Egyptian advertisements reflect a changing society

Industry executives and academics say gender bias in advertising is not as prevalent as in the past

The way products such as washing machines are marketed is changing in Egypt, reflecting a growing awareness of women's rights. Reuters
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Advertisements in Egypt have traditionally reinforced gender stereotypes, the roles that are assigned by society to men and women from an early age.

This bias has been shown especially where it involves women and girls.

On TV and radio, in newspapers, online and across streets, over the years they portrayed the equivalent of the 1950s American advertising industry’s depiction of the ideal homemaker.

But the tide is turning, industry executives and academics in Egypt say, as a younger and more empowered generation takes the reins and reflects a changing society.

“Stereotypes still exist. However, it’s no longer only framing females in domestic duties or in condescending roles,” says Mervat Abou Oaf, a professor of practice and former chair of the Journalism and Mass Communication department at the American University in Cairo.

“It is a fact that we live in a masculine-dominant society. This is still a fact,” says Professor Abou Oaf, who has been a member of the National Council for Women in Egypt since 2006.

“But have we changed? Of course, we’ve changed dramatically — and very rapidly.”

An episode that highlighted this change was Amr Diab’s Citroen advertisement, in December, which was removed by the French car manufacturer after accusations that it normalised sexual harassment.

The advertisement features the Egyptian megastar using the camera on a Citroen C4 car he is driving to take a picture of a woman crossing the street, without her consent.

The last decade has been important for women’s empowerment in Egypt. Violence against women during the Egyptian uprising of 2011 inspired action, leading to the country’s #MeToo movement in the summer of 2020.

Since President Abdel Fattah El Sisi took office in 2014, Egypt has strengthened laws against sexual harassment, child marriage and female genital mutilation. There are more women than ever in parliament and serving as ministers.

At the same time, nearly 87 per cent of Egyptian men and 77 per cent of women believe that a woman’s most important role is to take care of the home and cook for the family, a 2017 study conducted by UN Women and Promundo found.

The International Men and Gender Equality Survey in the Middle East and North Africa, which interviewed 10,000 men and women aged 18 to 59 in four countries, also found that about 90 per cent of Egyptian men and 58 per cent of women think a man should have the final word about decisions in his home.

'Some things are not OK any more'

Gender stereotypes in advertising are not unique to Egypt.

Research released by Unilever in 2016 found that 40 per cent of women don’t recognise themselves in the advertisements they see. Half of advertisements across a range of countries and brands showed a negative or “not progressive” stereotype of women and only 3 per cent showed clever or funny women, the consumer goods company said.

Alongside UN Women, Unilever started the Unstereotype Alliance in 2017 across the business, technology and creative industries to rally against stereotypical gender portrayals.

“Some things used to be OK and they’re not OK any more," says Meryl Elafifi, who has been in the business for 30 years and became the first female executive creative director at a multinational advertisement agency in Egypt in 2016.

"The representation of women has changed dramatically.”

On a global level, she points to Rolling Stones magazine’s Rockin’ Mamas April 2021 campaign, which showed women as the “true rockstars” of the Covid-19 pandemic. The campaign was led by Egyptian director Ali Ali and won several D&AD awards last month, a prestigious benchmark for creative excellence in design and advertising.

It showed mothers going through the balancing act of working, learning, night-time feedings and taking care of their children in all of its unglamorous glory.

“For me, it was shocking, because all my life I saw mums in a certain frame of interpretation,” says Ms Elafifi, who founded her own boutique agency, Merf, last year. “As a mother, I see myself in Ali’s advertisement more than I had ever seen myself in any commercial.”

While advertisements in Egypt have not pushed the envelope to that extent, there are noticeable shifts.

Egyptian comedic actor Mohamed Henidy promotes washing machines, refrigerators, microwaves and air-conditioning units in a campaign for home appliances retailer El Araby.

In another humorous advertisement for vehicle brand MG, an elderly Egyptian woman speeds through the streets with her new SUV. In a reversal of traditional roles, her son chats with a neighbour as he trims plants and waters his front garden.

Dairy products producer Juhayna almost makes fun of itself in an advertisement showing a mother and daughter in an idyllic light with cheesy background music and the message “Juhayna encourages mothers”. Then it cuts to men asking why they cannot be encouraged, too, saying they also consume Juhayna products.

Several brands are promoting Egyptian women in sports, including First Abu Dhabi Bank Egypt and Ariel laundry detergent. The FAB advertisement, with the theme “success builds success”, shows female athletes breaking barriers and ends with Hana Goda, a young and rising table tennis star.

Ariel features Feryal Abdelaziz, the first female Egyptian to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games. While detergent advertisements almost always address homemakers and mothers directly, Ms Abdelaziz promotes Ariel as a way to keep her karate uniform sparkling white.

Naila Fattouh, group managing director at Impact BBDO, says certain products will always be aimed at women, but the way they are marketed is changing, based on consumer research.

“The consumer is more accepting of different options, so it’s not always the wife cooking and the husband coming in and the kids smiling,” she says. “It could still be the woman cooking, but it is less about pleasing the rest of the family and more about enjoying the process of cooking.”

Some oil and vegetable ghee brands, such as Rawaby, are even using male chefs as ambassadors.

Real estate developers have been particularly progressive in how they depict women, Ms Fattouh says.

In a campaign for Sodic property company's Karmell development, Egyptian actress Amina Khalil is shown as an independent, free-spirited woman riding her bike, practising fencing, snapping photos and creating pottery.

“Amina embodies that new, cool Egyptian woman who’s got it all,” Ms Fattouh says.

Using both male and female celebrities is another trend that has become more popular in Egyptian advertising.

“Celebrity appeal has become much more dominant in advertisements over sex appeal,” says Professor Abou Oaf.

While men still dominate the creative side of the advertisement industry in Egypt, women dominate the business side. That, too, is changing.

“Today we have exceptional female creatives,” Ms Fattouh says. “In the next five years, you’ll find a lot of very senior female creative leads.”

A younger generation on both the advertiser side and the client side, who were in their 20s or 30s during the 2011 revolution, will gradually bring about more change, says Ms Elafifi.

“A lot of young people are now leading on the advertisement scene,” she says. “And they have not seen ‘before’. They only see what’s happening around them and that will reflect on how we represent women.”

Updated: June 06, 2022, 6:31 AM