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The portrayal of women in Egyptian Advertising and it's effects on their
position within Egyptian Society
By Jade Okba (May 2011)
“Advertising is an illusion of escape from the present – whether to the past or to the future
– offering a vision of a sweeter life.” (Roni Zirinski, 2005)
In this day of intense mass media bombardment, we receive over 3000 advertised
messages a day and less than 15% of those messages are directed at women.
Considering how small this percentage is; it is surprising that advertising campaigns in
mainstream media – which utilize techniques featuring women – have come under a lot
scrutiny and criticism from consumers, educators and feminists. This is due to advertisers
portraying women stereotypically and exploiting the insecurities and poor body image of
female viewers (Spencer, 2008).
Women are often represented in advertisements in a way that either portrays them as
product adornments or as females in stereotypical roles, such as wife, mother and/or
homemaker. These portrayals of women are very limiting and are not a true reflection of
the multiple roles that women have within society. They confine women to the domestic
sphere and convey the message that women do not make any specific decisions, are
dependent on men and are essentially sex objects.
The representation of women as flawless, thin, Caucasian models dates back to the
1960s. This image of women is defined as the “Standard Paradigm” (Cohan, 2001, p.323).
It is a manufactured image of the 'perfect' woman against which all women are compared
and to which all women must aspire. This ideal relates to the philosopher Michael
Foucault's theory of normalisation, one of the major mechanisms within society, which
categorizes people into 'normal' and 'abnormal'.
Normalisation is particularly relevant in addressing gender and the body in popular culture,
as it has manifested itself in the advertising industry. It has established a pathology of the
body, identifying thinner bodies as normal whilst other types of body are defined as
abnormal and in need of adjustment or repair.
According to recent studies, the size of women has decreased continuously since the
1960s and the reading of mainstream high-circulation beauty and fashion magazines
increased the desire to be thin amongst female university students directly as well as
through others (Park, 2005). These findings suggest that a young woman does not need to
have seen an advert in order for her to be affected by it. It is simply enough for her peers
to have seen the advert, for they will be influenced by it and therefore indirectly influence
her. Assuming that this statement is true, then the messages conveyed through mass
media have a much wider reach than would have initially been conceived when making the
Research has also suggested that visual imagery provided by advertisements has a
significant effect on the belief system of a given society (Acevedo, Nohara, Arruda,
Tamashiro, Brashear, 2006, p.59), therefore, it can be said that these false portrayals of
women are slowly becoming embedded in the social realm and have already begun to
change attitudes, behaviours and values towards women within society, particularly third
world societies, such as Egypt.
Egypt has long been classed as the cultural and information pinnacle of the Arab world;
with it's capital Cairo serving as one of the largest publishing and broadcasting centre in
the Middle East. However, the way women are portrayed in the Egyptian media has
changed considerably over the past 10 years and is fast becoming a source of controversy
amongst educators and critics as well as the Egyptian public.
This paper will explore the representation of women in advertising in Egypt and analyse
whether it is a false representation. It will also analyse the effects that these images have
on the Egyptian woman and her place in Egyptian society.
Chapter 1 Creating the New Egyptian Woman: The Consumer Woman
In July 2010, a report by the Arab Research Centre stated that the amount of money spent
on advertising in Cairo had risen by 35% in the first half of the year. The Egyptian
government had increased advertising expenditure from $460 million to $708 million, the
equivalent of 3.5 billion Egyptian pounds(L.E.), in just six months. This sum shows the
level of importance placed on advertising in Egypt and suggests that the impact it has on
Egyptian consumerism is quite extensive.
Egypt's modern consumer culture is linked to its incorporation into the capitalist world
economy in the late 19th century. Changing habits of consumption worked synergistically
with the industrial revolution to create modern consumer culture (Russell, 2004, p.50). A
new mass education system was developed which helped increase the spread of literacy
in Egypt. In turn, this made a “commercially viable press” possible (Schechter, 2001). The
press became the main method of advertising in Egypt. Advertising evolved with the press
and as new illustrated magazines were published, advertisers became more creative and
innovative in their executions of these adverts.
