Redefining the Fourth Estate –Snapchat’s #Mecca_Live

This blog first appeared as my article in Arabian Gazette on July 21, 2015. Click here for the original version

Photo – Caren Firouz/Reuters

Photo – Caren Firouz/Reuters

To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt – Susan Sontag

On the 13th of July 2015, a sizeable chunk of the globe’s youth population, marked at more than a 100 million, witnessed live scenes from a part of the world that is also the birthplace of a popular yet widely misunderstood religion – Mecca (or Makkah) in Saudi Arabia. The date coincided with the 27th night of Ramadan – the most blessed night in the Islamic tradition, and a time where Muslims try and spend the bulk of the night in prayer and supplication. On this night, a staggering 2 million people were estimated to have been at the Grand Mosque, and they were joined by a proliferating Snapchat community through the media platform’s ‘Live Stories’ feature.

According to Snapchat’s website –

“Live Stories are a curated stream of user submitted Snaps from various locations and events. Users who have their location services on at the same event location will be given the option to contribute Snaps to the Live Story. The end result is a Story told from a community perspective with lots of different points view”

The Live Story from Mecca – couched in #Mecca_Live – did not just create points of view, but also broke existing ones. Pilgrimages to the heart of Saudi Arabia – the country home to Mecca – have exponentially risen in statistical feat over the years, often warranting massive expansion work to accommodate the numbers. What it was unable to capture so far for the global audience was the individual relationship of pilgrims with the place and the stories that a moment at Mecca can weave. Coming at the back of some controversy hours prior to #Mecca_Live went viral, this movement rose as the Muslim world’s rare opportunity to steal the narrative from mainstream media’s violence & extremism show-reel, and tell the story of a religion little understood through the lens of people who lived the faith on the most auspicious night.

Mecca in Snapchat pictures – a compilation of the #Mecca_Live Story

The background story – what made #Mecca_Live click

  • Media’s manufactured consent

We have stories that define our lives, and then stories that define story-telling. The mainstream media with its political and editorial baggage has often been vehemently criticized for portraying Islam in a grim light. Though sometimes valid news, the majority of its airtime and newspaper space consists of covering violent acts with marked enthusiasm and profiling self-professed ‘Islamic’ terrorists. This in turn has bred a strong aversion amidst the majority moderate Muslims and deep cynicism of their agenda. It’s common to spot ‘what media won’t tell you’ posts that celebrate the many moments of glory for the faith of over 1.6 billion.

  • A window for the youth

The generation of yesteryears risk bringing their preconceived prejudices to organised religion. The young, on the other hand, are open to sharing and embracing new ideologies, even as they form their own independent ones. Across all platforms, Snapchat has the highest active users who belong to the quintessential Generation Y – making it a luring channel for brand communication and media houses alike.

Snapchat has the highest users in Age 18-24 category

Snapchat has the highest users in Age 18-24 category (Source: netimperative.com)

What is an elderly’s morning with The New York Time’s editorial section is another lad’s Snapchat session the whole day in real time. The editorial pages of a paper are what the government, PR machinery and advertisers want it to be while Snapchat is what people want it to produce. The result is greater response to snaps and a willingness to share amongst the community.

The reactions to #Mecca_Live quickly leapt up in popularity as much as the hashtag –

  • Mecca makes for great pictures

Religions and rituals provide great photo & video opportunities. Some of India’s greatest photographers would have in their portfolio a moment captured from one of many public festivals of the country. Being a communal religion, Islam’s imagery evokes large gatherings and synchronisation of much of its rituals. In a world of individual selfies and single-frame sunsets, pictures and short-format videos of all imaginable races and nationalities gathered in prayer and the circumambulation around the Ka’aba – believed to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael – is a scintillating treat for the eyes.

Mecca Collage

Mecca Collage 2

Everybody loves stories

Especially when you have 2 million people playing protagonists to it. Controversies, conspiracy and ominous facts presented by mainstream media breeds more of the three things mentioned. Islam has been riddled with challenges and controversies over one’s outfit to a Muslim’s relation with violence in the world. In such times, showing the human side of the wider picture and a wider picture of the human side is not just pleasing to the eyes, but also intriguing to the mind. The fact that Mecca is restricted to people of a faith also adds to its interest & intrigue. Stories like these convey greatness in ordinary lives opposed to the sensation of a few incidences. They are the conjunctions at a time rife with interrogatory exclamations and question marks.

Snapchat’s Live Story captured little moments from Mecca that contributed to one grand moment of truth that escapes the usual narrative – unity. The compelling images lived through the lens of smartphones allowed the viewer to interpret what leads to that moment on camera, and what follows after the video stops.

And for once, this interpretation was not led by the suggestive powers and motives of the ‘Fourth Estate’.

 

 

 

Ramadan Campaign Watch: #SplashHeartOfGold

The holy month of Ramadan will begin on the 17th or 18th of June in the United Arab Emirates this year. Celebrated as a time of religious reflection and spiritual rejuvenation, Muslims abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk.

While corporate activities do slow down owing to shorter work timings and the lethargy that kicks in after the initial hours, the only trend witnessed in commercial activity would be the increasing one. There’s a visible surge in shoppers who buy and stock up food and beverages that would otherwise not make it to the kart in months out of Ramadan. (Rooh Afza is my favourite example)

What would be wrong to assume, however, is that marketing and brand communications activities observe a fast too, avoiding any campaign that has the potential of staying relevant in the 4 special weeks. Brands that do not wish to merely see off Ramadan usually churn out that one big idea months in advance.

