Companies like Vimto and Coca Cola lure millions of viewers with specially crafted adverts for the holy month
How Middle East advertisers are making Ramadan their Super Bowl
It’s that special month of the year for many – but especially for an advertising industry that experiences its peak during Ramadan.
If days are spent fasting and in spiritual contemplation, then the evenings and weekends represent an unprecedented opportunity to capture the attention of consumers.
Ramadan advertising even has its own awards, created by Google in 2016, with judges voting on the season’s most successful campaigns. According to Google, the Lantern Awards are "an opportunity in Mena to make Ramadan our very own Super Bowl".
The reference to the US sporting event, where the advertising is often as anticipated as the game of American football, is no hyperbole. Ramadan advertising attracts millions of viewers with special campaigns tailored for brands that range from soft drinks to luxury cars.
Khulud Abu Homos is the CEO of the content and media creation agency Arab Format Lab, based in Dubai. “Traditionally this is the most important time of the year with people sitting at home,” she said of Ramadan.
After four years of falling advertising revenues in the GCC, she sees encouraging signs in 2018, with a 21 per cent increase in the first week. And at a time when the number of special TV shows created for Ramadan has fallen by nearly half – the result of a saturated market.
It suggests, she says, that viewers are responding to “quality not quantity". Viewers are now “more selective and focused,’ she said, with on demand services doing particularly well.
She is currently creating episodes of the Red Band Society, an Arabic adaption of a Steven Spielberg drama about six seriously ill teenagers brought together in a hospital, now showing on Abu Dhabi TV. The topic suggests audiences are ready for more serious issues, she said, something that is reflected in one of the most popular adverts for Ramadan 2018.
“Ramadan tradition is that people want to watch nice things and not serious issues, but people are getting really tired of that” says Ms Abu Homos.
“The advertisement that has really touched me this year is the one by Zain.”
The advert she is referring to is created by the Kuwaiti telecoms company and has proved highly controversial. It features actors playing world leaders that include Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, who are shown distressing scenes of refugees around the world by a child, including Syrians and the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar.
The final scene refers to the teenage Palestinian activist Ahed Al Tamimi, imprisoned for striking an Israel soldier, with a group marching towards the Dome of the Rock singing “our Iftar will be in Jerusalem, the capital of Palestine”.
While some have called the advert a “cheap publicity stunt” and “the epitome of commercial opportunism” on social media, it has so far gathered nearly six million views on YouTube.
The success of YouTube as a medium also illustrates the shift to digital in Ramadan advertising, with even established companies switching budgets away from TV to platforms like Instagram. It means adverts can be considerably longer than on TV, using a storytelling format to hold attention.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia share the highest YouTube viewership penetration in the world, at around 85 per cent. In Ramadan, viewing numbers can grow by up to 30 per cent.
A report by Google last month noted: “Ramadan viewership on YouTube over the last three years has increased three fold in comparison to TV, while TV viewership remained flat. YouTube viewership actually rises during Ramadan and for weeks afterwards, with viewers often tuning in to YouTube specifically to watch popular Ramadan ads.
“The clutter on TV during Ramadan is twice the norm with ad breaks increasing by upto 50 per cent, making your advertising message a lot less likely to be noticed or leave any impression on your target audience.”
The buzz around some advertising creates an element of expectation that further drives numbers. Soft drink brands like Pepsi, Coca Cola, and the quintessential Ramadan beverage Vimto, are particularly successful.
A 15 second trailer for this year’s Vimto campaign has already gathered over a million views on YouTube while a Coca Cola’s advert, which shows a Muslim and non-Muslim woman silently bonding over bottles of soda at sunset, has already been widely shared.
That is still far short of the 19 million views for Coke’s three-minute 2017 Ramadan advert, in which the brand name was stripped from cans with the wider theme of removing labels that lead to prejudice.
More conventional is the Ramadan advert for Orange Egypt this year, with the message of connecting to neighbours (and using Orange telecom to do so). So far it has been watched over 14 million times.
In an article for industry magazine The Drum, Yasser Akram, the Dubai-based regional managing director for advertising and branding company Seven Brands, warns of a tendency among global companies to give “a nod to the religious festival through customary crescents, minarets and a ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ slogan,” calling it a “tick box exercise”.
In fact, he says, for international companies not to capitalise on Ramadan is a huge missed opportunity. “So fierce is the rivalry for those prime time ads that ... brands will typically plan their Ramadan ads and compose the accompanying songs six months in advance.”
Amman internet marketing agency IstiZada has this year produced a checklist of themes for clients seeking a foothold, including lanterns, dates, dalah coffeepots, crescent moons and cannons. It gives the example of a Burger King ad in which the burger has been nibbled to a crescent moon but warns that in an attempt to "create a catchy ad", some marketers could "go wrong by depicting something or saying something that some Muslims will find offensive".
“Marketers have to remember that Ramadan is a religious tradition with strong emotional ties in society that must be respected.“
It is advice that the British supermarket chain Tesco would have done well to follow. Four years ago one of its branches in East London, and next door to a large mosque, they set up a special Ramadan promotion stand for Pringles potato snacks.
It then filled the stand with packs of smoky bacon flavour.
Additional reporting by Omnia Al Salah