The Implications of Islam for Advertising Messages: The Middle Eastern Context

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The Implications of Islam for Advertising Messages:
The Middle Eastern Context

Gillian Rice

Mohammed Al-Mossawi

ABSTRACT. Islam is the religion of a vast and growing number of consumers around the world. There is evidence to. suggest that religious beliefs can impact consumer behavior and response to advertising messages. The purpose of this article is to present a managerial decision-making framework that relates Islamic values to the implications for advertising. The illustrations are in the context of the Middle East. Recommendations are provided for international advertisers developing messages for Muslim consumer segments.

[Article copies available for a fee from The Haworth Document Delivery Service: 1-800-HAWORTH. E-mail address: Website: © 2002 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.]
KEYWORDS. Advertising, Islam, and Middle East

The decision faced by multinational corporations of whether to standardize or adapt their advertising strategies has been a subject of debate and research for at least three decades. As Laroche et al. (2001) emphasize, contradictory research findings reinforce the importance of the issue. Onkvisit and Shaw (1999) conclude that there is little scientific evidence to confirm or contradict the validity of the concept of international advertising standardization.

In one study of multinational corporations (MNCs) marketing consumer goods and services in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Egypt, Melewar et al. (2000) found that managers view the Middle East as a region with similar culture and beliefs and tend to follow a standardized approach with respect to advertising objectives, positioning and the main advertising theme, for which decisions tend to be made at headquarters (HQ). Decisions on creative execution and media strategy are often made locally, however. According to Hill and James (1990) and Duncan and Ramaprasad (1995), such decision-making about advertising is a function of the degree of independence of local subsidiaries. Ironically then, the decision to standardize has more to do with the corporate culture than with the culture of markets and nations (De Mooij 1998). Laroche et al. (2001) found that the degree of control a MNC had over a subsidiary was a direct determinant of advertising standardization. They concluded therefore that MNCs need to develop a learning orientation toward foreign markets. Understanding the similarities in market position, getting familiar with foreign contexts, and developing shared values and beliefs among subsidiary managers and HQ managers may make MNCs pursue a standardized approach to advertising. Without this learning orientation, Laroche et al. (2001) explain that firms standardizing their advertising across cultures tend to be challenged by local subsidiaries or representatives. A high level of familiarity with the local culture permits a manager at HQ to understand better what should be done in the creative aspect of advertising standardization in order to avoid cultural blunders (Tse et al. 1988, Ricks 1993).

Culture is the means by which people “communicate, perpetuate, and. develop their knowledge about attitudes towards life. Culture is the fabric of meaning in terms of which human beings interpret their experience and guide their action” (Geertz 1973). Usunier (1993) delineates several sources of culture: language, nationality, education, ethnicity, religion, family, gender, social class and organization. This article focuses specifically on religion.

The objective of the article is to explain and illustrate the types of advertising messages that might be appropriate for one religious group: Muslims. A managerial decision-making framework (see Figure 1 and Table 1) that relates basic Islamic values to advertising implications is presented. The underlying purpose is to make a contribution to the “learning orientation” (Laroche et al. 2001) essential for MNCs. In this way, managers might understand better those situations when advertisements targeted at Muslim audiences can be part of a standardized advertising campaign or when, why and how advertisements should be adapted.

Twenty years ago, Boddewyn (1982) discussed the role of religion in advertising regulation. Subsequently, there was little research conducted concerning religion and advertising. Hirschman (1984) suggested two reasons for this. First, perhaps religion may be a subject too sensitive for investigation. Second, religious influence is ambiguous. More recently, researchers have paid increasing attention to the relevance of religious principles to business decision-making in general (see, for example, Rossauw 1994, Gould 1995, Rice 1999). The interest in religion arises from today’s emphasis on ethics in business and the continuing growth in globalization. In the past decade, studies of advertising and religion have found that religious commitment affected (1) the response of British Christians and Muslims to TV advertising (Michell and Al-Mossawi 1995), (2) the attitudes of Saudi men towards TV advertising (Al-Makaty et al. 1996), and (3) the response of Bahraini Muslims to TV advertising (Michell and Al-Mossawi 1999). That religion can be a powerful mediator in the decoding of advertising messages (Michell and Al-Mossawi 1995) suggests the need for closer examination of religion and advertising. Religious affiliation plays a significant role in attitude formation (Hirshman 1981), value choices (Keng and Yang 1993) and is especially related to questions of why people consume (Hirschman 1984). Delener (1994) found differences in the automobile purchase decision processes between Jewish and Catholic households and concluded that enhanced knowledge of religious differences in consumer decision-making should have significant impact on the effectiveness of global marketing strategies.

