Every Ramadan for the past two decades or so can be marked by a slogan, a jingle, a sound bite or a punchline. Remember last year’s “rah fein zaman el sha’awa”, or 2015’s “skenshayzar” and “dehlab”? How about “Bibo far’a’ Gigi” from over a decade ago? These phrases have become as ubiquitous in everyday conversations as famous movie quotes, all thanks to the boom in advertising and marketing efforts by brands in the annual attempt to run the most buzzed-about campaign and win the hearts, minds and paychecks of Egyptians across the country.
As a result, Ramadan season has become akin to the Super Bowl and Christmas rolled into one in terms of advertising, with every brand from washing machines and underwear to banks and real estate giants pulling out the big guns and spending millions of pounds for two minutes of precious airtime at most. It all runs parallel to the growing culture of consumerism across the Middle East that seems to accelerate during the holy month, eclipsing the spirituality that Ramadan was once known for. In addition, Ramadan is peak season for TV series, thus increasing the competition among advertisers for the most coveted time slots. With all eyes glued to the screen, Ramadan is a golden opportunity for brands to not only generate profits and reach new audiences, but also to cement their place in Egyptian pop culture.
Year after year, viewers tune in not only to watch their favorite celebrities in the newest shows and soap operas, but also the latest commercials.
The Coca Cola versus Pepsi and Chipsy rivalry is one for the ages, with both heavyweights spending millions of pounds each year to come out with the winning campaign. In recent years, Pepsi has relied on the nostalgia factor as well as on rolling out as many celebrities as possible in under two minutes. Meanwhile, Coke’s famous “Share a Coke” campaign was one of the most memorable of its season and was hugely successful after winning over other international markets.
The yearly Vodafone versus Etisalat versus Mobinil (now Orange) battle of the telecoms is also a fierce showdown. Vodafone’s 2015 and 2016 campaigns both used family as the central theme and were jam-packed with celebrities singing lively jingles. Last year’s one minute-long “El ‘Ela El Kebeera” advertisement drew criticism for its over the top budget. That same year, Etisalat’s “Imagine Tomorrow” campaign featuring well-off Egyptians in drum circles and color festivals was accused of being “classist” and “irrelevant”.
The season presents a chance for brands to show their creative muscle and capture the cultural zeitgeist. Mobinil successfully carried this out in 2012’s “’Alashan Lazem Nkoon Ma’ Ba’d” advertisement following the 2011 uprising and again in 2013’s “Dayman Ma’ Ba’d”. Both spots featured uplifting and original songs that stressed unity and harmony, airing during times when the nation was facing divisions across political and social lines. While many brands resort to cliché, slapstick comedy and annoying jingles, others go the extra mile with relevant, innovative advertisements.
Creative campaigns do not always translate to brand success or market share. Crunch, the chocolate biscuit snack brand that had a wildly successful campaign in 2015 is an example of this. Despite having clever copy, deadpan humor, talented and charismatic casting and catchy sound bites that instantly went viral, the advertisements failed to propel Crunchy to commercial success. Today, the brand can rarely be found in kiosks or on supermarket shelves.
Given that Ramadan is the month of giving, airtime is not only dominated by big-name brands. Charities, NGOs and hospitals also have an undeniable presence in the advertising landscape. The juxtaposition of a PSA featuring orphaned, cancer-stricken children asking for donations with a spot for a lavish gated compound reflects the small ironies of Egyptian society.
Inevitably, advertising expenditure has soared. In 2016, MBC Masr was the most expensive channel for advertisers, charging EGP40–60,000 per minute, with CBC and Al Nahar following in terms of costliness. It has also been reported that companies advertising during Ramadan spend an average of 30% of their budgets during the month.
Considering the high costs of airtime, there is a lot at stake and brands can’t afford to come out with mediocre advertisements, or even worse; offensive ones. Juhayna’s “Dondoo” advertisements featuring babies humorously making remarks that were later accused of being “sexist” drew many protests, and were eventually banned by the Consumer Protection Authority for violating public morals.
The omnipresence of advertising in Ramadan has turned everyday Egyptians into marketing-savvy analysts who are just as likely to dissect the latest Vodafone campaign as they do with Nelly Karim’s annual TV series. Naturally, this marketing phenomenon has been accompanied by the inevitable backlash.
Many viewers complain that we now watch a long series of advertisements with shows in between, instead of the other way around. Audiences also joke that they often forget what they were watching due to the sheer density of advertising within a show’s time slot. A typical 30 to 45 minute show on a channel like CBC or MBC Masr is accompanied with at least 15 minutes of advertisements, causing many to turn to the internet to watch their TV dramas uninterrupted.
With viewers increasingly shifting from TV to YouTube to catch up on their favorite shows, brands have quickly followed, placing advertisements every few minutes within a video. Unlike with TV, viewers actually have the option of skipping these ads, no matter how unescapable they are.
Digital advertising is clearly growing in importance, exemplified by Coke’s decision in 2015 to come out with an exclusively digital campaign and to donate its television marketing budget to their 100 Village Initiative. Many brands also increased their active engagement with users, particularly younger ones, on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram during the month.
Ramadan advertising has become such an event that commercials are now arguably more anticipated than exclusive TV series. These days, content and strategies have become more sophisticated and hashtag-driven and are a world away from the naïve, no-frills commercials of the eighties and nineties.
Advertisements are now instantly included in memes, analyzed in Facebook posts and meticulously quantified and measured for viewership, evolving into an experience of their own, independent of TV programming. It is easy to see why the annual wave of commercials has become such a spectacle; they have the ability to entertain, inspire and even upset, just as any show could.