Shock and Awe: What is happening to the Gulf’s Media?

The Gulf is known for many things, but a controversial media isn’t one of them. The region’s media are known for not causing a stir, and for generally towing the line. There are exceptions – some local, Arabic-language radio stations in the Gulf host phone-in shows. One of them didn’t go so well. Here’s the story from The National newspaper.

It was a call for help from a man who couldn’t afford to provide for his family that was cruelly batted down by a prominent radio host.

But in the 24-hours that followed, Ali Al Mazrouei witnessed a justice of sorts when the radio jockey was suspended and his plight was heard in person by the leaders of the country.

The 56-year-old, a father of nine, spoke of his struggle to get by on a relatively low salary and a large family.

When he phoned Ajman Radio’s morning talk show Al Rabia Wal Nas on Thursday, he tried to highlight what rising living costs meant for families like his.

“The expensive prices are a big problem; everything is too expensive, including fuel, and the income is low,” he said.

“We want to provide for our children but we can’t buy anything; when one cannot make his children happy what is the point of living?”

When he spoke of inflation and the cost of basic goods, the show’s co-host Yaqoub Al Awadhi interrupted him to say there “there are retired people whose salaries are Dh10,000 and even used to be Dh7,000″ before the government raised payments.

The anchor went on to suggest that someone who could not live on that amount must have poor skills in managing finances and does not appreciate what he has.

Mr Al Mazrouei responded to say he does not spend money on anything other than his basic needs…

“We want to do good, when we see someone like us, we pray for him and we try to help when we find someone poor like us,” he said.

The radio host replied: “Don’t give anyone anything, just hold your tongue.”

“I don’t accept that you defame my country and say the people are all suffering.

“The salary you receive is from where? Where do you feed your children from? This all doesn’t deserve gratitude?”.

Mr Al Mazrouei responded that “I am an original national of this country, I am a Mazrouei,” as the host started to mumble, “where did you appear in front of me now from?” an expression in Arabic indicating an unpleasant encounter with someone.

The ill-tempered exchange continued for some time.

When news of the argument reached Sheikh Ammar bin Humaid Al Nuaimi, Crown Prince of Ajman, he ordered the suspension of host Yaqoub Al Awadhi.

On Tuesday, Mr Al Mazrouei was received by the Crown Prince and the Ruler of Ajman, Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid Al Nuaimi, while Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, ordered that his situation be looked at immediately and his family helped.

Speaking to The National, the father-of-nine said: “This was the first time that I decided to raise this issue, because life was starting to close its doors in our faces. Instead of just worrying in vain every day I decided to take a proactive step.”

He said he does not want the host to lose his job.

“He jumped from topic to topic [when attacking me], it was so strange, but I say, may Allah guide him.

The second incident comes from Saudi, where a presenter on Bidaya TV told one of his guests live on air that his father had died (the video is below). The reaction was universal condemnation online, with a campaign that criticized the station for manipulating emotions for ratings. BBC Arabic has a full report on the story (it’s in Arabic, of course). A number of the station’s employees were suspended.

There’s been a great deal of change in the Gulf’s media over the past year. Is this an example of the change in sentiment which readers may feel on political issues seeping into other parts of the media? I’m not sure. But it cannot be coincidence for two events to happen in such a short space of time in a region which rarely sees such incidents.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Competing Media Motivations in the UAE’s Press (and what this means for communicators)

Communicators need to understand the competing agendas in the UAE’s press scene (image source: freepress.net)

I was once told, “to really understand a thing, you must know the reason for its purpose.” I don’t usually begin my posts so philosophically, but this quote seemed a fitting place to start when writing about the media in the United Arab Emirates.

An event caught my eye last month. The UAE’s National Media Council held a one day seminar, primarily for Emirati media professionals and communicators in the government sector. The event was entitled “The Future of Emirati Media”, and the below tweet from the National Media Council’s Chairman summarized a distinctly national view of the UAE media.

I’ve paraphrased below the key points from the above Arabic-language tweets and other material shared on the day:

  1. Work through the media to promote the national agenda.
  2. The media has a shared responsibility to work alongside state institutions and those present on social media to develop the sector.
  3. The media will contribute to the strengthening of the State’s leadership of the regional and global information sector.