TABLE 1. A Managerial Framework of Islamic Value
Dimensions and Advertising Implications

Cultural Dimension

Islamic Value Dimension

Examples of Sources


Relationships with people

Communication style

“... and speak good to people....” (Qur’an 2:83)
“and be moderate in your walking and lower your voice....” (Qur’an 31:19)
“Repel evil with that which is better....” (Qur’an 23:96)

Strive for excellence in the design of advertising messages. Use Islamic phraseology, but with care.

Honesty of communication

“Truly, God guides not him who is a liar.” (Qur’an 39:3)
“... give just measure and weight, nor withhold from the people the things that are their due.” (Qur’an 11:85)
“… the one who cheats is not of us.” Saying of Prophet Muhammad (Keller 1994)

Avoid exaggeration and deception.

Appreciation of diversity of human race

“No Arab has superiority over any non-Arab and no non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; no dark person has superiority over a white person and no white person has any superiority over a dark person. The criterion of honor in the sight of God is righteousness and honest living.” Saying of Prophet Muhammad (Sallam and Hanafy 1988)
“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other....” (Qur’an 49:13)

Include in advertisements diversity in terms of ethnic groups and dress (traditional versus Western)

“Let there be no compulsion in religion....” (Qur’an 2:256)

Use caution with religious symbols in advertising, Islamic or otherwise.

Justice and fairness

“Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even though it be against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, be he rich or poor....” (Qur’an 4:135)

Avoid comparative advertisements, especially those referring to a competing brand by name.

Role of women

“The acquisition of knowledge is a duty incumbent on every Muslim, male and female.” Saying of Prophet Muhammad (Sallam and Hanafy 1988)

Recognize in advertisements the positive contributions made by women not only to the family, but to the workplace and society as a whole.

Cultural Dimension

Islamic Value Dimension

Examples of Sources


Time orientation

Consumption behavior: acceptability of wealth ...

“... He has raised you in ranks, some above others; that He may try you in the gifts that He has given you.” (Qur’an 6:165)
“... wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer.... (Qur’an 7:31)

Advertising of luxury products is acceptable, especially in wealthier nations.

... but condemnation of ostentatious consumption

“... and spend of your substance in the cause of God and make not your own hands contribute to your destruction; but do good….” (Qur’an 2:195)
“... wealth and children are allurements of the life of this world....” (Qur’an 18:46)

Appeal to social responsibility and household economy.

“... of their wealth take alms so that you might purify and sancity….” (Qur’an 9:103

Opportunities for cause-related marketing.

Appreciation of education/science

“... say, O my Lord! Increase me in knowledge ... (Qua an 20:114)

Use “scientific” appeals in advertising where possible. Refer to Muslims’ scientific heritage from Medieval Age.

Human nature orientation (self-concept)


“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things) and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts, etc.).” (Qur’an 24:30)
“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things) and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts, etc.) and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent....” (Qur’an 24:31)

Opportunities for considerable variation in the modesty of dress in advertisements, depending on the general level of conservatism in a country. Nevertheless, on the whole, use more modest approaches than those used in the non-Islamic world.

Activity orientation

Care for the environment and health

“…To God belongs all that is in the heavens and on the earth....” (Qur’an 3:129)
“... God loves not the wasters….” (Qua an 7:31)
“... He has forbidden you dead meat (carrion), and blood, and the flesh of swine.... but if one is forced by necessity....then he is guiltless....” (Qur’an 2:173)
“They ask you concerning wine and gambling. Say: in them is great sin and some profit, for men; but the sin is greater than the profit….” (Qur’an 2:219)

Stress environmental friendliness, cleanliness, and good health. Emphasize “halal” (religiously permissible)for meat and food ingredients of animal origin.

Religion has always helped to define what is proper and fitting, and has frequently prohibited the use of certain appeals (materialistic, sexual, etc.). Some elements of an advertising message might be perceived by people as being against their religious belief, as being offensive or contentious. Advertisements perceived as contentious will not be effective in capturing the attention of people or changing their attitudes towards the advertised product (Michell and Al-Mossawi 1995), or may even adversely affect the sales of the advertised product.

The article is organized as follows. First is a short introduction to the Islamic worldview. An explanation of the managerial framework follows, showing the implications of Islamic values for advertising messages. The illustrations are in the context of the Middle East, a region with approximately 275 million people and with total annual imports of over $150 billion (Al-Olayan and Karande 2000). The final section of the article includes a discussion and recommendations.

