The Wrong Bandwagon by Soufia A Siddiqi

Cross post : Institute of Democracy and Development

by Soufia A Siddiqi

Lately, Ufone’s been making all of us laugh really hard. That’s ended brutally with its latest advertisement in the Saaf Awaaz campaign. A lot of people I know are still chuckling along, telling me I’m taking the ad too personally. Mikaal grimacing at the unusual voice of a stunningly fair, beautiful woman is more than slapstick, however. It’s a response typical of members of our society towards an anomaly-shock bordering on disgust.  I have a congenital vocal cord disorder called Dysphonia, which makes my voice unusually hoarse and toneless for a girl. Much of my life has been spent answering queries about it, largely by women who pity I will never receive a decent marriage proposal because of it. I have had boys walk away from me the minute I’ve uttered one syllable. I don’t expect sympathy for a condition I didn’t choose; I expect empathy.

Accepting differences and celebrating diversity are qualities unique to the human being. That’s not what the Ufone ad tells the viewer. It stereotypes male behavior towards beautiful women (the irresistible ogling), then mocks her for her strange voice. It also blatantly disregards the fact that only mentally retarded children speak in a manner akin to the girl’s. All of this, it neatly packages into a telecommunication connection. Sure, ads can be funny, but at whose expense?

For a society as conservative as ours is about women, the corporate sector seems to be having a field day toying with the female figure. In an attempt to progress and win the economic rat race, advertisements in the country have taken objectification of 50% of the population to a new level. Fair & Lovely may be a relatively older form of this phenomenon by narrowly defining beauty in one skin tone. Hardees’ sleazy billboards in Lahore are a more recent addition. Consider the one in Model Town that declares ‘This chick won’t disappoint you’ or Gulberg’s ‘Big, juicy, messy; just the way you like it.’ The CEO of Carl’s Jr (Hardees’ sister company) admitted last year that the parent company CKE, Inc. deliberately targets ‘young, hungry men’, a double entendre on both physical and carnal hunger. The company’s Teriyaki Burger ad featuring Audrina Patridge as the ‘best bikini body’ and a more recent one with Paris Hilton seducing a, brace yourself, car, only evidences its history of foraying into voyeurism. Is that really the direction we want to head in, is what Pakistani parents should be asking themselves every time they drive past the cheery yellow star.

Ok. Sex is touchy. Let’s instead consider the effects of marketing a cosmetically perfect lifestyle with the help of skin bleaching products. Psychologically, the association of terms like ‘handsome’ and ‘lovely’ with fairness is mindboggling for a country genetically dominated by darker skin tones. Legally, such marketing amounts to misrepresentation through a product. Not only does it equate beauty with a particular skin tone, once the effect of the cream wears off (with discontinued use) one’s natural colour returns. Obviously, this is not the light tone promised by the cream to become characteristic of a face. Its continued use, according to skin specialists, results in cracks, sores and other forms of skin damage. There is even a greater tendency for the skin to darken. The unfortunate truth is that lightening creams are all the rage now in the country, especially among educated women desperate to subscribe to a fictitious ideal of beauty. The greatest targets of such ads are probably the girls ranging from early adolescence into their late 20’s (the average marriage age range in the country). Being fair, educated and holding down a ‘professional’ job is the latest best package for securing a successful marriage proposal. Companies want the young women of our country to believe a cream can do all this for them. The Journal of Consumer Policy affirms that consumers’preferences and behavior are shaped by the size and nature of an advertising message.

Yes, ads just market products; one probably shouldn’t take them too seriously. Why, then, are advertising industries and marketing budgets worldwide valued at millions? Pigou explained that companies operating in monopolistically competitive markets such as food and personal care depend largely on advertising to differentiate their products from each other. Elements used range from humour and shock to sexuality. Company reps argue that consumers have the choice to ignore, change channels to or just tune out of ads that privatize the public domain. That’s exactly why in Pakistan billboards are often placed right behind traffic signals, radio stations will play your song request ‘right after these messages’ and cable operators will run a movie with commercials constantly appearing on horizontal and vertical panels on the TV screen. All of these are Hobson’s Choice: a consumer has no option, but to tolerate such adverts because they accompany other services he/she may desire or need.

The liberal feminist movement in the US took Burger King to task for its Super-Seven-Incher ad showing a young woman leaning towards a phallis-shaped sandwich claiming, ‘It’ll blow your mind away.’ The psychological and physical battle among Asians in the UK for fair skin has featured and been condemned on a BBC News report, Beyond the Pale; BBC2’s Desi DNA-Skin Deep; and Anita Rani’s Make Me White on BBC 1. The Australian Standards Bureau considered cancelling a Kotex ad in Australia that made euphemistic reference to female genitalia when it received a significant number of complaints overnight following its initial airing. Globalization critic, David Korten, author of When Corporations Rule the World argues that ads are just a part of the greater propaganda machinery controlled by corporations the world over to remind people that consumerism is the key to happy living.

Source : Institute of Democracy and Development



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