In the 1830s, Wadi-Al-Nil was one of the first newspapers to utilise advertising. These
adverts resembled early 19th century western classified adverts in their simplicity and were
based on facts and information and not aesthetics. This form of advertising did not develop
substantially until the 1890s. Due to a rise in political newspapers, other publications were
finding it hard to secure subventions from the government and therefore had to resort to
advertising as a means of funding. This in turn led to an increase in the number, range and
quality of advertisements. There was also an increase in the number of industries that
Egypt's first big advertising boom came in the areas of medicine and cosmetics, however
these advertisements blurred the distinction between health, beauty and even
foods/beverages (Russell, 2004, p.59). Adverts were based on facts and logic and unlike
western advertisements rarely featured people. Although this is a suitable way of
advertising pharmaceutical products, it may not have been effective in advertising
cosmetics. There was also very little gender specificity in these adverts as most products
claimed to help both men and women. Cosmetics advertisers would appeal to women
through sketches, testimonials and claimed to cure their ailments rather than enhance their
However, in 1915 Egyptian advertisers began targeting consumers based on their gender.
A study of two publications,Anis-Al-Jalis, which was female targeted and Al-Muayyad
which was targeted at men showed that speciality, leisure and luxury products and
services such as photographers, governesses and music instructors were advertised to
women, whereas essentials such as doctors, dentists and lawyers were advertised to men.
This shows that at the time women were already being confined to certain roles within
society, however as the advertising industry would expand and develop further, women
would be redefined within society.
In his paper, The Liberation of Women and The New Woman, Qasim Amin argued that a
transformation of the image of the Egyptian woman would be “the most significant
development in Egypt's history”. Amin believed that the transformation of Egyptian society
would take place based on key changes to the status of women within the family and
home. Egyptian advertisers redefined the boundaries between the public and private
sectors in Egypt by conveying the message that a woman could serve her family, home
and nation through consumption. Egyptian women were now carrying out the role of the
purchasing agent of the home, just like their western counterparts. However, Amin was
“confusing variations across geographic space for those across developmental time”
(Russell, 2004). He didn't realise that injecting foreign values into society through
advertising would result in a cultural shock that would have these new values, either
rejected or adopted without being fully understood and in turn would affect parts of society
negatively, particularly women.
Products were associated with western society and western society was given the position
of being higher class due to being more economically developed, particularly in advertising
Fig 1.1. Egyptian Kodak camera advert (1921)
Fig 1.1 is an Egyptian Kodak camera from 1921. The header states: “If you want success
in photography, use only American products”.
This advert was one of the first attempts to create an”indigenous representation of
womanhood” in Egyptian advertising (Russell, 2004, p.69). It is a hand drawn illustration of
a woman wearing traditional Bedouin clothing. If not for the clothing, it could be alleged
that this is an illustration of a western woman, as the features appear to be those of a
Caucasian woman due to the pale skin and small nose. Furthermore, the fact that her
arms are exposed gives a lack of accuracy to the representation as the women who wear
this type of clothing would not cover their hair indoors or expose their arms outdoors.
Additionally, Bedouin are very cut off from the rest of society; they are classed as travellers
who live in the desert. There is no setting in this advert, whether it is a visible/social setting
or a private one and therefore the advert also lacks context, rendering it ineffective.
Fig 1.2. Dr Bustany's Health Cigarettes Advert (1922)
In America, the first cigarette advert featuring a woman was in 1926 yet it had already
happened in Egypt four years earlier. In Fig 1.2 is an advert for Dr. Bustany's cigarettes. In
this advert you see a woman wearing a sleeveless cocktail dress with a burning cigarette
between her fingers. She is standing behind an advert with a cigarette border. This woman
has a very western look; her hairstyle and clothes are almost identical to western trends of
the time. It could be said that this advert was using an “exotic” looking woman to attract
Egyptian men into buying these cigarettes, however the advert was targeting both men
and women. The advert states that Dr. Bustany cigarettes are “void of toxins”, therefore
this shows that the aim of this advert was to sell cigarettes by playing on people's concern
for health. The use of a western looking woman associates this product with upper
classes, modernity and progress and in this association is a response to people's desire to
be better than what they are. Below are some more examples of Egyptian advertisements
that featured Caucasian, and western-looking women.
Fig 1.3. Palmolive Soap Advert (1922)
Fig 1.4. Zuzu Tea Advert (1951)
Fig 1.5. Kodak Advert
It is clear to see from the examples above (Fig 1.3, 1.4, 1.5) that the use of an indigenous
representation of the Egyptian woman was very quickly discarded in favour of the blonde
hair, blue eyes and pale skin of the western woman. This was due to the attention to
power, success and modernity that Egyptian advertisers associated with the West. Women
were being misrepresented in Egyptian advertising and the ideology that 'West is Best'
quickly became embedded in Egyptian society.