Muslims do not distinguish between the religious and the secular but consider Islam to be a complete way of life (Kavoossi 2000, Lawrence 1998). They derive this life-system from the teachings of the Qur’an (which Muslims believe is a book revealed by God to Prophet Muhammad in seventh century Arabia), and from the sunnah (the recorded sayings and behavior of Prophet Muhammad). The Islamic worldview is based on concepts of human well being and good life which stress brotherhood/sisterhood and socioeconomic justice. This requires a balanced satisfaction of both the material and spiritual needs of all humans (Chapra 1992).

Islam is often misunderstood, and it is surprising to some that it contains an entire socioeconomic system with specific guidelines for managerial tasks such as advertising. In Islam, business activity is considered to be a socially useful function; Prophet Muhammad was involved in trading for much of his life. The Islamic socio-economic system includes detailed coverage of specific economic variables such as interest, taxation, circulation of wealth, fair trading, and consumption. Islamic law (shari’ah), derived from the Qur’an and sunnah, governs business relationships between buyers and sellers. Activities are broadly categorized as lawful (halal) or prohibited (haram), as decreed by God. Nothing is haram except what is specifically prohibited in the Qur’an or in a clearly authenticated, explicit sunnah (practice or saying) of Prophet Muhammad.

Islam has 1.5 billion adherents worldwide (Ba-Yunus and Siddiqui 1998) and a vast number of these are consumers in the developing world. Muslim consumers have enormous and growing purchasing power in countries such as Egypt, Iran, India, Malaysia, Morocco, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and South Africa. Of the “Ten Big Emerging Markets” targeted by the US Department of Commerce for American export promotion efforts, two are Muslim nations (Turkey and Indonesia) and two have substantial Muslim minorities (India and South Africa). The number of Muslim consumers in developed nations is also substantial, such as in the US, the UK and Germany. In France, almost a tenth of the population is Muslim (Viorst 1996). In the US, where Islam is the fastest growing religion, estimates of the Muslim population range from six to eight million (Abdul-Rahman and Tug 1998).

The trend in many countries with predominantly Muslim populations is towards stronger religious conservatism and commitment (Amin 2000, Lawrence 1998). The increasing impact of Islam on business operations is evidenced by the recent rapid growth of Islamic banking and finance worldwide. For example, Citibank has an Islamic banking division headquartered in Bahrain. Dow Jones and Co. has launched a new global equity-benchmark index (the Dow Jones Islamic Market Index) aimed at investors who follow Islamic investment guidelines (Webb 1999). An increasing number of Muslims want to participate in the global marketplace in ways consistent with Islamic religious law. These developments suggest that religion may also play an important role in the effectiveness of some marketing communication strategies targeted at Muslims.

Indeed, one of the characteristics that distinguish Muslims from followers of some other faiths is that the influence of religion is very clear in every aspect of the Muslim’s life. In a survey in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), MERAC (1987) found that most respondents were united in their belief that Islam structures the daily life of people, and that Gulf society and identity are inextricably woven with Islam. A survey of Egyptians found that, after health, religion was the most important value (Gulf Marketing Review October 1996). The MERAC study (1987) found that Muslims in the Arabian Gulf states frequently referred to Qur’an and sunnah when explaining the importance of manners and good behavior.


The Qur’an does not prohibit advertising and indeed, advertising is used to promote the Islamic faith (Al-Makaty et al. 1996). Nevertheless, there are several Islamic values that have important implications for advertising (see Table 1). In this section, these values are explained and their advertising implications are discussed and illustrated. Table 1 and the discussion are organized according to four cultural dimensions: relationships with people, time orientation, human nature orientation (self-concept), and activity orientation (Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck 1961, Usunier 1993). Thus, each of the Islamic value dimensions fits into one of these categories.
Relationships with People
According to Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck (1961), the relationship of an individual to others is one of the universal problems faced by cultures. Islamic value dimensions particularly relevant to both advertising messages and this particular cultural dimension are communication style, appreciation of diversity, justice, and the role of women.

Communication Style. In Islam, communications between people should be polite, kind and direct. Prophet Muhammad said that, “God likes that when someone does something, it must be done perfectly well” (Sallam and Hanafy 1988). Ali, one of Islam’s early leaders, said “the best discourse is expressive, great, brief and interesting” (Keller 1994). These comments suggest that advertisers should strive for excellence as an end in itself, in addition to communicating truthfully about products and services.

