a telltale black beard, the terrorist's face is hidden behind a Time magazine and his feet are propped upon a beach ball.
"There's no better place to escape," the billboard proclaims.
This is Osama bin Laden as beach boy, according to Tourism Coromandel, a marketing group on this lush ocean peninsula located about 90 miles north of Auckland. The group is convinced bin Laden can sell the spot as a tourist destination.
Bin Laden has been used as a sales tool before. In past months, his face has appeared on toilet paper, T-shirts, golf balls, dart boards and beer steins, among other things, often framed in a rifle sight or a bull's eye. This marks bin Laden's debut as true sales image rather than reviled parody, at least in Western culture.
"The whole idea was to have a campaign that was just a little different," said Jim Archibald, the tourist board's spokesman. "It is controversial, but we don't want to offend anyone."
The area is "somewhere that if you need to get away, no one will hassle you," Mr. Archibald said.
Besides, the tourist board reasons, wanted men have been there before.
Back in 1998, four escaped convicts were able to hide out in a Coromandel beach home for almost a week before they were apprehended by police. Since then, the locals have hoped to capitalize on the fact by erecting a series of "escape" billboards to lure in tourists who want to disappear for a while.
The first wave showed the convicts in chains on a beach blanket. Two other campaigns followed, featuring Elvis Presley in rhinestone shorts and cinema cannibal Hannibal Lechter, who was nude save for a pair of sunglasses and a strategically placed "Naked Chef" cookbook.
Mr. Archibald said he has only received three complaints about the six Osama billboards, which cost about $20,000 and were designed by Saatchi and Saatchi, the huge international advertising agency. About 150,000 people a day see the billboards, set over highways leading to the Coromandel area.
The local press describes the billboards as "politically sensitive" and "the latest campaign to capitalize on the peninsula's reputation as the home of the eccentric and a hideaway for the famous."
But things might not be so amenable down south in Auckland. At a Jan. 11 masquerade party, revellers smacked around one man who came dressed as bin Laden. Local police broke up the brawl; the would-be Osama needed 17 stitches.
"What I don't understand is there were at least two other guys at the party dressed up as the devil," the man told police later. "Surely the devil is more evil than Osama?"
"You have to be a real [expletive] to want to look like Osama bin Laden," countered one of the attackers. "He got what he deserved."
Perceptions are similar elsewhere. The last round of information leaflets dropped from U.S. military aircraft over Afghanistan showed the terrorist out "walking" fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar on a leash. Omar was depicted as a dog in a turban.
"Those providing shelter will meet a horrible end," the leaflets advised in two local dialects, and offered a $25 million reward for the terrorist.
Messages in Birmingham, Ala., have a similar flavor. Last October, one local talk-radio station unveiled a billboard near Interstate Highway 65 that bears a huge photo of the terrorist. But the caption says "Wanted: Dead or Alive."
"Osama bin Laden was the natural choice," said station spokesman Terry Bond, who came up with the idea.

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