The Foreign Perspective

In much of the West and East, the media is called the “fourth estate”, a group that is independent from government and which wields influence over society. Media seeks to report on issues of interest to its stakeholders (readers as well as owners), and will hold individuals, organizations and governments to account.

Essentially, the media has a number of roles, including to inform and by extension educate citizens on issues of importance, to act as a platform for different viewpoints and societal groups to share their own viewpoints and narratives, and to hold those in power to account.

In a country like the UAE, much of the English-language media consists of foreigners who have worked in other countries. Their view-point on what constitutes the media is often different to the national perspective.

What this means for Communicators

It goes without saying that for those working in communications, understanding both perspectives is vital for us to be able to engage effectively with different stakeholders. Media which are aligned with the first viewpoint are focused on the national perspective, especially as it relates to development and leadership. The media which is aligned to the second perspective is focused on sharing news that seeks to inform without the national development frame of reference.

These two viewpoints are also influencing where people work; many UAE nationals will explain that they’ve chosen to work in government communications as they believe it’s part of their contribution to the country’s development. Many foreigners in the media, particularly foreign outlets based in the UAE, will argue that sharing an independent perspective is important to truly understand what is happening in the country (and the wider region).

As always, context is key. Communicators and media need to understand each other’s motivations if we are to be in a position to engage and inform. Communicators and media need to understand these two basic perspectives and what it means for our work, be it talking within a national framework or sharing unique insights that are set within a governmental context. What’s essential here is that communicators appreciate both motivations, and they’re able to adapt as necessary to be able to interact with both media groups (and their respective audiences).

As always, I love to hear your inputs. Please do share!

Brand Building and Trust in Saudi and the UAE, Based on YouGov/MEPRA Research (Part 2)

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This is the second post on the research by YouGov, which was commissioned by the Middle East Public Relations Association and looks into consumer trust, both online and offline, when it comes to advertising and media recommendations in goods and services.

This second post covers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which follows the post from the first four countries yesterday.

Saudi Arabia

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1003 people were surveyed in Saudi Arabia, 64% of whom were Saudi nationals and 36% were expat. When it comes to gender, 56% were male, and 44% were female. Just under 47% were aged between 18 and 29, 31% were between the ages 30 and 39, and 22% were aged over 40.

In terms of geography, just over 30% live in Riyadh, 24% live in Jeddah, 7% in Mecca, 6% in Dammam and 5% in Madinah. The other 28% live outside of these areas.

Finally, 38% described themselves as single, 51% as married with children, and 7% were married but had no children. The remaining 4% were classed either as other or did not respond.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

When it comes to those closest to them, Saudi respondents scored the lowest in the Gulf; only 82% trust in face-to-face conversations with friends and family about products and services. Younger respondents showed the lowest trust; 79% of 18-24 year-olds, compared to 90% of 35-39 year-olds. Saudi nationals scored 79%, and Saudi-based expats 88%. The other large discrepancy was between singles (77%) and those who were married (85%).

When it comes to trust in social media posts by friends and family about products and services, the scores were much better; 54% found such posts trustworthy, compared to 13% who found them untrustworthy. There’s a seven percent difference between young respondents (18-24) who trust the least (52%), and respondents in the 30-34 age bracket, who trust the most (59%). Saudi nationals were also less trusting than expats, with scores of 52% and 59% respectively.

Those surveyed in Saudi did show higher levels of trust in third-party endorsements of products and services, in comparison to a brand’s own positioning; 59% trust third-party endorsements, compared to 7% who don’t. There’s a 15% differential between those working (67%), and those who aren’t working (52%).

Trust in Social Media

Overall, the Saudi respondents showed slightly higher levels of trust (37%) than mistrust (29%) in social media posts by influencers and people with lots of followers on products and services. Men were much more likely to be trustworthy (42%) than women (30%). And those who are working are also more trusting (41%) than those who aren’t (33%).

Social media has become a much more important source of information to the Saudi respondents than it was five years ago (53% agreed with this statement, opposed to 15% who disagreed). This is especially true of younger respondents and those on lower incomes. However, trust is still an issue with what people see online; 43% have low trust in what they see online (this jumps to 52% for those earning US$5333 and higher), compared to 17% who disagree.