Advertisers should note that exaggeration is regarded as a form of lying, whether exaggeration is by metaphor or by embellishing a description. Exaggeration is permissible only when the exaggeration is extremely obvious. Kavoossi and Frank (1990), in a study of advertising in the Persian Gulf States, observed the lack of hyperbole or exaggeration compared to that in American advertising. Rather, they noted, the emphasis was on long-lastingness, tradition, quality, and the overall integrity of the goods and the seller. For example, an agency for computer services claimed “our purpose is quality computer service and not profit.”

Deceptive advertising should be avoided. The saying of Prophet Muhammad, “…he who cheats is not one of us” (Keller 1994), was made in the context of a sales incident in the marketplace. The lesson from this event was that a seller who knows of a defect in something being sold is obliged to disclose it before the sale. Muslim jurists have defined deception as hiding defects which are not prominent to the public in general. The Saudi Arabian respondents in the study by Al-Makaty et al. (1996) agreed that the government should improve the monitoring of advertising claims.

Religious terminology may be used in advertisements to reassure consumers of the Islamic integrity of products and services. For example, in a television advertisement, a Saudi investment bank in Egypt used religious terms to show that it did not deal in any Islamically unlawful financial products.

The use of selected Qur’anic injunctions and words can enhance the mood of the advertising communication to make it more appealing to Muslim consumers. Examples are the words “Bismillah” (in the name of God; a phrase used by Muslims before beginning any action) or “Allahu akbar” (literally, God is greater). Luqmani et al. (1989) provide an example of a manufacturer of water pumps that uses a verse from the Qur’an in advertising: “We made every living thing from water.” A Spring 2000 advertising campaign targeted at the Gulf market for the Ford Excursion sports utility vehicle uses the words “Ma’ashallah” (whatever God intends). These words are commonly used by Muslims when they see something beautiful such as a small child, someone’s achievement such as obtaining a degree or new job, or someone’s acquisition of new goods or property. In an upbeat, happy style, a younger man shows an older man his new vehicle. Both wear traditional Gulf dress. The older man expresses the words “Ma’ashallah,” the only words in the advertisement, at various points within the message: when first seeing the vehicle, when noticing how large it is, when observing how it performs on a rocky road in the desert, when experiencing its power and speed, and finally, when seeing the younger man’s large family (women in traditional veiled dress) getting out of the vehicle.

Religious terminology must be used carefully, however. In a study of the Egyptian press coverage of advertising issues from 1978 to 1997, Keenan and Shoreh (2000) found primarily negative coverage of advertising in general, and several criticisms of the inappropriate use of verses from the Qur’an.

Appreciation of the Diversity of the Human Race. A striking feature of Islam is its diversity. Prophet Muhammad emphasized the equality of different races and ethnic groups. Diversity is clearly illustrated in a comprehensive photographic record of the Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca (Nomachi 1997). Diversity exists within the populations of several countries such as those in the Gulf region which have large expatriate Muslim populations. In advertising execution, the diversity should be recognized, as in an IKEA advertisement that showed people from varying ethnic groups, and some in traditional dress and some in Western dress. Diversity was used as a positioning tool by Gulf Air in a local and worldwide print campaign. Print advertisements ran in global media, such as The Economist magazine, and featured a photograph of smiling Gulf Air employees representing many different ethnic groups.

Despite Islam’s recognition of diversity and the Quran’s exhortation that there is no compulsion in religion, the multinational firm Asea Brown Boveri was not allowed to use its logo ABB when applying to advertise at Bahrain Airport. Figure 2 shows the ABB logo (red letters on a white background). Figure 3 shows the only acceptable form of the logo; the “crosses” (to Muslim eyes, perhaps reminiscent of the Christian cross) suggested by the lines cut through the centers of the letters have been blocked out (Al Mohamed 1997).

Justice and Fairness. Adherence to principles of justice and fairness as interpreted in the Middle Eastern context means that there are very few overtly comparative advertising messages (Razzouk and Al-Khatib 1993). For example, an advertisement for York air conditioners compared them to Japanese-manufactured air conditioners but not to a specific competing brand.

Contractual obligations, according to Islamic tradition, should be sanctioned by God. Advertisements containing pledges, terms and other contracts with respect to business or financial transactions therefore of ten include the conventional phrase “in the name of God, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful” (Kavoossi and Frank 1990).

