Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 November 2003
Issue No. 665
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Ad craze

Ghee, skin lightening creams and cement: watching these Ramadan TV commercials you would think the advertising business was in high gear. Gazebeya El-Hammamsy reports that this is not exactly the case

"Lost hours" is what some call the period right after iftar. This nightly recess is for unwinding with family and friends, munching on dried fruits and nuts, sipping some tea, and most importantly watching television. These "lost" hours in fact offer a world of returns for advertisers.

"Ramadan is a month of television. Advertisers know that an incredible number of people are watching, so in these hours, they reach their audience for sure, with around 50 million glued to the television," comments Dr Hussein Amin, professor and chair of the Journalism and Mass Communication Department at the American University in Cairo.

Along with soap operas and game shows, advertisements have become an important form of entertainment during Ramadan. Hakim prancing across a golf-course with a cup of tea and Ahmed Helmi extolling the benefits of a particular brand of soda pop are anticipated and debated on grounds of entertainment value.

"Ramadan has become the season of seeing new advertisements; new advertisements premier during Ramadan," explains Rajya Omar, general manager of DDB, one of Egypt's oldest advertising groups. She adds that "advertisements are not just about being seen, but having people be receptive to them."

This year, however, it seems the public has been a bit less receptive. Some complain that too much airtime is dedicated to pitching products and services. "Even when I like a programme I am loathe to watch because of the imbalanced ratio between programming time and advertising time," complained Mohamed Shawkat, who as a TV anchor knows the business.

Beyond the economic recession, which has put a damper on consumer appetites, the public has voiced disappointment over the quality of commercials. Trapped by a déjà vu of recycled ads, they complain of bland repetition. "It's always the same old jingles, with people moving around, we've seen it way too many times," complains Mona El-Naggar, who does news gathering for BBC.

Even though advertisements have improved on the technical level, by all accounts they have a long way to go in terms of creativity.

"Other than the visuals, which have improved, in essence the art of [advertisements] has not really developed. What we need now are simple, witty advertisements," says Hesham El-Labban, associate creative director at Saatchi and Saatchi.

"Advertisements look good, but don't have strong creative aspects to them, nothing memorable, no bang!" explains Sherine Fahmy, creative director and instructor of advanced advertising at the American University in Cairo. The "bang" is what impacts viewers and gets them thinking and talking about the product or service advertised. "When people sit and talk about a good advertisement, it multiplies the effects of an advertisement," says Hatem Doweidar, marketing director for Vodafone.

Apparently there are not many advertisements worth talking about this year. Aside from commercials featuring popular figures like singer Hakim and actress Yousra, the majority of ads seem to slip silently into that part of the brain reserved for forgetting mundane stimuli. "Advertisements don't have high entertainment value. I don't feel that Egyptians like watching advertisements anymore," Fahmy says.

Nevertheless, lack of creativity cannot alone be blamed for the season's forgettable advertisements. The economic crunch felt all over Egypt has resulted in marketing budget cuts.

"Buying and selling are down, companies aren't as productive as they were, so they don't have the money to advertise," Amin says.

Shrinking consumer purchasing power also means that companies are less willing to produce new advertisements. As a result, many ads from previous years are being broadcast again.

"A new commercial costs between LE200,000 and LE500,000, so some clients choose to air old commercials," Omar says. His disclaimer, however, is that "even during a recession when you're losing you have to keep in touch [through advertising] because your competition will be ahead of you once you recover from the recession."

The cost of airing a commercial during Ramadan is mind-boggling. A 10- second commercial appearing in the midst of a popular show during a peak hour after iftar can run up to LE20,000. To market their brand in these prime slots, some struggling companies eliminate production costs by airing old commercials. "When a company wants to make budget cuts, advertising is the first budget to be cut; it's the most dispensable," Omar pointed out.

Regardless of the trade-offs made by advertisers in this season of thin budgets, Ramadan TV still promises to bombard viewers with a -- perhaps not-so-exciting -- message to buy.

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