Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 October 2009
Issue No. 969
Features
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Truth in advertising?

While the Coca-Cola commercials shown during the recent U20 football world cup achieved their goal, they have also revealed some major flaws in society, argues Ahmed Abu Ghazala

Click to view caption
The ad featuring Shokri, who is asked to get out of the cab; the controversial ad where Boogy is asked to move his car by a policeman from a no-parking spot

A young man is sitting in a car. A policeman approaches him, knocks on the window of his car and says to him aggressively, "No parking here. Move." Another scene shows a man entering a shop. When he pays for his purchases with an old LE10 bill, the vendor gives it back to him, saying "give me a different LE10," in other words a new bill.

These are scenes that many Egyptians face daily, and they were used together with others from Egyptian daily life in the Coca-Cola commercials aired during the U20 football world cup that ended last week in Egypt. The campaign featured young not- yet-famous players from the Egyptian U20 team as the mistreated men in the ads, adding the slogan that "to know them, go and support them." At the end of each commercial, the voice of a commentator announces the name of the player, who is shown bearing a startled look at the way he is treated.

While the commercials are funny, the slogan having become a kind of catchphrase among young people, the campaign gives every indication that had the policeman and the vendor, among the other people shown in the commercials, known that they were talking to players from the Egyptian national team, they would have completely changed their attitude. Viewers were meant to understand that being famous will get you proper treatment and sometimes even favours. This is depicted in the commercial with the policeman, who would surely have allowed a famous football player to park even in a no- parking area.

While it is normal for advertising campaigns to use football stars to promote their products, the Coca-Cola ads were the first to promote a product using as yet unknown players. As a result of the ads, people got to know the faces of the young players, and suddenly they became the talk of town. Their activities were followed by millions of people, such that following the team's lousy performance against Costa Rica, which eliminated it from the championship, questions were raised about whether the players had been negatively affected by the campaign.

Mustafa Shadi, account director at Fortune Promoseven, the advertising agency that created and implemented the campaign, told Al-Ahram Weekly that he had heard people criticise the campaign as well as praise it. "The fact that the campaign made many people talk about its pros and cons means that it succeeded in grabbing people's attention," he said.

According to Shadi, the idea behind the campaign came from two very simple concepts of promoting the championship that Egypt hosted and Coca-Cola sponsored and promoting the players in the Egyptian national team because they were not widely known.

The agency does not endorse the bad habits of society, Shadi said. "That would be true if our main theme was the bad way in which people treat each other. However, it is clear that our theme is to promote the players and to make the fans know and support them. We just put this idea into an amusing context."

Such a context is not unusual, he added. "The scenes we showed happen every day. But imagine if Abu Treika (Ahli's famous mid-field player) were to enter the shop in the commercial. Of course, the way in which he would be treated would change utterly. Well-known figures are treated in a special way everywhere in the world, not just in Egypt."

The commercials should be considered as a way of motivating the players, rather than materials that could have a bad effect on them, he said. "We didn't present them as stars in the commercials. Instead, we tried to support them and to encourage fans to go and support them. This was supposed to motivate them."

According to a source close to the Egyptian U20 team, speaking to the Weekly on condition of anonymity, the commercials did indeed affect the players severely. "Those who didn't take part in the commercials were affected negatively, and eventually the team spirit was very bad. As for those who took part in the ads, they felt like they had achieved everything without any effort," he said.

The source added that striker Mohamed Talaat's performance on the pitch and Ahmed Fathi (aka Boogy)'s misconduct after he had scored in Italy (Egypt won 4-2) constituted clear evidence of how players had started to become jealous of each other and lacking in team spirit during matches.

For their part, the players have denied the allegations, stressing that they enjoy friendly relations. As for the commercials, the players say that these have achieved their goal, since people now know them better as a result and support them in the stadiums. Being famous as a result of commercials has not affected them negatively, the players say. On the contrary, it has made them all the more eager to please the fans.

Mohamed Talaat, who participated in the commercials, told the Weekly that "I didn't feel stressed because of the fans. On the contrary, becoming famous and having fans waiting for me to achieve results motivated me more and pushed me to do my best on the pitch." Ahmed Shokri, who appears in a commercial sitting beside a taxi driver who instead of driving him to where he wants to go drops him off before his destination because the driver wants to go somewhere else, agreed with Talaat. "The commercials didn't affect our unity as a team at all," Shokri said. "We all tried our best during the championship."

Nevertheless, such opinions are not necessarily shared by the fans themselves. According to 22- year-old Louai, a recent pharmacy graduate who followed the championship, the team's overall level was weak, with the Coca-Cola commercials encouraging the players to perform individually. "They are conceited, which was very obvious on the pitch. But I think the commercials made them even more egotistical," he said.