The Role of Women. According to the Qur’an and sunnah, the acquisition of knowledge is a duty for all Muslims, female as well as male. It is believed that women should be educated because of their responsibilities in child-rearing. It is also permissible for women to work outside the home. Although the vast majority of working women in Saudi Arabia and Qatar tend to follow traditional careers such as healthcare and education, trends are changing in other less-conservative Gulf countries. For example, more women than men graduate in the UAE, Kuwait and Oman (Thomas 1998). Bahraini women are part of everyday office life in Manama. Visitors to ministries, the private sector, schools and colleges in Kuwait will meet senior national women. Oman has two female ministers. Despite such developments, Thomas (1998) writes that Gulf women are “served the same old advertising extremes that other world markets endured in the Seventies: glamour (Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi and Egyptian dancing girls) on the one hand; the kitchen sink, on the other.” Thomas (1998) argues that there are no serious images of women in advertising, and comments that in many banking advertisements, women are often shown that the husband has the money-it’s not her money, her decision-and yet in reality women are signing up for mutual funds, opening their own accounts, and signing their own checks. Nevertheless, the advertisement in Figure 4 for The National Bank of Bahrain that uses appeals to family and the need to save for children’s education implies that the mother is involved in the decision and shows both a boy and a girl as the children of concern. A Mercedes campaign in the Arabic women’s press emphasized car safety, acknowledging that many Gulf women are car owners in their own right or, at the very least, play a key role in choosing the family car. In a Saudi TV advertisement for L’Oreal Plenitude (a skin care product), women are shown in education-related settings and working with computers.
Time Orientation
Time orientation concerns a culture’s perspective on the temporal aspects of human life such as the attitude towards tradition and the past, the degree to which people accept the present situation for what it is, and the extent of planning for the future. Consumption behavior and the extent of materialism in a society is a reflection of time orientation because it can indicate whether people are focused relatively more on a “this-worldly life” or on an “after-life.”

Balanced Consumption. Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) distinguish between “instrumental materialism” and “terminal materialism.” In instrumental materialism, objects are valued for their ability to aid the doing of some activity. In terminal materialism, however, the objects are valued as ends in themselves and possession is sought simply for the sake of having the objects. From an Islamic perspective, instrumental materialism is acceptable but terminal materialism is not. Prophet Muhammad advised Muslims to be moderate in all their affairs; he described Islam as the “middle way.” Islam is not an ascetic religion. It allows people to satisfy their needs and go beyond. Figure 5 is an advertisement for a brand of luxury watch that illustrates romanticism and uses culturally acceptable images of tradition and modesty.

Simplicity in consumption can be attained in lifestyles alongside creativity and diversity, however, and Islam stresses the sharing of wealth among fellow Muslims. Social responsibility is preferred to conspicuous consumption and profit-seeking. Appeals to household economy and the opportunity to save are frequent. An example is shown in Figure 6. The message of this Pepsi print advertisement is that consumers can save with Pepsi and are encouraged to drink Pepsi at the fast-breaking time during the month of Ramadan. An advertisement for Luvs diapers shown on the Arabic satellite channel MBC focuses on saving money. A woman in full Islamic dress explains that she has a large family and therefore must be concerned about savings; the Luvs price is reasonable. At the end of the advertisement, coins are piled up besides a package of Luvs diapers and a voice-over sings “make savings.”

A Coca-Cola-advertised price-off promotion had unintended consequences, however. To celebrate its first year on the Iranian market, the Coca-Cola Company advertised a promotion discounting the price of its bottled soft drink. Contrary to its intent, the strategy resulted in widespread questioning of the company’s profit margin for the preceding year and led to criticism that resulted in a near ban of the campaign. In June 1994, the government imposed a selling price on all soft drinks which was apparently lower than the production cost for both Coke and Pepsi (Shargh 1994).

Appreciation of Education/Science. Muslims have a strong orientation towards traditions. They believe that the life-system advocated in the Qur’an and sunnah is applicable to all times and places. Furthermore, Muslims are especially proud of their scientific and other intellectual achievements in the Medieval times and, as a people, they continue to be strong advocates of education. Advertising appeals that include recognition of the importance of education and science work well with many Muslim consumers.
Human Nature Orientation (Self-Concept)
The character of human nature is one of the cultural dimensions identified by Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck (1961). Usunier (1993) specifically describes this as the “self-concept and concept of others.” This section focuses on modesty, which is an extremely important and desired self-concept or character trait in Islam.

