You can tell a lot about a place by looking at the advertising messages it creates and consumes. Unfortunately, the UAE seems to get more than its fair share of bad advertising. So much of it, in fact, that I will post some of the worst examples I come across on this blog from now on. There is material aplenty: the nation’s billboards and magazines are filled with sales pitches about as subtle as a slap in the face. To keep things balanced, I'll also post some of the better campaigns I see.
Advertising intrigues me because, in many ways, it mirrors the contradictions of popular culture in the UAE, just in a heightened, often hilarious way. 1960s-Mad-Men tactics are the norm and visual styles range from erratic to downright comical. Another reason I'm interested in the quality of advertising is that, in a way, it concerns all of us. Advertising is everywhere; there is no escape. It is the kind of societal leveller I've mentioned before, which I can get a little obsessive about. Don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not against advertising in public spaces. On the contrary, I try to see advertising as an artform (key word 'try'). As such, it has the power to either pollute or uplift our surroundings.
The first bad ad comes from one of my least favourite sub-genres of advertising: the advertorial (adverts dressed up as editorial coverage). They are meant to enable a more sophisticated, less intrusive approach to advertising, but often lead to problematic results that blur the boundary between journalist and PR copywriter. Having been involved in the production of advertorials in the past, I know how tedious, often impossible, it is to square the interests of the reader and the advertiser. As this example from the current issue of Brownbook magazine shows, even the UAE’s most style-conscious publications don't always get this balance right.
‘Ode to Motherhood’ is a Tiffany & Co. advertorial set up as a photo story running over eight glossy, light-blue pages. It follows an Emirati family – father, mother and teenage daughter – on their quest to find the perfect gift for grandma. So far, so obvious. The wording and styling of the advert create a highly aspirational (light-)blueprint of Mother’s Day, Emirati style. What is striking here is that the copywriter/journalist somehow manages to position Mother’s Day as part of some kind of global cultural heritage and then tells the story of how ‘one Emirati family chooses to celebrate the tradition’.
So how do Tiffany & Co. and Brownbook magazine envisage the new Emirati ‘tradition’ of Mother’s Day? Here is the full story, in all its ham-handed glory:
Mother’s Day is, of course, a global fount of cringe-worthy advertising. A little kitsch and tackiness are to be expected. But, please, Mad Men of the UAE, try to understand: the 1960s are over. And since when do teenagers buy diamonds?
The whole thing is reminiscent of The Diamond Trading Company's hugely successful strategy of coming up with ever new occasions to be celebrated with diamond jewellery. Eternity rings, trilogy rings, and, most recently, the right-hand ring all belong in this category of relatively recent, commercially constructed 'customs', established with the help of advertising campaigns much more sophisticated than this one. (How and by whom diamonds are marketed is an intriguing topic in itself, which I might cover in another blog post.)
So, just to recap, the advertisers have this Emirati family 'choose' to celebrate Mother's Day by buying a diamond jewellery set for grandma, while mum gets a diamond ring (from dad) and diamond earrings (from teenage daughter). That's a lot of diamonds for an occasion that occurs every twelve months – even for the UAE. The question is: how effective is this kind of campaign? Will anyone in the UAE really start thinking of Mother's Day as an occasion to be marked by giving diamond jewellery? Perhaps, a few. Although I like to think of magazine readers in the UAE as having better judgement than that.