When it comes to the most popular social media channels for information on goods and services, Facebook topped the list (28%), followed by WhatsApp (16%), Instagram (14%), and Snapchat (9%). One-tenth (11%) didn’t use any social media. Facebook was least popular among the youth (24%), who prefer visual applications and instant messaging. In contrast, Facebook was the most popular among expats, almost half (49%) of whom use the platform.

Trust in Media & Advertising 

Trust in media for Saudi respondents when it comes to products and service recommendations differed to the rest of the Gulf. Whilst branded websites scored top as the most trusted media (45%), television content, radio news and website articles also rated highly, with scores of 44, 39, and 39 percent respectively. Newspapers came second to last, at 36%, and blogs were the least trusted, at 33%.

When it comes to advertising, there’s a slight drop in trust among respondents. Television advertising is the most trusted, at 38%, followed by billboards at 37%, and radio at 31%. Online advertising is the least trusted, at 28%. A higher percent of respondents (32%) found online advertising untrustworthy than trustworthy.

When asked if they trust advertising less today than they did five years ago, 55% agreed and 13% disagreed. Men and those married with children were most likely to trust advertising less today than five years back. Saudis scored the lowest when it came to the impact of fake news on their trust in media sources. Only 58% agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media. In contrast, 11% disagreed.

United Arab Emirates

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At 1010, the respondent base for the UAE was the largest from all the countries surveyed. Of this total, 18% were Emirati nationals, 24% Arab expats, 55% Asian expats, and just under 3% Western.

When it comes to gender, 65% were male, and 35% were female. Just under 42% were aged between 18 and 29, 38% were between the ages 30 and 39, and 20% were aged over 40.

In terms of salary, 37% earned over US$2,666 a month, 18% earned between US$1,066 and $2,665, 12% earned between US$533 and US$1,065, 8% earned between US$266 and US$532, and 7% earned less than US$265. The remaining 18% didn’t give their salary.

In terms of geography, 33% live in Abu Dhabi, 41% live in Dubai, 17% in Sharjah, and the remaining 9% outside those three Emirates.

Finally, 35% described themselves as single, 52% as married with children, and 11% were married but had no children. The remaining 2% were classed either as other or did not respond.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

Approximately 84% of those polled said they trusted face-to-face recommendations of products and services from their friends and family. The groups which exhibited the highest levels of trust were Western nationals (96%) and those earning over US$2,666 a month. Those groups who exhibited the lowest trust were earners below US$266 (70%) and those people living in other Emirates (77%).

When asked the same question about online, social media-based recommendations from friends and family, that number dropped to 55%. Young people aged between 18 and 24 were most likely to trust such recommendations (60%), as were Emirati, Arab Nationals and Westerners (65%, 66%, and 64% respectively). Asian expats (48%) and those living in Sharjah (49%) recorded the lowest levels of trust.

Conversely, almost two-thirds of people (63%) have more trust in what a third party says about a good or a service than what a brand says about its own goods and services.

Trust in Social Media

Only 39% of respondents trusted online recommendations from social media influencers or people with large followings. Unsurprisingly, considering how much time they spend online, younger people aged between 18 and 24 years are more likely to trust such recommendations (45%), as are Emiratis (52%).

Social media has become the most important source of information for people; 57% said social media has become a key source of information about goods and services today compared to five years back. However, half of the respondents also said that they have little trust in what they see on social media.

On social media Facebook is by far the most useful source of information for goods and services, with 52% of respondents using the site to know more about brands. Whatsapp was second, at 17%, and LinkedIn was third, with 10%. Surprisingly, Asian nationals and Westerners are the major outliers here, with only 45% and 44% respectively using Facebook, and 21% of Asians using WhatsApp as their preferred social media platform (I’m still not convinced however that a messaging app can be defined as a social media platform).

Trust in Media & Advertising 

For advertising, the most trusted formats were television and billboards (both at 45%), followed by radio (41%), and online (37%). Over half of respondents (57%) said they trust advertising less today than they did five years ago. This was most noticeable among those who were married and didn’t have children (75%), and those earning over US$5333 (64%).

