Truth in advertising? We're being gulled into spending too much
There is a clear difference in the ads and content that we see in Arabic media from what we see in English.
But the issues covered are not always so different. I wish that some ads, showcasing how people live the high life that they can't afford, were seen on English-language channels as well as in Arabic. "Keeping up with the Joneses" or, as I call it in this part of the world, "keeping up with the Al Somethings" is a concept that applies to us all.
Most of us have experienced a feeling of insecurity about not having it all; it can sometimes seem that our neighbours or colleagues have the best, the latest, the biggest of everything, and that this gives them more status, or a better image. What we may not realise when we feel this way is that those other people who might have it all, actually might not have the money to afford all these extra-nice and expensive things.
During Ramadan, most of the Arabic television channels offered a lot of advertisements about debt. This was a smart move, because the ads were seen in prime time when families would sit together and share their iftar meals, and actually reflect on how they live their lives.
The ads were either in a cartoon format, using famous local animated characters, or showed children or households that were suffering because male family members had taken out huge loans.
These ads might have seemed silly to many people, but they actually depict a truth of our society. It is one thing to take a loan if you can pay it back, but it doesn't make sense to take a loan for something unnecessary, like the latest phone or a Bentley, when you live in a shack.
It can, on the other hand, make sense to take a loan to invest in something worthwhile, such as a house that you plan to live in for the next 30-plus years or hand down to your children.
These ads inspire people to put as little money as they can into the necessities, while spending more on materialistic things, such as travelling to the top European destinations. How much is it worth to say: "I went away to St Tropez, Cannes, Berlin, Switzerland this summer and I stayed in the best hotels and shipped my Bentley to drive around"?
This type of behaviour leads to a very shallow society that focuses on the most unimportant things - and that leads to desiring still more.
Worse, this behaviour has become so commonplace that some people who earn normal salaries look to get the best of things first, before paying their bills, and use credit cards to pay those bills.
That's where debts start piling up. Since we lack a proper credit-reporting system, a person can have eight credit cards from eight different banks and no one will know about it. So one card pays the bills, one is for travel, one for shopping, two to pay off the other cards, and so on.
If that's bad, the MTV and Disney channels don't do much for kids in teaching them how to become better citizens. Instead, they have shows like My Sweet 16 Birthday where the prized gifts are brand new cars and the like. Some parents believe that because they are too busy with work, and spend little quality time with their families, money and nice things are the best way to compensate. Enter the loans and credit cards.
Expatriates know that serious debt trouble in the UAE can land them in jail, or tempt them to run away. But for Emiratis, the learning curve is different. An Emirati who gets into debt can expect a "get out of jail free" card by which their debts are paid for them (although they must repay the government eventually).
This isn't really a solution. It makes it easy for anyone with a compulsion to own the best of everything to go straight back to the old behaviour of borrowing too much.
I hope that the bubble of materialism we've created for ourselves bursts soon. Otherwise, the next time we try to make a friend, the first thing we'll ask to see is how many credit cards he or she has.
Aida Al Busaidy is a social affairs columnist and former co-host of a Dubai television show
On Twitter: @AidaAlB
Published: November 5, 2012 04:00 AM