Chapter 2 Modern Portrayals of the Egyptian Woman in Adverts
The Egyptian Media is dominated by images of fair-skinned flawless models and according
to research, 85% of Egyptian advertising utilised women to promote a product or service.
Women are normally featured in traditional roles but as consumers. One of the most
common scenarios seen in Egyptian adverts shows a woman at home alone either as a
wife, mother and/or homemaker.
Advertisements promoting health, beauty, food and household products or services often
employ techniques that feature women. 52% of Egyptian adverts feature fair-skinned
western-looking women rather than models more representative of the indigenous women
of Egypt. The majority of advertisements, approximately 80%, although featured women
had no gender specificity (i.e. they were not targeted at any specific demographic, be it
male or female). Furthermore, 75% of adverts portrayed women as sex objects. The use of
these two portrayals, the “fair-skinned beauty” and the “sex kitten”, simultaneously in a
closed society such as Egypt where fair skin is rare and sex is taboo has injected false
images and ideals into Egyptian society and in turn altered their cultural and moral values
as well as their behaviour.
These false representations of the Egyptian woman have become embedded in
advertising culture and Egyptian advertisers often recycle the same old concepts and
techniques which utilise these “fake” women. It has become the default in Egyptian
advertising to use these concepts and techniques that feature western women and
western ideals in order to sell products and services.
Fig 2.1. Online Advertisement for Masreat.com
Fig 2.1. is an example of an online advertisement of an online shopping site, Masreat.com.
When translated literally, 'Masreat' means Egyptian women. However, the advert features
a blonde haired, blue eyed Caucasian model, who looks nothing at all like the average
Egyptian woman. She is carrying a large, expensive looking laptop with the website
address and logo written on the screen. Despite the fact this website is specifically called
'Egyptian Women'. The use of this model is a very typical example of the techniques
advertisers use to sell their products or services. The association of this website with a
western woman relates to the idea within Egyptian society that “West is Best” and this
association in turn plays on peoples desires to be successful as this is their perception of
the West. Nonetheless, this form of advertising is manipulative and takes advantage of
people's insecurities and in some case can create insecurities, not only within women but
within men as well. It will cause the majority of Egyptian women to feel insecure about their
looks when a website by the name of 'Egyptian Women' is advertising using a western
woman. Furthermore, it causes men to become resentful of their wives for not looking like
these “perfect” representations.
Fig 2.2. Melody TV Channel 'Tetahada El Malal' (Challenge Boredom) Campaign
The use of sexual messages in adverts was not seen in the Egyptian media until the year
2000. Egyptian entertainment networks, such as Melody TV had banned risqué
advertisements and music videos up until then. Today Melody TV owns some of the most
risqué channels on Egyptian television, such as Melody and Melody Drama.
Melody has employed many successful advertising campaigns, however they have come
under a lot of scrutiny for containing subliminal sexual messages. Fig 2.2. shows a still
shot from one of their most successful TV campaigns. It features two superheroes, a male
and a female. The strap line of this campaign is “Melody...Challenge Boredom!”. In the
series of adverts in this campaign, these two superheroes, “Melody Man” and “Booby” go
around saving victims from “boring” people by beating the boring people up. It is done in a
comical and humorous fashion although it does contain violent undertones.
Both superheroes are wearing yellow spandex costumes. The male is olive-skinned,
overweight and wears glasses with no emphasis placed on his sexuality. Rather, her is
meant to serve as a humorous element in the advert. On the other hand, the female
superhero who is given the name “Booby”, is fair-skinned with light eyes, big breasts, small
waist and curves. The yellow spandex suit highlights every inch of her body and all other
elements from her speech and her walk through to little gestures can be easily
misconstrued to contain sexual meaning.
The use of this character is clearly there only to serve as a motivator on male
demographics by playing on their sexual desires. The male character is clearly the
dominant one which serves as an expression of male power over women in society.
In a society where young males constitute the majority of the population and sexual
frustration levels are high due to sex being a taboo subject, the advert would gain a lot of
attention from male viewers. However, although this attention is beneficial to the network in
attracting viewers and increasing advertising revenue, it is detrimental to the social
psychology in Egypt as it is affecting male attitudes towards women in Egypt as well as
affecting women's self esteem and body image.
However, what is hugely surprising is that even great western brands such as Mercedes
are advertising in Egypt using the same concepts and techniques that have become
default to Egyptian advertisers.
