On publishing his first satirical book entitled It Seems it’s Screwed Up at the turn of this century, Egyptian satirist Omar Taher was describing a glimpse of modern Egypt and speaking out for a whole generation as one of its members.
It was not difficult to realise that the author was born in the 1970s due to the references in the book, especially to TV advertisements. The latter have become a record of our lives one way or the other, as well as speaking a lot about our situations, aspirations and dreams. Moreover, TV advertisements used to take up about 15 minutes of people’s time in the 1990s, whereas more recently in Ramadan they could go on for 45 minutes during this undisputed publicity season that sees the lion’s share of ad revenues in Egypt.
Spending on ads in Ramadan in 2017-2018 has been estimated at LE1 billion, with annual revenues estimated at LE2.5 billion for visual media alone, the most appealing to advertisers followed by printed newspapers. This has been taking place in spite of competition from the Internet, which now has some 40 million users, according to the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.
Radio has a special nature due to its ability to reach listeners while they are performing other jobs and as a form of accompaniment that does not necessarily need concentration and follow-up. Its share of the advertisements pie is somewhat limited. Of course, all the numbers mentioned here are just estimates made by experts and those working in the field. It is rare to find definite statistics in Egypt on this topic.
At the beginning of Ramadan 2019, Mohamed Farag Amer, head of the Industry Committee in the House of Representatives, Egypt’s parliament, criticised the spread of ads “in an exaggerated way on all the TV channels”. In a statement to the Masrawy news portal, he said that “this has led to a decrease in watching programmes and has driven the audience towards electronic platforms that don’t exaggerate the time span of the ads instead.”
Amer expressed his surprise at “the national companies and banks that spend huge sums on ads in an unacceptable way. The same goal could have been achieved through new and effective marketing means.” He added that “the majority of ads in Ramadan this year have been by services companies, with the apparent aim of showing off their wealth and expenditure by paying international and Egyptian stars [huge] wages and broadcasting [ads] dozens of times per hour. This confirms that these ads have unlimited budgets, while not having real returns.”
Amer’s opinion seems to be supported by studies that have shown that sales do not necessarily increase during Ramadan, though the ads do contribute to products becoming well-known and entrenched in the minds of the audience and acquiring a reputation due to their repetition during the month’s TV dramas. There were 26 of these this year, in comparison with 33 in 2017, with a noticeable decline in the number of religious programmes.
The most popular ad, according to polls, was for the National Bank of Egypt’s electronic services, followed by ads for the mobile phone companies, which competed with each other in bringing in famous film stars and allocating enormous sums exceeding LE50 million to them. Singer Amr Diab received some LE35 million for his ad work, the international star Jean-Claude Van Damme LE13 million, and film stars Mohamed Ramadan LE7 million, Nancy Agram LE6 million, and Tamer Hosni LE3.5 million, according to the newspapers and electronic networks.
This compares to the situation almost a century ago in the 1930s, when advertisers in Egypt first persuaded stars to participate in ads, including the iconic singer Um Kolthoum, who appeared in her youth in magazine ads for Nabulsi Shahin (a kind of soap). However, the method then was totally different. Nowadays, there is dancing, singing, muscle flexing, and fashionable clothes, followed by donation campaigns for housing for the poor or for medical treatment.
There are segments encouraging people to dream of luxurious lives and glittering, fashionable clothes. They may even dream of the kind of luxury cars owned by Mohamed Ramadan, a hero of the popular classes who has become rich almost overnight.
These are just some of the ideas that enter the minds of audiences gathered around TV screens to watch the ads. There is the girl, the subject of one ad, for example, who, about to marry, is shown insisting upon buying a microwave oven and the pair of shoes worn by her favourite star even if this will lead to her living in a tiny apartment with no clean water.
IMAGES IN ADS
The public taste can be unified due to ads in spite of doubts about their realism. They carry the message, for example, that consumption is the way towards social progress and keeping up with the times.
Many questions have arisen about the messages such ads have promoted, including the image they give of the country. To an extent, the relationship between the ads and the TV series they appear in is inseparable, with the relationship between the media and the ads becoming increasingly ambiguous and mutually dependent.
