The most recent battle on social media between supporters of civil society members who are picketing to oust ‘hate-mongers’ from TV news channels and those accusing the picketers of exhibiting as much extremism as the mongers do, took another interesting turn.

As the social media campaign against certain controversial characters accused of inciting violence and exhibiting religious bigotry on local news channels gathered pace, the campaigners added another dimension to their ongoing laments when they decided to also take to task those multinational and local companies who sponsor shows where the hosts or guests may include people accused of practicing hate-speech.

Despite some rather radical suggestions of treating the companies as accomplices, to the more moderate pleas of asking them to be a bit more prudent and sensitive, most protesters didn’t really know exactly how such an issue should be tackled.

It’s amazing that in spite of the almost anarchic barrage of the jarring TV commercials that run over and over again as if spun into a maddening loop in between sports events and other programming on local TV channels, very few viewers seem to know much about the mindset of the companies and the advertising agencies that make them. Or more so, about the media buying houses that are responsible for determining during which show or sporting event (on TV) the ads are more likely to find the most receptive audience.

If the content of a show displeases viewers, that displeasure also extends to the brands sponsoring the show

In the past I have had a pretty involved history with some of the country’s leading advertising agencies and I can safely suggest that by no means do the agencies and their clients have any diabolical agendas to spread bigotry, hatred or (on the other hand), vulgarity or subliminal allusions to unabashed promiscuity!

The truth is — and I’m sure such is also the case in advertising agencies around the world — most folks associated with advertising usually tend to be rather myopic.

Their world view is largely shaped and informed by the glossy literature authored by self-styled advertising and marketing gurus who go to great (and somewhat convoluted) lengths to prove that adverting is a crackling postmodern art-form and as well as a dynamic science.

Social behaviours of potential markets are understood not through insights provided by sociologists or anthropologists, and nor through related features appearing in newspapers and magazines. Instead advertising agencies, media houses and their clients often understand segments of the society that they are interested in through ‘surveys’ and ‘research’ dished out by commercial research outlets where marketing men and women imagine society to be a swath of consumers who spend most of their waking hours thinking about the thickness of milk, the strength of tea, the quick actions of a washing detergent and the fizz of a cola.

During a national advertising conference some seven years ago a colleague of mine interrupted a local ‘marketing guru’ as he was going on and on about how he had managed to turn a brand into an overnight sensation with his brilliant tactics. The brilliant tactics, however, were nothing more than convincing his client to bombard the private TV channels (that had started to emerge like weeds in unkempt garden) with ads of the brand.

This was also the time when the lawyers’ movement was at its peak and terrorists were out to ‘avenge’ the state’s action against the militant Red Mosque clerics. A bomb had gone off in an Islamabad market killing dozens of civilians.

‘Excuse me, sir,’ my colleague who was part of an agency’s creative department interrupted. ‘Your client’s glitzy TV commercial kept running between images of slaughter and bloodshed on TV. Don’t you think this gave the brand a negative image? As if its makers didn’t care or were residing on a different planet?’

To my surprise (or not really), my colleague’s question was met with sudden silence, not only from the guru but the whole hall went quiet too. It wasn’t an awkward silence, but a quietness suggesting that absolutely no one knew exactly what the question was about.

Such things do not quite come into the equation when advertisers, media houses or their clients plan out their marketing strategies. After all, what are they to do with social or political issues, right?

During my last days in advertising I tried to convince the agencies and the clients that the political and social situation in the country was such that certain issues deemed as being ‘non-marketing’ may as well be determining the buying habits and psychology of the consumers.

The image of a brand was also beginning to be judged by the way it was being placed (through ads) on TV. There is rising evidence that ads of brands that keep repeating during cricket games eventually begin to cause repulsion.

With the way episodes of hate-speech on TV are being viewed and lamented after the Peshawar tragedy, the responsibility of the local and multinational companies who sponsor potentially controversial shows was bound to come up.

Because, indirectly at least, they do become accomplices. But as I mentioned earlier, on most occasions than not, the social and political myopia and, if I may add, the ignorance of most ad agencies and their clients combine to cause a failure to figure out the damaging equation: a potential consumer who is offended by a bigot on a show sponsored by a host of companies is more than likely to also develop a dislike for the brands that these companies are offering.

It’s about time ad agencies and their clients finally develop at least some political and social sense that goes beyond what they are fed in the shape of surveys riddled with marketing jargon and clichéd scenarios that treat consumers not as multilayered social groups, but as men and women only concerned about what they see on the shelves of shops and supermarkets.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 4th, 2015


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