A notable example is Du’s #30DaysOfSharing campaign last Ramadan. Social Media users were encouraged to send in their precious moments which made Ramadan special.  Every post composed using the hashtag #30DaysofSharing had Du donate Dhs10 to its annual Iftar tables initiative, from which Iftar meals were distributed to the less fortunate. The results & reach of the campaign is shown in the short video below –

With enormous potential comes cultural and religious sensitivities attached to a campaign. There’s no margin for frivolity, and any attempt of merely trying to fit in with the spirit of a festival can lead to sharp criticism – both from passive observers and the religiously inclined. Finding the right space of creativity for a ritual guided by religious beliefs and practices poses an interesting challenge too. How does a brand go beyond the obvious leads of hunger and thirst, and place itself in an area respected & lauded by the people?

The ‘Heart of Gold’ Campaign by Splash

Splash – part of renowned Landmark Group based out of UAE – is one of the Middle East’s largest fashion retail outlets.  In just about a month from Ramadan, out of complete randomness, I chanced upon Splash’s sponsored tweet inviting people to participate in their Ramadan campaign.

The campaign uses the App medium for participation and aims to celebrate the human spirit of giving. Splash will be honouring 30 ‘unsung heroes’ throughout the month of Ramadan, which means a hero thanked and celebrated for a unique contribution each day of the holy month. In their own description in the App –

At Splash, the cause of humanity is one that’s always been close to our own heart. We believe there are numerous people out there, people from every walk of life, who espouse the cause of humanity in their own unique way without expecting anything in return. People whom you may have seen, known or heard of who strive to improve the lives of their fellow beings around them.

Splash ‘Heart of Gold’ has been instituted not only in the true spirit of giving during the holy month of Ramadan, but also as a tribute to these unsung heroes who devote their time, money and effort selflessly to the cause of humanity.

Points of Impression

As a retail outlet that decks up wardrobes with fashionable clothes and accessories, being relevant to Ramadan would certainly have been a challenge. The brand is not a consumable food item that can make it to the table during suhoor, nor is it a restaurant that people can flock to for iftar. They deal in products that are often displayed on lifeless mannequins,  and yet here they are hoping to acknowledge the goodness in selfless giving.

By indulging in this campaign,  in my humble opinion, Splash goes beyond the mundane obvious. It has identified a key element that is actively promoted in Ramadan – charitable behaviour towards society. By rewarding this act of righteousness, Splash will garner the respect of the public at large and those particularly involved in charity work.

The Clothes Connection

To talk purely of Splash’s main product offering, clothes come nowhere close to hunger and thirst – 2 things commonly (and sometimes narrowly) associated with the month. However, they’ve always been an important contraption in contributing to charity. Be it donating clothes to the poor or in areas afflicted with a calamity, the product association with the core of the campaign is not amiss.

In addition, people frequent clothes and accessories retail outlets to shop for Eid al-Fitr. This brings Splash another challenge of integrating their online efforts with their store customers, and to familiarize them with the campaign.

The #SplashHeartOfGold widget, Source: Splash Website

Democratizing the Nomination Choice

According the campaign, nominations will be sought from whosoever wishes to name their choice. Anyone can access the App, write the details of his/her nominee and justify the nomination in a 1000 words. The 30 winners will be chosen by a jury from the brand. The opportunity to nominate serves several benefits – the pool of nominees would be extensive and diverse (in nationality and sector of humanitarian work), and would encourage people to spot a potential nominee in someone who could be casually generous in expending social services.

[It would be nice though if Splash spelled out this jury and make this a more transparent affair. Knowing who selects the final winners would bring more credibility to the activity]

PR Potential

A campaign of this scale and philosophy can be expected to make its mark in media too. The print media in UAE has seldom held back from recognizing Good Samaritans in society, especially in highlighting stories that reflect honesty and nobility in their day-to-day dealings. The story behind each of the 30 nominees would certainly make for an interesting read.

Splash’s CSR in the past

This will not be the first time that Splash exhibits its relationship with societal responsibilities. Recently, the brand was recognized at the Princess Haya Awards for Special Education as an ‘Outstanding Institutional Supporter in Private Sector‘ for its work with students of Special Needs Future Development Center (SNF) in Dubai. I learnt from first hand account of a student & friend from SNF about his induction into the Splash workforce in one of the Splash stores, and being acknowledged by the management as ‘best employee of the month’. Such initiatives are a major boost for special education training centers as they search an inclusive environment for their students, especially adults of the working age,  to learn and thrive in.

Ms. Safia Bari, Director of SNF (left) with the CEO of Splash Fashions, Mr. Raza Beig ; [Source: SNF Facebook Page]

Ms. Safia Bari, Director of SNF (left) with the CEO of Splash Fashions, Mr. Raza Beig ; [Source: SNF Facebook Page]

It will be interesting to know how the #SplashHeartOfGold campaign pans out for the brand. If successful, Splash could well set an example for other brands to buck up and come out strong, or look on as the sun sets on their Ramadan activity.

Is there a Ramadan campaign that has caught your attention from this year or the past? Contribute by commenting below!

[To participate in the #SplashHeartOfGold campaign and nominate someone, click here.]