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Stereotype World: What Made Haifa Go Viral

Dubai Properties' Jamal Al Mawed explains the role colours, amplification and catchy tunes played in making a video about Arab stereotypes a social hit

Jamal Al Mawed is Director of Communications at Dubai Properties

By Jamal Al Mawed, director of communications at Dubai Properties


Last month I did something I don’t think I’ve ever done: I watched a 7-minute brand-sponsored YouTube video from beginning to end.

I could almost see myself becoming a number on someone’s social media dashboard bumping up their ‘video completion rate’ stats. I watched it five times, so I was in their ‘repeat viewer’ metrics, and God help me I even shared and commented on it so I improved their ‘engagement’ numbers.

When you’re on the creation side of marketing and communications it can be hard to switch off and admire someone’s work purely as a consumer, so when truly engaging content comes along and does just that, it’s all the more impressive.

The video in question was Palestinian travel vlogger Haifa Beseisso’s Stereotype World: The Middle East Speaks Up!” which has been making waves since it was released in November. Starting with Haifa smashing a VHS tape of Arab stereotypes and demanding “I think I need the Mic!” before launching into verse, this visual extravaganza – equal parts rap video, Disney musical and vaudeville theatre – has rightfully racked up 1 million+ YouTube views while snippets of it on Haifa’s Instagram have gathered another 700,000+ views in a few weeks.

Beseisso, better known by her FlyWithHaifa handle and YouTube channel, teamed up with YouTube under their ‘Creators for Change’ initiative which utilises popular vloggers from around the world to tackle stereotypes and promote tolerance. The video gives an alternative view of Middle Eastern women to combat the negative global narrative, showcasing them loving life in the region, embracing their culture and challenging stereotypical media representations.

Granted, there is a lot of great content being produced on YouTube around the world – so what makes a video like Haifa’s go viral? Let’s take a look at some of the variables that influence viral content and how Haifa and her team utilised them to smash this one out of the ballpark.

The Amplifier Effect

In Derek Thompson’s book Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular he argues that the concept of viral content is a myth, because content and news do not spread virally (one person infecting one or two other individuals and so on). Rather, research shows that there is always a specific ‘amplifier’ (person that already has a relatively large audience) early on in the chain who spreads it en masse, then within that mass audience there are other amplifiers who spread it to their respective large audiences, and so on. The effect is thus more of a domino cascade rather than a viral person-to-person spread.

The simplest way to benefit from that cascade effect is to use influencers in your content because they come with ready-made audiences, which often includes other influencers. Haifa already had 650,000 YouTube subscribers and 360,000 Instagram followers, and she included various influencers from across the region in different segments of the video too. As a result when the video was released there were multiple people across the region organically amplifying the content to huge audiences at the same time, and – crucially – all roads led back to the FlywithHaifa YouTube channel.


Creative Genres

A few years ago I was working with various vloggers around the world doing YouTube reviews of the new Rolls-Royce Ghost. The vloggers were getting great background scenery, cool angles, speaking in multiple languages and doing some stylish editing so there was some fantastic content being produced, but they weren’t necessarily breaking new ground.

Slightly randomly, a vlogger called Rory Reid dealing with our UK office decided to do his review in the form of rap-style ‘word poetry’. The video, titled “Rolls-Royce Poetry in Motion” has 180,000 views on YouTube and is still my favourite car review ever because the idea works so well. Crucially, it taught me that your original ‘twist’ can come from the genre of your content, not just the style and production value.

The idea for Haifa to come out with this video in the form of a musical is a game-changer, because it not only rides the crest of a re-emerging creative medium but gives it an infectious watchability – you might even find yourself guiltily singing along.


Every marketers knows the stats – anywhere between 85 per cent to 93 per cent of purchasing decisions are influenced by brand or store colours. However, I didn’t really fully appreciate the potential that colours have on social media until I met Jeremy Jauncey, founder of the famous ‘Beautiful Destinations’ Instagram page. Jeremy told me how he hired a team of scientists specialising in visual analytics – the way our brain is influenced by visuals and colours – and applied the science to his posts, building the page up to 12 million followers.

Likewise, the visual spectrum in Haifa’s video is spectacular, with bright shades of yellow, turquoise, green, fuchsia, orange and gold adorning flowing headscarves, veils and dresses. Whether you are scrolling through Instagram, leafing through a magazine or browsing YouTube, your peripheral vision can’t escape the energy bursting from the stills and clips. All of this was set against exciting backdrops from the Dubai skyline to Moroccan bazaars to the Pyramids in Egypt, creating an extravagant visual feast.

Social Currency

Jonah Berger’s book Contagious: Why Things Catch On distills viral content into six key influencing factors: storytelling, practical value, public involvement (is everyone doing it?), triggers (does it trigger you to perform an action), emotional appeal and social currency. The latter is the most interesting one in this context.

Defined loosely as ‘Do you know about cool stuff?’, social currency basically evaluates how well it reflects on you if you share this content with others. Think about how much traction we get when we share heart-warming stories, motivational videos or breaking news. It basically says: I care about positive topics AND I help you discover cool/important things.

The Stereotype World video ticks all the boxes for this: women’s empowerment, Arab unity, freedom of expression, national pride, spreading positivity, etc. In addition, the ‘cool’ crowd of influencers were all talking about it on their channels, fuelling the interest further in its first few days online. It also benefited in this sense from some great PR work as it was covered by media across the region. All these factors combined gave it a high social currency and drove its word-of-mouth value to make it extremely shareable.


Finally, a crucial part of viral content is the sense of goodwill people have towards the subject or star, which is why brands have to choose their ambassadors so carefully. We’ve all done it – we see something we like but refrain from sharing it because we don’t like the person or brand posting it or featured in it.

It’s here that YouTube really made a smart choice because this idea really wouldn’t have worked with anyone else but Haifa Beseisso, who almost single-handedly carries the concept from beginning to end. As a trailblazer for Arab values and hijabi-style fashion who travels all over the world discovering places and people, she is already a strong representative of the message that the video aims to promote. Add to that her infectious positivity and you have someone with a strong likability factor for audiences.

In addition, going back to Jonah Berger’s six factors, he cites emotional appeal as key and pinpoints three specific positive emotions that your content needs to evoke: excitement, humour and awe. With an expressive personality and humorous take on life, Haifa is again the perfect conduit to make an important social message come across as entertaining and shareable.

Marketers take heed – this is a Middle Eastern marketing success story that we can all learn from. You know what? I think we all need the mic.