Another fan, Gasser Ahmed, 19, an engineering student, had a similar opinion, saying that "it's a bad team because everyone played alone. They are too young to become stars." For Mohamed El-Sherif, 21, a recent mass communications graduate who attended the matches in the stadium, "the campaign was intended to motivate them, but like most Egyptians, they only wanted to show off. I was in the stadium, and I saw the players looking at the stadium screen all the time to see how they looked on camera. When a player got the ball, he just wanted to keep it in order to appear on TV instead of cooperating with his mates."

Former football players also agreed with the fans that the team's level was weak, but they rejected making a link between the commercials and the players' poor performance. Taher Abu Zeid, for example, a former football star and now the host of his own sports show, used to play for the Ahli Club and the Egyptian national team and played in the U20 world cup in Australia 1981. In his view, it is the dream of any football player to participate in the U20 world cup in his own country, and to get to be known, supported by the fans, and appear in commercials. The players' poor performance had nothing to do with the commercials, Abu Zeid added, and everything to do with their mediocre abilities and poor coaching.

"The coaching staff and those responsible for managing football in Egypt are to blame for what happened. Why didn't they prepare the team for the championship in a proper way?" Abu Zeid commented to the Weekly.

Abu Zeid supports the idea of the commercials and thinks there is nothing wrong about treating football players in a special way anyway. The commercials did not show people treating the players badly, he said, but rather showed them acting nonchalantly towards them because they didn't know who they were. "It is normal to treat football stars in a special way because they are talented, entertain people and make them happy. They deserve special treatment," Abu Zeid said.

However, Sawsan El-Ghazali, professor of behavioural medicine at Ain Shams University and regional editor of the Washington-based Journal of Behavioral Medicine, differs from Abu Zeid, arguing that "the commercials spoiled the players. These are young men aged 18 and 19 who have poor judgement in such situations. Their judgement became blurred by the bright light of fame," she said.

"Being exposed at that age to media attention at that frequency can create selfish characters. It can make players want to show off and play individually in a team game. If they had been more experienced, they would have dealt with the situation in the right way. Such situations affect emotional balance, resulting in fluctuations in performance," she said.

Moreover, some observers believe that in addition to their negative effects on the players the Coca- Cola ad campaign was itself more widely provocative, since it implied that people in Egypt do not treat others in a proper way except if they believe them to be important.

According to Said Eissa, 55, a journalist, while "it is good to criticise society in the press or in dramatic and artistic works," showing bad aspects of society in commercials frequently shown on TV can endorse bad habits among young people. These effects can be similar to those that the well-known play Madraset Al-Moshaghibeen (School of Hooligans) produced on students in the early 1970s by providing them with negative role models, Eissa said.

However, for Islam El-Qadi, 22, a recent mass communications graduate, all the commercials are doing is depicting the behaviour of some people towards others. Not everybody in Egypt gives special favours to famous people, or treats others as badly as the commercials show, but they "exaggerate the fact that some people do, in order to make the point more clearly."

For El-Qadi, while ads should not dwell on the bad aspects of society, there is also no code of conduct governing the production of advertisements in Egypt to prevent them from doing so. Advertising on the Melody channels, for example, often includes immoral suggestions, sometimes using bad language, but this does not receive negative comments in the media, El-Qadi says.

Others criticise the commercials for other reasons, like Mohamed El-Sayed, 22, who is unemployed, who commented that "what I found most offensive were the players' expressions of dissatisfaction when they were treated like other people."

For El-Ghazali the commercials reflect a defect in society in that people are shown to be willing to respect "fake fame and one that is not based on a great achievement, whether scientific or as a result of something useful to society. What is all the more disturbing is the fact that people are shown to be ready and willing to provide special treatment for the stars."

Even the players who participated in the commercials agree that Egyptian society has defects of this type, and that these should be remedied. According to Shokri, "people's treatment of me has changed for the better" since the commercials were aired, but he thinks that it is a bad habit to give someone special treatment only because they are famous. "We should change that somehow," he says.

For El-Ghazali, the solutions to the situation revealed by the Coca-Cola ads lie in the educational system, the media and the intellectuals, who should lead society to appreciate those who accomplish things for the sake of prosperity and teach people to deal properly with each other.

According to Safwat El-Alem, a professor of mass communications at Cairo University, while he agrees with Abu Zeid that the commercials are not provocative in themselves, he nevertheless finds the commercial with the policeman alarming. "This commercial indicates that a policeman would allow someone to break the law if he knew that the person was a football star," he points out.

Another disturbing commercial referred to by El-Alem shows a commercial for a brand of crisps in which a policeman allows someone to break the law after being offered some crisps.

El-Alem raises concerns about the general content of some advertisements, which may have immoral overtones or endorse bad behaviour. It is important advertising is regulated, El-Alem said, before it is shown on TV.

"This is the responsibility of the television authorities, who should pay greater attention to what is shown on the screen."

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