Modesty. Gilly (1988) argues that advertising must reflect culture and that in terms of sex roles, it must reflect a culture’s sex norms. Diverse practices in Muslim countries reflect cultural influences. There is a large gap between the Islamic ideal and real cultures. Both extremes exist: from complete seclusion of women to unrestricted mixing of the sexes. Yet the parameters of proper modesty for both male and female dress and behavior are seen as divinely based guidelines with legitimate aims, not male-imposed or society-imposed restrictions (see Table 1).

With respect to women’s dress, the Qur’an mentions that women should not “show off their adornment except only that which is apparent.” Scholars have interpreted this differently: most scholars refer to the sunnah and interpret the verse to mean that women may show only their hands and face to men outside of their immediate family circle. A stricter interpretation is that women should be completely veiled.

Because interpretations and attitudes differ, variations in advertising can be expected in the portrayal of women in advertising. Al-Makaty et al. (1996) provide the text of the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Information’s guidelines for television advertising: “The main principles ... consist of the true observation of the Islamic faith, the teaching of Islam and its fundamental beliefs which bear high values for man, life and the personal and social conduct of the individual.” Saudi TV advertisements portray women who are usually veiled, showing only their face and hands. In a content analysis of pan-Arab, Egyptian, Lebanese and Emirati magazine advertisements, Al-Olayan and Karande (2000) found that in 83 percent of Arabic advertisements showing women, they were wearing long clothing, compared to 29 per cent in US advertisements. Also, their study indicated that more Arabic advertisements show women in the advertisements when their presence relates to the advertised product than do American advertisements.

Western advertising traditionally attempts to gloss over the lack of a brand’s differentiation by investing it with illusory qualities such as prestige and sex appeal (Al Makaty et al. 1996). It is more difficult to use sex appeal to differentiate a product where legal or cultural barriers such as those described above exist. A billboard advertisement for Davidoff Cool Water perfume that, in other countries, showed an apparently naked woman emerging from a lake, was adapted for Bahrain. The photograph was altered so that the model’s naked shoulders were covered; she then appeared to be emerging from behind a rock in the lake and only her face was visible (see Figure 7). The advertisement still raised complaints from the municipal authorities in Bahrain, however. The model’s facial expression was described as being “too sexy and inviting” (Al-Mohamed 1997).

Close-Up toothpaste has traditionally been positioned on the basis of sex appeal. An advertisement for Close-Up shown in the Gulf countries in 1997 adapted this theme for these more conservative societies in a particularly creative way. A few young men happily drive to the mall; while strolling there, they pass a small group of young women, one of whom drops a handkerchief. One of the youths picks up the handkerchief and gives it to the young woman with a smile. There is no physical contact between them, and it should be noted that the situation is portrayed as a group happening and not as a Western-oriented dating event.

Luqmani et al. (1989) describe how, in Saudi Arabia, advertisers of cosmetics refrain from picturing sensuous females. Instead, in typical advertisements (an example is the Dove cleansing bar), a pleasant-looking woman appears in a robe and headdress with only her face showing. Cartoon characters to represent women are less likely to violate Islamic codes. Yet, care should be exercised. Shortly after Mattel opened a new regional office in Dubai, a Kuwaiti imam imposed a “fatwa” (religious ruling) on Mattel’s Barbie dolls, and religious sources in Iran denounced the dolls as having unwholesome effects on the minds and morality of young children (Gulf Marketing Review, June 1996).

The advertising of condoms can be especially difficult in conservative societies. The approach in Egypt, where the target is families and the message is family planning, contrasts dramatically with a risque 1998 advertising campaign developed by McCann-Erickson for Durex condoms, targeting young single people and run in Europe. In Egypt, an advertising execution for a condom brand shows a father and mother introducing themselves and their children in a loving way. The message, explained by the parents, is that having only two children, spaced a few years apart, means that one can spend time and attention taking care of them. The advertising of condoms is a very sensitive topic, whether in the context of family planning or preventive health care.

In Bahrain, regarded as one of the more liberal Gulf states, the advertising of contraceptives is forbidden (see Table 2 for Gulf Media International’s Code of Acceptance). Other products may also be subject to restrictions because of a desire to maintain modesty in the society. For example, a Korean company applied for permission to advertise its underwear product in the Bahrain airport location. The advertising was acceptable only if the words “Best Cotton Underwear” were removed; see Figure 8, which shows the offending text crossed out (Al-Mohamed 1997).

TABLE 2. Gulf Media International W.L.L. (Bahrain) Code of Acceptance
Advertisements and advertising materials will not be accepted for or retained on display if they:

  • Depict murder scenes or terror or acts of violence.

