Anything is Possible

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Brighton, United Kingdom
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Sharing cohesion: Advertising and seasonal sensitivity

by Sam Fenton-Elstone

May 12, 2021

Eid al-Fitr begins on Wednesday night, and stretches through to sundown on Thursday. It marks the end of Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar - and an increasingly important seasonal advertising consideration.

Ramadan - and other important moments in the Islamic calendar such as Eid al-Adha - are becoming increasingly important in the cultural and religious life of the UK and other traditionally non-Islamic countries.

During Ramadan, healthy adult Muslims may fast from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. The expected abstinence extends to tobacco, sex, acts of anger - and prioritises prayer and reflection. It marks the revelation of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad, and observant Muslims fast to forget worldly needs, focus on spiritual reflection, and cleanse the soul of impurities.

Despite the prominence of divisive ‘culture war’ narratives, in terms of both symbolic and practical measures the UK’s leading institutions are getting better at recognising cultural sensitivities during the month of patience.

In April, Leicester City’s Wesley Fofana publicly thanked the Premier League and rivals Crystal Palace for pausing a competitive match at sundown to allow him to take on fluids. Beyond the simple grace of this gesture, it is a striking example of the difficulty and devotion of observing the month of fasting - and Fofana’s strength at being able to compete at football’s highest level without having eaten or drunk since sunrise!

Brands and agencies have long-standing conventions and practices surrounding appropriate responses to other religious periods. Indeed for many people, the return of suggestive perfume adverts to TV screens is one of the traditional signs that Christmas is coming. But sensitivities to Ramadan and other Islamic and non-Christian festivals are less well understood.

It’s not that complicated. The challenges this presents to advertisers and agencies aren’t hard to work out. If you are hungry and dehydrated, being exposed to adverts for snacks and drinks is not going to be helpful. If you are trying to reflect on the lessons of the Quran, a bombardment of provocative ad creative is not going to be welcome.

This issue isn’t simply around cultural sensitivity, it’s just good business sense. No matter how edgy the brand, no advert really wants to be actively disliked or remembered for less-than- positive reasons. A lingering sense of brand resentment because your delicious, refreshing soft drink was inescapable when people were struggling to resist their thirst is not exactly what you want...

Playing your part in seasonal activity

As an agency for numerous Universities and Higher Education institutions that recruit overseas in Muslim majority countries, Anything is Possible have significant experience in planning campaign strategies that take local sensitivities into account. For one such client, City, University of London’s Business School (soon to be renamed Bayes Business School), we down weighted spend across our MBA recruitment activity in Dubai from the start of Ramadan to remove unnecessary distraction when the faithful’s mind is busy contemplating Allah’s mercy and love. Our activity reduces by around 50% during Ramadan, so we could still operate across the channels but with the lowest recommended spends.

With geo, psychographic and persona targeting, it is not hard to confidently estimate the proportion of a campaign’s audience that might be observant Muslims - and adjust accordingly.

This is exactly what Coca-Cola did in Norway during Ramadan 2020, where high latitudes and long days make the days of fasting a real struggle for the country’s population of 200,000 Muslims. Coke installed free soda can dispensers in busy public spaces that didn’t switch on until sunset. They used ads on digital billboards that remained blank until it was time to break the fast. The result was a net uplift in brand trust of 23%.

Contribute to resonate

There is a problem of understanding in the ad industries which stems from the problem of choice. Because for the last 200 years or so Western societies have understood religious practices as an individual choice, or dare I say it, a rational consumer decision. This worldview doesn’t accord with the lived reality of cultural traditions, which resonate with questions of identity and belonging, and generate transcendent emotional and communal subjectivities.

What this means is, the normal rules of marketing don’t apply to key religious holidays in the normal way. The Conscious Advertising Network’s manifesto on Diversity directs brands and agencies to develop processes that encourage ‘ways of pushing back on inappropriate content – one that points to a business case and protects the individual making the case.

But it’s not about dodging pitfalls and trying not to cause offense. That zero-sum thinking only reinscribes social and cultural differences, reinforcing firewalls between communities and the media ecology they are embedded in.

It’s about making sure your campaigns are meaningfully engaging with the communities they serve at key moments of celebration, recognising and contributing to the value they bring to the world we are lucky to share with each other.

Eid Mubarak!

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