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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In her 2006 essay ‘Branding the nation — What is being branded?’ Ying Fan, Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan writes, “People, culture, cuisines, heritage, celebrities, fashion, history and places of a country build perceptions in the minds of international stakeholders. A collective sum of all these perceptions can be termed a nation’s brand.”

According to Simon Anholt in Destination Branding, “The world is turning into a gigantic market where through nation-branding countries compete with each other to boost their exports, attract tourism and foreign direct investment.”

In the last two decades, one can notice a more prominent emergence of “nation-branding” in which governments hire advertising agencies to advertise their countries as brands to attract tourists and investment. For example, Malaysia promotes itself as being “Truly Asia” which expresses an image of a country that has absorbed all the diverse elements of Asia. Switzerland flaunts its natural beauty by inviting people to go there to “get natural.” Similarly, Norway describes itself as a “Pure Escape.” Croatia claims that it is “As the Mediterranean once was.” India sells itself as a diverse and enchanting land and calls itself “Incredible India.”

No real effort has been made to change the image of the country in the last 40 years

In his 2010 paper ‘Country slogans and logos: findings of a benchmarking study,’ Hungarian economist Dr Arpad Papp-Vary discusses in detail the nation-branding slogans of over 50 countries. These include countries which for long have been popular tourist destinations. Thus, such countries concentrate more on promoting specific regions within them. For example, different states in the US have their own slogans in this context; same is the case in India after the success of the overall ‘Incredible India’ campaign.

However, there is no mention of Pakistan by Dr Papp-Vary. Ever since the late 1990s and especially between the early 2000s and 2015, Pakistan faced severe political and economic crises and numerous terrorist attacks by extremist outfits. However, from 2015 onwards the military has been largely successful in pushing back the terrorists and as a result there has been a significant decrease in the number of terror attacks. Also, the incumbent PML-N government somewhat managed to arrest the slide that the country’s economy experienced between 2007 and 2013. More importantly, the hefty economic investment by China in Pakistan through its CPEC project has raised tremendous economic projections and prospects.

Yet, not much has been done to capitalise on these achievements by kick-starting a nation-branding exercise. That’s why if you type ‘Pakistan’ in Google Images, over 80 percent of the images that appear are of wild clerics, suicide bomb attacks, riots and burqa-clad women.

Nation-branding has now become an important field of study in the spheres of marketing and even economics. But it is not so new. Experts suggest that nation branding arose with the emergence of the ‘Jet Age’ in the 1940s when, due to the commercial introduction of jet-powered planes, more and more people were able to travel to faraway countries in a matter of hours.

Therefore, till at least the late 1980s, nation-branding was mostly the pursuit of national carriers who worked closely with their respective countries’ tourism departments and advertising agencies. It is interesting to note that, between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s, Pakistan’s national carrier, the PIA, was one of the most active airlines in this context.

Indeed, even though no real national branding exercise has been undertaken by the country’s governments ever since the 1980s, the scenario in this respect was quite the opposite till the 1970s.

Interestingly, between 1947 till the launch of PIA in 1954-55, much of the nation-branding for Pakistan was done by the now defunct national carriers of Britain (BOAC) and the US (PanAm); and also by the still-operational Dutch airline, KLM. The 1950s’ press ads and posters of these airlines promoted Pakistan quite the same way as they did India. Pakistan is described as an enchanting place of snake charmers, camels and lavish weddings.

It was in the early 1960s, during the Ayub Khan regime, that PIA rose to the top as an international airline. The regime also formed a dedicated Pakistan Tourism Department (PTD). PIA posters and ads and those designed by PTD (between 1960 and 1968) describe Pakistan as a captivating land of geographical contrasts.

For example, in the PTD posters that were put up in all PIA offices abroad, the “captivating contrasts” are expressed through posters about the tigers of the Sundarbans (in former East Pakistan), the beautiful mountains and women of Swat valley, the historical buildings and mosques built by the Mughals in Lahore, the ancient Moenjodaro site in Sindh; and the beaches, bars and nightclubs of Karachi.

In her paper, ‘Representing Pakistan Through Folk Music & Dance’, Shumaila Hemani, a PhD Candidate in Ethnomusicology at the University of Alberta, Canada, informs us that Ayub explained Pakistan as a mixture of modernism and tradition. This maxim was largely adopted by the Z.A. Bhutto regime (1971-77) as well.

PTD and PIA ads and posters of the 1970s were still promoting Pakistan as a land of enchanting contrasts. The Bhutto regime and PIA heavily promoted Moenjodaro as a prime tourist destination, whereas Lahore was again highlighted as a place of unique historical sites. Karachi, by now christened as the “gateway to Asia”, was advertised as a place of “pristine beaches” and a robust nightlife. This can be seen in the special 1973-74 PTD brochures containing a list of bars, nightclubs and cinemas. These were placed on the reception desks of the city’s hotels.

Recently, in Boston, I came across an American political scientist who had travelled to Pakistan in 1969.

She visited the country again in 1984. She told me that when she first arrived in Karachi on a PIA flight from New York, the image of Pakistan among most Americans at the time was of “a mysterious Asian land which was cleaner than India, but just as enchanting.”

She then added, “And yes, it was exactly that when I visited in 1969, but I thought Pakistan seemed more modern than India.” She returned to Pakistan in 1984 to study the anti-Soviet Afghan insurgency. I asked her what was Pakistan’s image (in American minds) in the 1980s. To this, she replied: “I knew Pakistan had changed. But we now saw it as a conservative place but not as rabid as Iran.”

And what is her image of Pakistan currently? She says she has often planned to visit again, but is always held back by travel advisories and her family. “To us, Pakistan is now no different than what, say, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria is,” she explains. “I know this is an exaggeration, but that’s the image most Americans now have of Pakistan.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 29th, 2018