Brand websites scored higher than both media and advertising for trustworthiness; 53% of respondents said they trust corporate websites. Trust in print publications, in newspapers and magazines, was highest, at 48%, followed by radio and television, both of which scored a 44% trust rating. Blogs were the least trusted source of information, at 39%. When asked about fake news and their trust in the media, the UAE respondents polled like their Saudi counterparts. Only 59% agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media, with 10% disagreeing.

Journalists, Respect and why Communicators should deal Honestly with the Media

The region’s independent media are under pressure like never before, either financially or from online harassment. Comms people should treat the media with the respect they’ve earned (image from Sri Lanka’s Awantha Antigula)

I’m an old hack, literally. I used to work as a journalist, and I still have a soft spot for those who are part of this profession. I also know how hard it is to be a journalist, especially one who wants to go after the stories which aren’t press releases, and who will put up with the competing pressures of an editor who wants more breaking news versus the challenge of finding and then getting sources to talk on a particular issue.

Last week was a wake-up call for me as to how hard it is to be a journalist today in the Gulf, especially one who works for an organization that isn’t government-controlled and who wants to shed a light on a subject which doesn’t fit the official narrative. This post is for those journalists, and it’s a reminder to communications people in the region why respect and ethics should be central to how they behave.

Media Still Matters

First of all, let me make this clear to everyone who thinks that social is the be-all and end-all of what we should be doing today. The media still matters, especially for communicators (any head of comms who doesn’t read the papers during the day shouldn’t be in their respective position). There’s a couple of basic reasons why:

  1. The media gives us the simplest means to view different opinions, be they from government-owned publications or independents. And they get us out of our social media bubbles.
  2. Media also allows us to understand the priorities of those who own the media, such as governments.
  3. At their best, journalists can ask the hard questions that push us to think through how and why we are communicating. This is crucial especially in the Gulf, where there’s often not enough critical thinking or self-examination.

The Media owes us Nothing

We should never approach the media with the expectation that they’ll run anything verbatim. Likewise, we shouldn’t expect them to run with our narratives, and not ask questions. We shouldn’t expect them to publish our pictures. The media owes us nothing (this is a clear point in the IABC code of ethics). It’s up to us to be as good as we can be as communicators, and ensure that we communicate effectively, transparently, and in dialogue with the media.

Let’s be Respectful of the Media

We can and we should ask questions of media coverage which we believe to be inaccurate. However, what I have seen recently is a trend by Gulf-based or Gulf-focused social media accounts to start calling certain media and what they write as fake and fake news respectively. This mirrors what is happening in the United States. Just because we don’t like something does not mean that we should vilify it. Our job as communicators is to engage, persuade and advocate for our causes. If you can’t do that, then I suggest you go and join the advertising sector.

Ethics Matters, Personally and Professionally

Two other worrying trends are for media to be disrespected or even threatened online (especially female journalists). Another trend is for the narrative and facts to be changed after the fact, including through the use of documents or material which could easily be described as questionable. Again, ethically we must communicate honestly, clearly communicate the facts, and not do anything which we know to be dishonest.

Bell Pottinger underlined the need to act ethically. Communicators in the Middle East and especially the Gulf should stand up for ethics. The last thing I want to see is the industry making global headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Research: Online Influencers in the UAE widespread, but measurement & transparency still lagging

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The latest research by BPG, Cohn & Wolfe and YouGov underlines how mainstream online influencer marketing has become. It also highlights areas for improvement in areas such as measurement and transparency

If you needed any more evidence that online influencer marketing is here to stay, then continue reading. The latest research by BPG Cohn & Wolfe and YouGov answers a host of questions as to what is happening on social media channels, and raises even more on areas such as measurement and transparency.

Sampling over 100 in-house marketing and communication experts and brand managers across a diverse range of industries in the UAE, the results show that influencer marketing is very much mainstream:

  • 94% of polled marketeers say engaging with social media influencers benefits their brand
  • 49% currently work with social media influencers in the region
  • 43% spend up to US$10,000 per social media influencer campaign

That’s the good news (especially if you’re an ‘influencer’). The reasons behind using influencer marketing and engagement are a little more varied, as you can see below. The top three reasons for using influencers are 1) to reach various groups and demographics, 2) boost a brand’s presence online, and 3) a complement to traditional advertising. As for what influencers will be doing, they’re most likely to be 1) mentioning brands, 2) providing event coverage, and 3) reviewing products.