Fig 2.3. Mercedes Benz GLK 350 Billboard Advert
In Fig 2.3. is a billboard advertisement on a motorway in Egypt for Mercedes Benz's GLK
350 model. The advert depicts a young fair-skinned woman with a long ponytail, dressed
in extremely tight horse-riding gear, holding a horsewhip whilst posing seductively next to a
horse on the left side of the billboard. This is the side closest to the road and is the first
thing a driver will notice when coming up to the billboard. The woman and the horse are
looking towards the right side of the billboard, which is taken up mostly by the car. The
setting seems quite rural and very much like a lot of places in the Middle East including
Egypt. The way the woman is depicted next to the horse, with key factors such as her
pose, horsewhip and ponytail connecting the two together visually, is so discernibly sexual
and although the horse could also relate to the horsepower of the car's engine, clearly the
focus of the advert if directed on the young woman's bottom rather than the car. The
woman is used as a lure to draw men's attention to the billboard and in turn get them to
notice the car, as they would follow the direction of her stance and gaze. The woman is
being used as a product adornment in order to arouse the desire of the target male
demographics not just for her but also for the car. These techniques cause men to believe
that in order to find a woman like the one depicted in the advert, they must own one of
these cars. Additionally, the strap line “The best or nothing” gives men the false impression
that there is such a thing as a perfect woman, who is obedient, erotic and flawlessly pretty.
From this analysis, it is clear to see that the false representation of the Egyptian woman is
widespread across the different advertising media in Egypt whether it is television, print,
billboards or online advertisements. Egyptian mass media preys on the insecurities and
desires of Egyptian men and women alike through the use of emotions such as sexuality,
machismo, insecurity and vulnerability in their advertisements. The effects of these
advertisements manifest themselves within society in changes in cultural and moral values
due to the cultural shock caused by these adverts and the effect they have on the
individuals. If advertising does not reflect the cultural values and moral beliefs of a society
then it is not a fully efficient way of advertising to the general consumer as it does not
represent society truthfully and will cause long term negative side effects within society.
Chapter 3 Women's Position in Egyptian Society
Egypt has a population of approximately 90 million people of which just under 50% are
women. 90% of the population are Muslim, 9% are Coptic Orthodox Christian, and 1% are
various other faiths. 80% of women wear the hijab, the Islamic traditional headscarf, yet
women are almost never portrayed wearing the hijab in Egyptian adverts. “This is because
the advertising industry sees the hijab as a symbol of being illiberal and backwards.”
(Amani El Tunsi, 2010)
One of the most important facts about Arab culture is the role of Islam in shaping it. The
language, social structure and economic philosophy are all fully grounded in Islam
(Kavoossi, 2000; Lawrence, 1998) . This is the case in Egypt, with such a significantly high
Muslim population and the mother tongue being Arabic. It is surprising that advertisers do
not employ marketing techniques that utilize faith in a way that is appropriate and effective
in order to reach what could potentially be a huge consumer base.
In Egyptian culture, women are generally seen as wives, mothers and home-makers.
However, it is important that she gains an education, as this is what determines her status
in society. Even if a woman has come from a working class background, she can elevate
herself within society by achieving a good degree and then getting a well paid job or by
marrying someone of a higher class. Women are also seen as the bearer of the family's
honour and reputation. Their sexual behaviour and reputation, if tainted,will affect the rest
of the women in her family.
Egypt is the second worst country in the world for sexual harassment cases. In a survey by
the Egyptian centre for women's rights, 98% of foreign women said they had been sexually
harassed while in Egypt, whilst 83% of Egyptian women reported cases of sexual
harassment. Whilst advertisers blame social trends for evoking sexual harassment on the
streets of Egypt, it seems that the bombardment of sexual messages in their adverts is to
blame for this. Egypt has a very closed society, where sex is taboo and relationships
outside of marriage are not acknowledged. When you expose them to sex in a way that
conveys false ideals and exaggerated claims it is very likely that it will affect their attitudes
and behaviours. Men are made to feel sexually frustrated by these images. They see
these overtly sexual women on television, and due to no one speaking openly about sex in
a factual and diplomatic way, are lead to see women as sex objects. Furthermore,
Egyptian girls will see these images of “fake” Caucasian women and feel inadequate, and
as a result, will cause them to have self-esteem issues, poor body image and even issues
with their sexuality.
Sexual harassment of women in Egypt has even reached the country's film industry.
