The World: Insider's View - Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabian TV prices can double, or even triple, during the holy month of Ramadan, Targets Leo Burnett's Ahmad Abuljobain in Riyadh explains. Ramadan, the Muslim holy month during which a billion faithful fast from sunrise to sunset, has a peculiar effect on consumers and advertisers in the Middle East, one that reshapes the industry for a short time, accounting as the period does for a minimum of 10 per cent of the annual share of expenditure. This despite the fact that, according to the Pan-Arab Research Centre and Starcom, the overall TV viewership generally drops by between 20 and 30 per cent. So, while fewer people may be watching TV, those who are command a premium - media rates can double, and in some cases triple, during Ramadan.

Although audiences do seek out entertainment, the emphasis is on "the spiritual". This, coupled with the fact that consumption patterns also shift as a result of the fasting, means that advertisers have to tailor not only their media plans, but also the content of the messages. A recent study by the American University in Cairo, for instance, found characters in ads that run during Ramadan are more conservatively dressed.

In effect, tactical advertising becomes the norm: products that are perceived as materialistic, such as financial and insurance services, tend to have reduced budgets, while a brand such as Vimto, popular for its sweet taste, spends almost its entire annual budget in Ramadan. Items such as toys, gold and cosmetics begin mid-month, anticipating gift buying for the Eid celebration at the end of Ramadan. Many marketers, particularly of fast food, highlight charitable work to bolster the company's image as socially responsible. And big-ticket items tend to emphasise incentive draws, price reductions and offers.

Brand-building advertising does not necessarily decline during Ramadan, but it certainly appears to, simply because of the preponderance of promotions.

Things look set to continue this way: Ramadan starts 11 days earlier each year, because the Muslim calendar follows the lunar cycle. So by 2008 the fast will begin in the summer; and marketers will face three further challenges: the summer heat; the summer vacation mobility, and the clutter of back-to-school ads. Beverage makers, in particular, will raise the stakes, since a billion people will spend half a day without a drink.

With all this in mind, it seems clear that the commercialisation of Ramadan is set to continue, and with it a growing controversy about the share of voice that promotion gets over prayer.