The Value of Influencer Marketing

There are of course challenges. Firstly, there’s not a big pool of influencers, and those who are in the market focus on specific areas (fashion, food, cars… repeat). Over half (55%) of those polled said the biggest challenge they face is finding relevant influencers. Putting two and two together, this challenge may partly be of our own doing; it seems that rather than working with those who could be defined as micro-influencers, marketers and communicators want influencers who have a large audience. The second most common challenge (41%) is negotiating terms and conditions, which would suggest that most influencers are working freelance. This has to change next year – the introduction of VAT should mean that those influencers who are paid financially will have to register their own company or work through an agency.

most successful influencers

And then there’s the issues of money and measurement. While budgets would seem to be growing in this area – most budgets are now between 1,000 to 10,000 US dollars – social media influencers are most likely to charge per post or video (47%) or by an exchange of free products and experiences (47%), closely followed by cost per engagement (41%). There’s less of a focus on cost per click or cost per acquisition engagement, suggesting that whoever is negotiating isn’t familiar with digital advertising (both these models are the most commonly used sales models in digital advertising).

social media charging

And then there’s outcome measurement and transparency, two areas that show some concerning results. Just over a third of respondents (37%) said they’re measuring the ROI of their spend on sales and business results (I’d have hoped for a higher number, especially on the consumer side), followed by engagement (29%), and traffic to websites (18%). When it comes to disclosure, of influencers having to write that content is sponsored (which is a legal requirement in some markets such as the US and the UK, and is legally required of firms who are publicly listed in those countries), we must do better. Just under two-thirds (63%) sometimes request influencers to publish a disclaimer. Almost a quarter (24%) never influencers to publish a disclaimer. This isn’t my idea of transparency, and this will have to change if we’re to gain the trust of the people we want to engage with (it may also change next year when new legislation comes in).

measurement & transparency

So there you have it. If you’d like to see the survey summary then please do visit the MEPRA website. I’m also including a link to the Influencer Marketing Survey raw data here.

If you work with influencers, or are defined as one, then what do you think about these results. Do they bear out to what you see, especially in terms of platforms being used (Snapchat at 2%, and Twitter at 10%) and how influencers are engaging online? And how would you like the industry to evolve? As always, do drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.

Podcasts, Podcasts and more Podcasts. Just remove the Comments!

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Podcasting is a popular move for publishers in the UAE (image source: theodysseyonline.com)

If, like me, you’re a news junkie who feels they spend far too much time in a car, you’re in luck. The UAE’s media outlets have gone on a Podcast frenzy.

The Gulf News business desk began their podcasting about five months back. Named Dirhams and Dollars, the series is an eclectic mix of anything and everything business related, from social media and e-commerce, to the impact that politics has on economics and economies. Headed up by the trio of business editor Scott Shuey, and staff reporter Ed Clowes and Sarah Diaa, the casts are hosted on Soundcloud and usually run for about 15 to 30 minutes. The series is distributed by Twitter  as well (disclaimer – I do love the team picture).

As part of their relaunch, The National has launched a new series of current affairs podcasts, named Beyond the Headlines, where they aim to deep dive into issues which the editorial team feel deserve more attention. The podcasts are hosted on Audioboom and are normally curated by the Assistant Editor-in-Chief Mustafa Alrawi for about 30 minutes.

Others are set to follow. Motivate’s Emirates Woman will soon be launching a podcast series focusing on women’s issues across the region.

While some publishers are putting out more content, in new formats (I’d love to see if the move to podcasting will have any impact on radio in the region), others are doing away with some sections of their website. Al Jazeera is removing its comments section, and here’s why:

The mission of Al Jazeera is to give a voice to the voiceless, and healthy discussion is an active part of this. When we first opened up comments on our website, we hoped that it would serve as a forum for thoughtful and intelligent debate that would allow our global audience to engage with each other.

