Flying high in the ad world

Published November 16, 2021
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IN a recent ad on television, a grandmother wants her granddaughter to get engaged so it provides an excuse to hold a celebration in the family. Upon being told that the young girl is interested in studying further, she suggests that the celebration be held when the granddaughter graduates. To be honest, I can’t really remember what the ad is selling, though the message was positive enough to have left an imprint.

But not everyone shares this opinion. The same ad has upset many for I came across a piece which argued that the ad will encourage (shudder, shudder) notions such as ‘working women’ and ‘equality with men’! And that it may engender mindsets that look down upon marriage — for it is seen to hinder a woman’s profession — but not friendships with the opposite gender. And this will eventually affect, or even destroy, the family set-up and traditions. Apparently, the short ad has ramifications far beyond what my little brain can absorb. (To be fair, the piece does not suggest that women can’t study or work but that neither should take priority over marriage and children.)

As an aside, it is also suggested that working women leave their children’s upbringing to maids and other staff, which, to be honest, is often heard as a complaint against working women. But why does no one ever think that the ‘maid’ (unless she is underage) is a working woman herself who too ‘dumps’ her children with others? Perhaps, we should stop such ‘maids’ from working in our homes in order to preserve their homes too.

But I digress. To return to the ad, and its critique, I wondered why the ad had such an impact on the viewers. After all, I also registered the ad.

Ads now feature modern couples where husbands are not averse to making tea for their wives.

Perhaps this is because generally the content on our television does tend to play up the ‘safe’ roles much beloved of those who fear working women.

Our dramas tend to stick to beautifully made-up, coiffed women who rarely seem to leave their hearth and home — where most of the conflict and plot plays out — against the backdrop of dramatic music and much suffering. Not being an avid watcher, the few glimpses of serials as well as their reviews reinforce the sense that drama serials are inhabited by crying, scheming or suffering women.

Those who write and comment on television in detail have pointed out that dramas revolve around the suffering woman for it brings ratings — the frequency of the tears is said to be directly proportional to viewership. It’s an aphorism as recognised as the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice.

And this is exactly why the ad about the understanding grandmother stands out. Or does it? For the more one thinks about it, our advertising world, which presumably funds the tear fest in dramas, prefers a different direction for itself. Ads tend to glorify the working woman.

Daughters are encouraged to study, hold jobs and then help their parents.

In a relatively new property ad (of which there are many) an elderly man is berated by a friend for sending his daughter abroad instead of building a house. The conversation is overheard by the daughter who then proceeds to buy one; in the process, she also — to my delight — visits a swanky office in her rather westernised outfit.

In another, a daughter whose work is going well, helps her father when he is having financial difficulties.

Sons too have moved on, in a similar direction to the daughters. In one ad which appeared some time ago, a son helps his mother give cooking classes on social media and is happy at her newfound confidence while another does the cooking as his mother teaches her class online. And in one pitch for a masala company, a father cooks the dinner for his working daughter’s birthday dinner.

And while our dramas may still pander to the working man who comes home to his dutiful wife who offers him a cup of tea, the husbands in our ad world are quite comfortable making a cuppa for their wives. In the latest incarnation of one such ad, the husband offers the tea as a peace offering for complaining about the aloo gosht for dinner.

Whether the ads are selling tea, biscuits, or even dish-washing soap, there is a far more modern couple at display, where the husband can be found helping his wife wash up or sharing a romantic moment over a cup of tea, fan or biscuits. And the mothers-in-law are, contrary to beliefs, quite understanding about messy houses or their sons prancing around in the kitchen.

Clearly, those making adverts are inhabiting a different world from those who are putting together dramas. But both worlds continue to be projected and reproduced again and again because they both do prove popular with the target audience. Is the audience then different? Are those who are watching and appreciating the plays different from those responding to the ads? Or are those buying these products different from those watching the dramas?

I have no answer. But this may not be limited to Pakistan. Next door in India, ads have hurt the more ‘traditional’ sensibilities on more than one occasion and been withdrawn. One offended for displaying ‘traditional’ jewellery on scantily clad models; another for titling a collection in a way that offended critics who felt a religious event was being renamed or diluted. And there was also an ad which led to an outcry because they tried to offer a different vision of what an ideal couple should be. But strip away all the criticism and it’s quite similar to the offence taken closer to home — it is challenging traditional notions of how a family and home are structured and the role of women within. But why do creators of ads take a risk when content creators for dramas do not, will hopefully be answered by those who study the two industries closely.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2021



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