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Hijabis are the new blondes: what the Tesco Christmas ad furore says about Muslim representation

Tesco's latest ad features Muslim women meeting for Christmas

Whether you're Snoop Dog rapping about there being so much drama in the LBC (Long Beach City), or you’re tuning into LBC (Leading Britain’s Conversation), the national talk radio station, you’ll know that battles for identity politics split audiences and raise eyebrows.

Recent discussions surrounding the 2017 Tesco Christmas advert are interesting. In no more than a couple of seconds of a 60-second commercial you see a group of hijabi Muslim women greet each other and exchange festive gifts. It’s got people talking.

Just like Mariah Idrissi grabbed all the headlines inside and outside the Muslim community for appearing in an H&M commercial with a headscarf, the hijabis in the Tesco advert have done it again.

Hijabis are the new blondes: exotic individuals that tick the diversity box, make your content go viral, have been reported to spend loads of money, and possess the power to bring a caravan of friends and family with their multi-trillion-dollar Halal market of food, dining, fashion, cosmetics and tourism.

Of course, those at either end of the spectrum are likely to be the most vocal on social media. Some see this move as an erosion of Christian values, and political correctness going too far. Others in the Muslim community similarly see this as attacking their own Islamic religious principles and a move towards assimilation without acknowledging their own beliefs – that Jesus is a prophet of Islam, he’s not the son of God, and he wasn’t born in December.

Having said all of that, Muslims do believe in the Immaculate Conception and that Jesus was born to a virgin Mary. Like everyone else, they enjoy their time off work and the opportunity to connect with loved ones again, and restaurants like HS&Co in London last year offered a full Halal Christmas dinner menu (booze and pork free) that was well-received by Muslims and non-Muslims.

So what’s the problem? I guess it’s unclear to consumers in this climate whether the advert is designed just to increase food sales, or to make a deeper statement by taking a lead in shaping the identity politics agenda.

To make matters even more complicated, the government’s Prevent strategy initiative to combat radicalization, violent and non-violent extremism cites wearing the hijab and not celebrating the religious festivals of other groups as being possible indicators of behaviour giving reasonable concern.

Because of this, many Muslims that I spoke to find it incredibly difficult to separate politics from consumerism and feel a pressure to demonstrate active participation – which is a very different feeling to authentically rejoicing in the unbridled season of goodwill.

There are still parts of the Muslim community for whom openly celebrating Christmas is a taboo and therefore it tends to be very nuanced, informal and a private affair.

If we look at the Muslim experience in non-Muslim countries like the UK, then many Muslims are wary. While certain Tesco supermarkets have Halal aisles and celebrate Ramadan and the two Eids in the Muslim calendar in-store, they haven’t yet gone public with this creative in advertising campaigns.

I’m also baffled why, with all the alcohol-free and Halal online orders I’ve placed with Tesco over the years, they still try to sell me cases of wine.

Of course this is bad data analytics, and I don’t take this as the brand being anti-Muslim; I view it much like I do when the store tries to get me to buy gifts for my Mum on Mother’s Day, when sadly she died more than a decade ago. It simply says to me that we need to do more in this space to crunch the data and mix with cultural intelligence and insight if we want to hit that sweet spot of on-message brand resonance.

So what can – and should – advertisers do when looking to include the Muslim community in their advertising?

Well, they could just steer clear of the identity politics at these times of the year –namely during festive periods when there are so many potential misinterpretations – and leave it for neutral times in the calendar. Advertising is, after all, about targeting a homogenous segment.

But I also think that the melting-pot approach – appealing to everyone with an all-in-one advert all of the time – is a mistake. Instead, why not give each religious festival its place and showcase that community? If the Muslims in the Tesco advert had been shown hospitality by the non-Muslims, instead of celebrating amongst themselves, then this would have avoided many of the negative comments.

Finally, now with the various social media channels on offer, it would have been possible to do some more targeted and ethnic/religious user-generated content style creative. This would show the alternative celebrations happening at the same time of the year, and avoid overtly mentioning Christmas.

Professor Jonathan A.J. Wilson PhD is an academic and consultant specialising in the ‘ABCDs of Business and Culture: Advertising, Branding, Communications, and Digital’. He tweets at @drjonwilson.

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