Writer-director Mohamed Diab recently oversaw a film entitled “687”(2010). The film
focuses on a woman's daily struggle with sexual harassment on a crowded bus that she
has to board to get to work. The film's success stemmed from it's authenticity during a time
of a sexual harassment epidemic within Egyptian society. It was received well by the
young women of Egypt as they felt it was based on true stories and most have actually
experienced similar situations on a regular basis. Although it received some positive
reviews, '678' also drew much criticism. The film goes on to show how the target of
harassment takes on the men who have tormented her. Due to the subject of sexual
harassment being such a taboo in Egyptian society, women are expected not to complain
about it. They are urged to avoid contact and being in the same place as their harassers
whilst the culprits are left to continue with their behaviour. This is due to efforts from the
state to convince everybody that Egypt remains a safe place for people to be. “Even the
state owned media kept telling illusionary statements about Egypt as the safest country in
the world” (Ziada, 2010).
If a woman answers back during a situation where she is being harassed it is taken as
provocation by the male perpetrator. The man sees it as his right to make lewd remarks
and physically harass a woman, reflecting the notion that they see women as sex objects
and adornments. According to research, the male view of sexual harassment in Egypt is
that it is a problem of culture and tradition, stating that it stems from disapproval of
relationships before marriage. They believe restrictive civil marriages have caused
unsatisfied men to become frustrated and can in turn lead to harassment cases. Men also
view that the issue has become prevalent in recent times due to marriages becoming less
affordable , heaping pressure upon them as the provider. The men are expected to pay for
all costs and in some cases this can lead them to spend years working abroad in the Gulf
area where the average wage is much higher. This time alone, according to the male
population, causes an “emotional and physical deficit”. (Rakha, 2008)
The more serious issue is that the younger generations are receiving the full impact of
advertising messages. With young people aged between 15 and 30 constituting the
majority of the population, it is hard to ignore the fact that this is the sector of society which
will be most affected. Young boys will grow up believing that a woman being harassed in
the streets is normal and with almost every advert and music video featuring women as
product adornments and sex objects, they will soon start to believe that this is a true
reflection of women's roles. On the other hand, young girls will grow up overly sexualised,
with no respect for their bodies and not satisfied with how they look. This could lead to an
increase in teenage pregnancies, eating disorders and cosmetic surgery amongst
Research shows that young Egyptian men are already beginning to see their female
counterparts as inferiors. A staggering 80% of them believe that men should have priority
over women in the labour market, 71% of men believe a girl must obey her brother even if
they were younger than her and more that three quarters of the population believe a
woman must obey her husband's orders in all cases, whilst 75 % of men believe a woman
who dresses provocatively deserves to be harassed. These trends have resulted opinions
to even shift amongst women, as an increasing number are beginning to agree with overall
The portrayal of women in Egyptian advertising is that of a “fake”, fair-skinned, overtly
sexual Egyptian woman who almost does not exist in real life. It is not a true
representation of the real Egyptian women and is creating false ideals within the Egyptian
society. It is causing women to have low self-esteem and poor body image and in turn
leading to an increase in health problems amongst young Egyptian females such as
depression and eating disorders. Furthermore, the portrayal of women as sex objects in
Egyptian adverts causes girls to become overly sexualised and in turn could lead to issues
regarding sexuality amongst young females as well as young males. This could increase
teenage pregnancies and abortions and could also lead to a rise in sexually transmitted
diseases in Egypt. In being such a closed society that does not talk about sex, it is very
doubtful that the Egyptian government could offer these young people, especially young
females, the support needed in such cases which could result in them putting their lives at
Additionally, the use of these flawless sexualised fair-skinned beauties could lead to a shift
in the balance of Egyptian society causing women to be regarded as merely objects of
pleasure and desire as well as servants to men in constant need of their attention and
approval. The utilisation of these false images has already created cracks and deviances
in the infrastructure of Egyptian society as proven by the increase in sexual harassment
cases and high divorce rates in Egypt.
Egypt's advertisers need to rethink their advertising strategies and marketing techniques in
order to preserve the balance of Egyptian society. If advertisers were themselves, to draw
attention to the disadvantages of sex advertising and false portrayals of women and the
negative effects that these false portrayals are having on Egyptian society, then maybe
advertising campaigns could be directed at tackling these issues, for instance, such as the
Dove “Real Women” campaign which was very successful as it allowed women to be
themselves and encouraged them to be proud of how they look naturally. Real, natural
women were the ones being portrayed as perfect, beautiful and flawless rather than slim
models who have had their images airbrushed and digitally altered to portray that false
“perfect” woman. It is time we focus advertising on embedding moral values as well as
accurate and realistic portrayals of women in order to create a better society rather than a