Good Advertising Can Play a Role in Revolutionary Moments

But Marketing, Like Governing, Requires Respect for the Constituent

By Published on .

Rance Crain
Rance Crain

The advertising industry has a big stake in what's happening in Egypt and other repressive societies. Advertising and branding not only helped foment the revolution but can play a part in bringing more openness and even stability to countries trying to establish a new order.

For advertising to flourish, it needs to be created and consumed by people free to embrace and celebrate their sense of humor, irreverence, intelligence and tolerance -- all the aspects of a free people.

And for democracy to flourish, the people governing need to embrace and celebrate that their citizens combine the same characteristics.

Sellers must respect and cherish buyers. Government must respect and cherish citizens.

I was struck by the comments of the Egyptian adman we quoted in a recent issue. He likened the mindset of the Egyptian consumer to the Egyptian citizen. Neither gets the respect he deserves.

Ali Ali, the head of the boutique agency Elephant Cairo, hopes that out of the turmoil will come a greater respect for the consumer and a higher quality of Egyptian advertising. Too often, Mr. Ali told our Laurel Wentz, clients reject his idea for a campaign because they say Egyptians won't get it. So they use too many simple jingles.

With the protests "consumers have proved to be intelligent and they have a voice now. They're not stupid."

Mr. Ali was also hopeful that advertisers would view digital advertising more seriously. "This is a social-network revolution that started on Twitter and Facebook," he said, a fact that every brand manager is now aware of. More than 14 million people are online in Egypt, and 80% of internet users are between the ages of 17 and 30, Mr. Ali said.

"The beauty is this revolution is by the people and for the people. The people are fed up."

Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing executive who set up the Facebook page that helped shape and coordinate the Egyptian uprising, is a business associate of Mr. Ali. As Mr. Ghonim told The New York Times: "I worked in marketing and I knew that if you build a brand you can get people to trust the brand." At the same time he worked to build distrust of the government's distortions. When people "distrust the media then you know you are not going to lose them," Mr. Ghonim told the Times.

He also accomplished what sophisticated advertisers often fail to do. He refined what he wanted to get across to the protesters to a simple message: "This is your country; a government official is your employee who gets his salary from your money, and you have your rights."

So is the Egyptian protest a wake-up call for marketers as well as the government? Do marketers assume the same numbing attitude as governments in their dealings with consumers/citizens? And what role can marketing and advertising play in generating a more realistic and enlightened position among governments about the capacity of their citizens to handle more liberties?

By giving consumers more credit for understanding the world around them, marketers can set an example of how governments can interact with their citizens. One of the major problems in Egypt is that it's having a hard time generating enough jobs for young workers, even those with college degrees. In Egypt 35% of the working population is employed by the state.

If the Mubarak government had the confidence to accept the premise that Egyptians were hard-working and savvy enough to start their own businesses -- and encouraged them to do so -- it might have helped head off the anger that has enveloped the nation and caused him to step down.

Advertising is a form of free speech and for governments to put their faith in advertising is to put their faith in their citizenry to accept new ideas, to think for themselves, to do new things. People want desperately to make their own choices so they don't need to rely on government -- or government employment.

That's where advertising and the aspirational desires of people everywhere intersect. And why advertisers shouldn't be timid about prodding governments to give their citizens more freedom of choice.

China, for one, has come to the conclusion that advertising can play a major role in its future economic success and stability. Advertising is "fundamental to economic development and sustaining a harmonious society," a top official declared last fall. The Chinese government is incorporating advertising as a "pillar" of the country's economy in its latest five-year plan.

Note that China considers advertising as a key component of "sustaining a harmonious society."

That's a reality to be embraced by governments under siege everywhere and why advertisers need to play a key role in opening up the dialogue. "Now our nightmare is over. Now it is time to dream," Mr. Ghonim told the Times. And the advertising business knows something about dreams.

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