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The writing on the wall

April 16, 2017

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Is this a building or a well-lit billboard?
Is this a building or a well-lit billboard?

KARACHI: With the view clearer and wider, the roads seemed broader and one could breathe more easily after those blots on our landscape, the monstrosities known as billboards, were taken down on the Supreme Court’s orders last year.

The façade of a building covered with a milk company’s advertisement./ Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
The façade of a building covered with a milk company’s advertisement./ Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

There was no exception to the rule as hoardings and signboards from cantonment areas, Defence Housing Authority, Karachi Metropolitan Corp­oration (KMC) with other district municipal corporations and civic bodies had to be removed from their areas. There was a complete ban on them with a warning issued for anyone found putting up hoardings or billboards anywhere. The billboards mounted on top of private buildings in Karachi were also ordered to be removed.

The electronic screen on Shahrah-i-Quaideen./ Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
The electronic screen on Shahrah-i-Quaideen./ Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

Of course, the billboards have a role in promoting businesses, generating revenue, helping people earn livelihoods, etc. So what prompted the decision? There were petitions piling up about the billboards being dangerous, especially during storms or earthquakes, when they could fall down and cause damage to life and property. The ones on footpaths were obstructing people, especially motorists’ view. The driver’s concentration was also disturbed if he or she paid heed to what was being advertised up there. They were also taking up too much space while preventing pedestrians from making use of footpaths as they took to the roads while risking their lives. So all kinds of signboards were done away with.

About to be dressed up in an advertisement./ Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
About to be dressed up in an advertisement./ Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

But advertising has now found a way around it. There may no longer be any big and dangerous boards but there is an alternative strategy, or plan B, put into action in the form of buildings. Yes, Karachi’s buildings are now hosting the advertisements that the boards once did. One side or perhaps entire buildings are selling from mobile phone SIMs, packaged milk, instant noodles, chips, cold drinks, engine oil — you name it.

Panaflex tailored to the shape and size of a building./ Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
Panaflex tailored to the shape and size of a building./ Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

Thus more and more windows in the walls are being covered up and sidewalls flattened and painted over to paste on the huge panaflex advertisements that once used to cover the boards. Earlier, the billboards paid taxes to whichever district municipal corporation they fell under. One wonders if that is still the case with the buildings which allow to be used for advertising. “Well, yes, they have to be doing that,” says a KMC spokesperson though he says they are no longer responsible for collecting the revenue being generated from such advertisements.

But even if the threat of the boards falling down on the unassuming population is no longer there, what about the concentration of drivers? To add to the problem there are also big electronic screens being put up on building walls to show several advertisements. And they can fall down just like the billboards.

Old building, new ad./ Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
Old building, new ad./ Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

“When I turn to Shahrah-i-Quaideen from Sindhi Muslim Society, for a second or two, until my eyes adjust, I’m completely blinded by the glare of the electronic screen up on the corner building across the Tariq Road graveyard,” says rickshaw driver Munawwar.

Many people enjoying the slides fail to notice the signal turning green. Many fail to notice anything else in their way just like the rickshaw driver. More modes for advertising come with the rental moving trucks having advertisements on either side and those motorbikers wearing advertisements as they zoom past you. So the art of persuasion in the form of marketing and advertisements is very much around even if you can no longer see the billboards.

Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2017