By Aisha Fayyazi Sarwari
Pakistan is looked at as a country on edge, a country where a fanatic is a breath away from detonating a nuclear device. The potential for that is not the debate here. What really indicates the direction the country is taking is the advertizing and the psychological nuances they are choosing to project from their focus group in their TV ads.
A telecom giant recently launched a campaign where they promoted a Pakistani athlete who won the country a gold medal in SAARC games as a brand ambassador for the cell phone company. The most distinctive part of the ad is that it has an unveiled Pakistani woman, wearing track pants running. What starts off as a benign narrative of a young girl child with aspirations to become an athlete turns to a religious festival with costume and hymn. So distinct was the religious overture that it made one wonder what was being sold was so disturbing to audiences that it had to be packaged in something safe. There were little girls with Arab styled hijabs, a mother with hijab, a father with a beard, a lot of praying and what is the final result, a religious inspiration which eventually leads the athlete to success – with the help of a cell phone company that allows roaming overseas – The protagonist listens to a call to prayer (Azan) back home on her cell phone right before the games begin in a foreign country. This is the ultimate thrill of the advertisement.
A closer introspection revels the concept that was so outrageously horrifying to sensitivities of the audience that the filmmaker had to code it in Holy Grail: A woman running.
It is akin to giving women wings (and you know Pakistani women are now fighter pilots bombing Taliban targets), where a woman can explore territories unhindered, and more importantly unsupervised. We see in the film that while she is shown finally in full, and not pieces, running by the sea side, her own brother rides a bicycle with her. Here is the problem though: If the Taliban were to rate this ad, technically it would fall short in most categories of their version of Islamic injunctions.
But is this really a true projection of the masses that use the postpaid SIM being advertized, or are advertizing companies projecting their own version of a psychological need onto the general populous?
This pseudotherapeutic discourse, common to many advertisements promises emotional comfort through the use of products/services that are inherently incapable of providing such comfort.
The danger in making a mistake in identifying or pegging the wrong psychological feeling to sell a product is that it can reinforce the negative trajectory of a country that is already struggling with a war of identity, and where religion is used to maim and terrorize people into a ghastly war called “The War on Terror.” The Taliban are amassing, according to WikiLeaks with help from the Pakistani Spy Agency ISI, inside Pakistan to attack what they feel are American targets. All this while the economic cost of terrorism to Pakistan in this war is estimated at USD 1.4 billion in the year 2009 alone and FDI decreased by 45% this year according to IIF.
This war is fueled by cultural sensitivities that continue to be offended in Pakistan and are at a constant high since the Facebook ban. Pakistan has, entirely through an incorrect and revisionist reading of its independence labeled itself Islamic, and branded itself as the champion of all “global minority” complexes. As more and more industries close, fewer investments in textiles, ICT and communication sectors are recorded, the less our youth is inclined to modern education and more to recruitment in the name of religion. A documentary by Shaemeen Obaid Chinoy outlines how the Taliban successfully brainwash and deploy young boys for a suicide bombing mission that has killed thousands in the past 10 years.
The stakes of using religion in advertizing have never been higher than they are now. Filmmakers are juggling fireballs and it’s not infotainment anymore. This telecom company, once a market leader is reacting to competition by using a technique called resonance, coined by Tony Schwartz. And as fancy as the name is, it buys into people’s inner most common deepest feelings to enlist emotions that mean something great to them. This is dangerous because it can not only miss out on the real emotional triggers but can also create them through graphic imagery and moreover, reinforce religion as an emotive response tool. Religiosity for Pakistan already is blanket we just can wean ourselves off of.
As the advertizing agency searches for a more effective mode of persuasion, this advertisement is among the most desperate as it turns to the most obvious philosophical dilemmas of religion to solve a problem that needs perseverance and hard work. All athletes will credit their success to partly chance and over 10,000 hours of hard work. Malcom Gladwell refers to the 10,000 hours rule that enables most genius to emerge.
But this defense of faith faces a huge hurdle: God not only cares about us but has set up precise moral norms and liturgical practices that we must follow to ensure our eternal salvation. Without such specificity, religion lacks the exhilarating and terrifying possibilities that have made it such a powerful force in human history. So then what if the conditionality was not met?
What if our track star had not heard the Azan or remembered the divine in the moment that required sheer turbo force of strength from her, as she stood next to rival India? Would she be doomed?
If you’re a young woman representing your country in track pants as opposed to shorts, and end up winning, can’t the nation be proud of you and own you as their own unless ofcourse you have summoned God to your side before you began, and a specific God, Allah. Is there no room for a Christian or Hindu Pakistani who could’ve won this tournament and crowned. Would there be such a video ad made in the honor of her religion.
On another level the call of religion in advertizing is a move away from rationality, because rational beliefs are vulnerable, and with today’s technology it is easy to knock off a competitor’s innovation quickly or play on his marketing turf. Religious bonds on the other hand are impossible to break.
The question we must ask ourselves if we truly would not accept an ad where we celebrated a simple triumph of the spirit of women and honored just that. A woman won Pakistan an award. So must we make her the apple of her veiled mother’s eye, and the honor of a bearded fathers’ and the protection of a brother and should she have to belong, has she no to feet to stand on? Or even run with?
Regardless of the preferences of our track star, it is sheer injustice not to let this story be one of simply a Pakistani girl with will power, dedication, hard work and faith in herself: Fast vanishing traits amongst Pakistanis.