The ads are the backbone of the media in Egypt since advertising is the main financier of all kinds of media content, whether visual, printed or even digital. Very few companies control the advertising market, which in some ways is a monopoly. If one of these companies falls out with a satellite TV channel or newspaper, this can spell its end. There are 15 advertising agencies in Egypt, including two which possess their own media.
This situation necessarily influences the content of programmes, since the advertising agencies can interfere in them and impose or exclude certain personalities or programmes on satellite TV channels due to their financial muscle. This is done in the form of the huge sums paid to the channels via the ads. Consequently, the companies are able to control public opinion to a certain extent or change the channels’ views and dictate their editorial policy.
The time span of ad breaks has also been expanding to the extent that they have now become a parallel item to the TV programmes or series themselves, especially in the absence of bodies exercising effective control. Five or seven minutes an hour from each series at least is now taken up by a flood of repeated ads. The series and the ads have become inseparable. Each needs the other and cannot exist without the other. In the light of rising actors’ salaries and production expenses, sights are necessarily set on ad revenue in marketing this or that series. It is impossible for any channel to rely solely on the quality of the drama produced.
According to specialist estimates, ordinary people are now exposed to approximately 2,500 seconds of publicity messages daily, i.e. about a million seconds annually. If they try to escape, for instance, from TV ads and stop watching them they will be followed by newspapers. If they stop buying them, there are the giant billboards and video messages that have become part of city life. These are inescapable during traffic jams when people spend long periods waiting in their cars or creeping through the streets at a snail’s pace due to traffic congestion.
There are also the SMSs that come directly to people’s mobile phones or the short messages that appear on Facebook walls and so on. Such things are deliberate, as repetition ensures that the same message is sent over and over again in order to serve the advertisers’ purposes.
The idea is to strike while the iron is hot so as to reach the point of persuasion or at least to infiltrate the same ideas into the mind where they can become entrenched. The Coca Cola Company has produced more than 20,000 minutes of ads over the past 50 years, or nearly an advertisement daily, for example. The aim has been to entrench the image of the company in people’s minds.
Political communication has had the same aim, and it cannot be separated from the methods of commercial advertising. In fact, sociologists did not pay much attention to the necessity of studying ads until the Russian researcher Sergei Chakhotin published his famous book The Rape of the Masses in 1939, focusing on Nazi propaganda as a form of advertising in Germany. This was followed by analyses made by Marxist scholars such as Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, all members of the Frankfurt School in Germany, which studied ads from the perspective of capitalism’s attempts to create false needs and new values glorifying consumption.
The ad companies themselves, at least the most prominent of them, have also participated in presidential and parliamentary campaigns in Egypt. Mohamed Al-Saadi, the owner of one of the most prominent advertising agencies in Egypt, has said in an interview that “any presidential campaign should be keen to deliver its candidate’s thoughts and vision to people of different backgrounds. It also should show the degree of the candidate’s awareness of real problems and make voters feel assured that the candidate has practical and effective solutions.”
Regarding his contributions to charity campaigns in ads, he has said that “diversity is very important because ads address all society’s segments. Someone who donates LE5 has the same importance as someone who donates LE1 million… In spite of those who have criticised the many times ads are broadcast during Ramadan, the vast majority responds positively to them. The evidence is there in the giant institutions that have been founded on the sums of money given by donors responding to such ads.”
DREAMS FOR SALE
Repetition in a society that relies on appearances and lacks critical thinking makes us susceptible to the ideas transmitted by the ads.
This is done by focusing on a certain product that seems to have all the solutions to our problems and that can perform miracles: a soap that removes stains; a brand of margarine that can ensure a husband’s love; yoghurt that gives a shapely figure; a compound that shields one from the city’s noise; a cream that makes the complexion whiter; an oil that lengthens and softens the hair, and so on.
Advertisement makers are clever dream-sellers promoting the predominant neo-liberal thought in the huge marketplace in which we live. Everything can be sold and bought, and the citizen is seen simply as a consumer. As Tarek Nour, an advertisement mogul in Egypt, has said, life in the ads can be made easy and simple. “The advertisement must be simple and carry a surprise in its details and always end with a smile,” he said.