However, the comments section was hijacked by users hiding behind pseudonyms spewing vitriol, bigotry, racism and sectarianism. The possibility of having any form of debate was virtually non-existent.

Also, over time, we found social media to be the preferred platform for our audience to debate the issues that matter the most to them. We encourage our audience to continue to interact with us this way.

This decision also comes at a time when we as a publisher need to evaluate what our priorities are. We feel that rather than approaching the problem with a collection of algorithms and an army of moderators, our engineering and editorial resources are better utilised building new storytelling formats that resonate with our audience.

Al Jazeera are looking at how to host comments, so this may only be temporary. However, it does highlight the issue of anonymity online, especially in a region which is beset by a number of political disputes between different countries.

Is Your Content Legal? A Q&A with Al Tamimi’s Fiona Robertson

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If your content is in breach of the UAE’s laws, you may find yourself in the courthouse (maybe not with Matthew McConaughey, however).

There’s few people who know more about media laws that Al Tamimi’s Fiona Robertson, who has strived to raise awareness of legislation that impacts those working in communications and marketing. I had the fortune of sitting down with Fiona, to talk content. I started by asking, what is legal and illegal when it comes to content.

Fiona: All content must comply with the print and publications law, which was first published in 1980 and then expanded upon by and executive resolution in the 2000s. This law applies to all media, and how it is distributed, including online. The other law people need to be aware of is the Cybercrimes law of 2012.

These laws include a list of issues which are off-limits, such as criticizing UAE culture, the UAE government, Islam and any subject which could bring disrepute to the country. In relation to the Cybercrimes law, the penalties are stiff, with up to 500,000 AED in fines as well as jail terms. Anyone who is prosecuted and found guilty under the 2012 Cybercrimes law and who is not a national will be deported.

There was a case a couple of weeks ago where a media outlet didn’t obtain the correct releases for material. This material was published on a website, and the two hosts of the show were deported. When these laws are broken, there are serious consequences.

Q: Are enough publishers, brands or agencies aware of these laws?

Fiona: We don’t see enough awareness that people are concerned about this. We get to do pre-publication compliance review for foreign brands, who often approach us, but not for local brands. People don’t realize the laws are there, as they’re not well publicized.

Q: Who oversees these laws?

Fiona: It’s the National Media Council, and Telecoms Regulatory Authority who have the power to block websites.

Q: So how are these laws applicable to social media and social media influencers?

Fiona: The provisions of the Cybercrimes law does not specify who is liable for the content. The brand, the publisher, the agency or the author could be liable for the content under the Cybercrimes act. It could the content producer, the influencer. It could be the owner of the blog. If it’s on a Facebook site, then it could be you or the brand as the account owner. In the recent case which I referred to above, the authorities prosecuted nine parties for one action which was considered to be against the Cybercrimes act.

Q: Wouldn’t the platforms, the likes of Facebook, Snap or Twitter, potentially be liable?

Fiona: Potentially, yes, they could be liable. Most are based outside of the UAE’s jurisdiction so it becomes difficult to apply sanctions against a foreign entity. But the TRA could block their sites for being in breach of the UAE’s content regulations, as they do with materials relating to topics such as gambling.

Q: So what should brands and agencies do in terms of making sure that content is legal?

Fiona: There’s several laws that brands, agencies and publishers should be aware of, including both the Cybercrimes laws and the National Media Council advertising regulations. Familiarity is the most important thing. I’m still alarmed by the number of people who tell me there’s no media laws here, where there clearly are. Start there, train your staff to know what the big red flags are in relation to content, so they’re picked up before the content goes into production.

There’s not only legal issues, but also the reputational issues. Today, UAE nationals will take to social media to make complaints and disparage brands. Sometimes the issue isn’t so much legal as it is reputational. An issue is better resolved before it becomes a problem.

Q: Is producing content in Arabic more difficult than in English?

Fiona: Foreign brands and producers may not understand the culture of the region well. They may not understand the reality versus perception, and we’re often asked to help review not just from a legal perspective but also a cultural one. Having said that, the biggest advertising fail in the last 12 months was Arabic language content produced by Arabic speakers for an Arabic country.