  • Are calculated to demoralise, extenuate crime, break the law or incite anyone.

  • Depict or refer to indecency, obscenity, nudity or striptease or offend the general public.

  • Are likely through wording, design or possible defacement to offend the general public.

  • Advertise films which have been refused a permit for public exhibition.

  • Might wound racial susceptibilities or those of colored or foreign people or members of a group who may not be otherwise protected by the terms of this Code.

  • Refer to religious, sacred or other politically, morally or socially sensitive subjects in a manner which might give offence or seek to use “ ....” as a medium for controversy arising from such subjects.

  • Attack a member or the policies of any government.

  • Are of a political nature whether produced by a political party or not, other than those which simply announce social activities or meetings together with the names of the speakers and the subject to be discussed. The wording used in announcing the subject must not be politically controversial or call for a particular point, policy or action.

  • Might ferment social unrest.

  • Advertise contraceptives or conflict with the advertising practice in relation to the advertising of medicines and treatments.

  • Contain illustrations or copy which are distorted or exaggerated in such a way as to convey false impressions, are calculated to deceive the public, or contain statements of a knocking or extravagant nature.

  • Might adversely affect in any way the operations revenue or market position of “ ....” or any of its associated business (e.g. by advertising competitive services by the use of designs of texts which might lead to confusion or by offers of employment in competition with the requirements of the “ ....” or any associated business).

Source: Adapted from Al-Mohamed (1997)

After the Iranian revolution, television advertising went through three stages: (1) advertisements relying totally on sounds and a few still pictures, (2) advertisements using sound and cartoon pictures, and (3) advertisements with sound and live characters. In all advertisements today, women are dressed in full Islamic attire. In particular, Iranian advertising is characterized by a higher proportion of men and children than women appearing in advertisements, little or no music, and a strong focus on the family.
Activity Orientation
Usunier’s (1993) explanation of activity orientation, or a culture’s towards action,” includes the human being’s relationship with nature.

Care for the Environment and Health. The Islamic perspective on the environment is that humans are trustees of the environment. Everything a person owns (even a person’s body) belongs to God and therefore people must care for themselves, their possessions and the environment at large. Wasteful behavior is condemned in the Qur’an. The implications of this are that Muslim consumers should readily respond to advertising appeals that stress environmental friendliness, cleanliness and health. In reality, because of economic conditions, Muslim nations, along with most other developing nations, have been slower to adopt environmental regulations than have the developed countries. Nevertheless, there are currently ample opportunities for environmental advertising messages. For example, in Bahrain, Al-Jazira Supermarket places an environmental logo on its plastic shopping bags with the phrase “Protection of the Environment is our National Duty.” Also in Bahrain, NADA Mineral Water is positioned as environmentally friendlier and healthier because of its clear plastic bottles, which contrasts with the blue plastic bottles of its rivals.

As indicated in Table 1, Muslims are forbidden from consuming meat which has not been slaughtered in the permissible or “halal” way, as well as intoxicants such as wine. Many restaurants and fast food chains in the Middle East (such as Mr. Wimpy, Burger King, McDonald’s, Hardee’s and Dairy Queen) advertise that their food is “guaranteed halal.” A Hilton hotel print advertisement for “Friday Brunch” and “Wednesday Steak Night” emphasizes at that its meat is “Real Halal.”

In the Middle East, there is strong growth in advertising spending and in opportunities to place advertisements in the expanding and developing broadcast and print media (for example, see Westcott 1998, Martin 1998, and Middle East Executive Reports 1998). Yet, in a global survey of attitudes towards advertising in 22 countries, a large Middle Eastern market, Egypt, was the only country where respondents were consistently anti-advertising (Wentz 1993). Explanations of this result by the survey’s sponsor, the International Association of Advertisers, include growing religious extremism. Therefore, with respect to message development, executives in companies advertising to Muslim consumers in the Middle East and elsewhere would be wise to gain an understanding of Muslim values.

Holbrook (1987) argues that, because most products are in the mature stages of their life cycles, augmenting or repositioning people’s beliefs is more fruitful than trying to alter their choice criteria or attempting to move their ideal points. Those choice criteria and ideal points are anchored in value systems that are the result of extensive long-term socialization. Thus, advertising should attempt to reflect the values of a society. As Michell and Al-Mossawi (1995) point out, it is important to manipulate the elements of an advertisement which may prove contentious (such as certain types of music, sexual imagery, comparison to other named brands, exaggeration, etc.) to strengthen the communication of the message while retaining the integrity of the advertising strategy and those elements which match the target’s values.