This might indeed look simple, but it has the effect of moulding people and shaping their needs and desires according to the requirements of the product makers, with a view to increasing the rate of consumption. The ads encourage a life that is dependent on installment buying of houses, washing machines, cars and so on. Sometimes these installments are interest free if you are a client of this or that bank, for example. But it is a narrow circle that can be difficult to escape, and it advantages the interests of a certain segment of the population.
Aiming at achieving better results, the ads target children in their early years so as to make them grow up on such dreams and desires and also influence their parents. Children may insist that their parents fulfill their desires by buying them what they want. The advertisers’ influence isn’t confined to food, sweets and toys alone, but also extends to cars and holiday resorts and so on.
With the emergence of printed newspapers in the 19th century, ads were often used in order to ensure the achievement of social peace by improving the communication between individuals in different spheres. The Saint-Simonians in France in the 19th century saw early ads as a means to realise the interests of “the masters and the downtrodden” at the same time in a reconciliatory manner that would be capable of minimising the excesses of the rich and the complaints of the poor.
They believed that ads would necessarily touch the different social classes, helping to bring them together. However, economic interests had the upper hand, and the story was transformed into an effective method for selling commodities, especially as the ads carried flagrant messages of class discrimination of the sort that are familiar today.
The division between the two worlds is also expanding: on the one hand, there is the world of music, wealth and opulence. In this world, stars wear famous designer clothes and are seen weaving their way through luxurious locations. Such rich people, constituting a tiny fraction of the population and each possessing at least LE10 million, are in stark contrast to the majority that barely has enough for daily living and has to live on the charity of the middle classes and those above them.
Every individual is seen as searching for a place within this system that promotes commodities and services. Some try to change their social standing by obtaining these products. Some of them succeed, but most of them fail. The sellers of dreams say that “we won’t deprive you of all these non-essentials just because you don’t have the basic necessities in order to live. It is your right to see them and aspire to them through ads.”
SENSE OF HUMOUR
The advertisement market saw a major leap in the 1970s in Egypt and the rest of the world, and this can be seen in examples from marketing and ad photography in the US in that decade.
People working in the ad market in the US in the 1970s then worked in ad agencies in Egypt when they returned to their own country, and many Egyptian private advertising companies were founded after 1979.
The top agencies were transformed into companies having interests in advertising, film and TV series production, and newspapers and TV channels. Their activities extended to the Arabian Gulf. On their way up, these companies also established influential relations with the wider business and political communities. They changed the forms of Egyptian ads and created slogans and songs that were chanted by adults and children alike after the mid-1980s to the extent that they became part of the Egyptian cultural heritage and contemporary lexicon.
The dose of satire, sense of humour and fun, and technical and dramatic capabilities and plot in the ads all added to their attractiveness. There was a major reliance on beauty and feminine appeal, especially in the 1990s. Then came the emphasis on men’s handsomeness and the male film and other stars. Comedy and accompanying songs were elements of strength in Egyptian ads, and these have become bolder over the years.
Indeed, in some ads Cairo appears at the beginning engulfed in grey and almost without features, with colour and cheerfulness appearing as the product being advertised appears. The Coca Cola Company, an emblem of globalisation, expressed its solidarity with the Arab Spring through an ad broadcast on Egyptian TV in the summer of 2011, for example. Other international companies have often chosen to direct their publicity at certain people or a certain market segment in order to capitalise on local flavour to yield the targeted respond. The consumer is made to feel that the global trademark is close to his own life and culture.
For the same reason, some products cannot be advertised if they go against local traditions, culture and social values. In Malaysia, ads for cigarettes, alcoholic drinks and underwear are banned on TV, for example. Another example is the world-famous company Louis Vuitton, a leather goods manufacturer, which used Japanese manga images to market its products in Asia. In 2009, it made a contract with the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami to reach out to Asian buyers in a more effective way.
The rule here is that while there are general outlines for the company’s advertising, this should take on the colour, character and spirit of each country in each local context. Advertising should use each country’s best-known stars and respect its cultural specificity so as not lose the company clients.
We are living in a consumerist culture today in which everything moves according to rules and rituals that may seem to be natural but in fact are the result of very careful study.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Egypt through its advertisements