It is not always easy, however, to match advertising to the target consumer’s values because of the challenge of identifying those values. For example, De Mooij (1998) discusses a value paradox in which one can distinguish between what people think ought to be desired and what people actually desire, or how people think the world ought to be versus what people want for themselves. The “desirable” refers to the general norms of a society and is worded in terms of right or wrong; for example, several of the Islamic value dimensions (such as honesty, fairness and modesty) listed in Table 1 are phrased in terms of the “desirable.” The “desired” is what people want for themselves and is what the majority of a people in a country actually do. Rice (1999), in a similar vein, identifies Islamic aspirational values versus everyday practice in Egypt, a country where the population is predominantly Muslim.

There are undoubtedly various consumer segments that can be identified using religiosity as the base for segmentation. These segments can be found both within and across Middle Eastern countries. The segments may be drawn on a continuum from less conservative (focusing on the “desired” and the pragmatic) to more conservative or Islam-dominant (emphasizing the “desirable” or the ideal). It should be noted that the apparent acceptance of the symbols of Western consumerism does not imply the acceptance of Western values. A 1997 research study carried out by Fortune Promoseven in Saudi Arabia and the UAE found that while young men embraced technology and consumerism, they were surprisingly conservative (Thomas 1997). Also, even non-practicing Muslims often have a strong Islamic identity and would be attracted by Islamically oriented appeals. Collectivists (and Muslim societies are collectivist rather than individualist) can handle more discrepancy between attitude and behavior than can individualists (Gentry et al. 1995). Harnessing the sometimes conflicting forces of tradition and exploration, which emerged as key emotional streams from a Saudi Arabian study (Jordan 1998), is therefore a strong challenge for advertisers, not just in Saudi Arabia, but across the entire Middle East region. The study of Saudi teenagers and young Saudi families conducted by the Merlin research agency (Jordan 1998) concluded that teenagers in Saudi Arabia differ from their global counterparts in a number of significant areas. They feel secure within the welfare system of their extended families. The respect between the teenagers and their parents appears mutual. Only six percent of the surveyed teenagers “agreed strongly” that their parents often embarrassed them in front of their friends. Asked the same question, 58 percent of teenagers in the UK agreed with the statement. This marked difference, and others of a similar nature, has interesting implications for the use of aspirational role models in advertising and promotions. Family support enhances and supports the Saudi teens’ self-esteem and confidence. The study also found that Saudi teenagers do not seek to wear the “badges” that identify them with Western culture. The Merlin research agency recommends that there is an opportunity for branding but not for force-fitting American or global imagery to a market that has a deep-seated confidence in the superiority of its own culture and society.

Many traditional and extremely conservative “Islam-dominant” segments are out of reach. In Saudi Arabia, although TV ownership is almost universal, there is a small proportion of the population that fully rejects the visual medium on religious grounds (Al-Makaty et al. 1996). A psychographic segmentation study (Wafai and El-Tigi 1996) of over 3,000 Egyptians identified half of the rural respondents as belonging to the “steeped traditionalists” as compared to only 28 percent of urban residents. Furthermore, the favorite radio station of the two most traditional segments (70 percent of the entire sample) was the religious station, Qur’an Kareem. Clearly, advertising communications to such consumers, if they are possible at all, need to be developed carefully on the basis of the “ideal positions” on the value dimensions listed in Table 1.

Despite the few research efforts mentioned in this article, relatively little is known about Middle Eastern Muslim consumers’ attitudes towards advertising messages. Further research into the relationship between religious values and the response to advertising could benefit international advertisers targeting the growing Muslim consumer market, not just in the Middle East, but also in Asia and elsewhere.

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Submitted: February 2000
First Revision: June 2001
Second Revision: December 2001
Accepted: January 2002


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Gillian Rice is Associate Professor of Marketing, Thunderbird, The American Graduate School of International Management (E-mail:

Mohammed Al-Mossawi is Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Bahrain (E-mail:

Address correspondence to: Gillian Rice, Department of Global Business, Thunderbird, the American Graduate School of International Management, 15249 North 59th Avenue, Glendale, AZ 85306 (E-mail:

The authors wish to thank Fathi Al-Mohamed, Managing Director of Gulf Media International, for his kind assistance during the research for this study. They are also grateful to two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.

Journal of Euromarketing, Vol. 11(3) 2002

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