Let’s face it. There is no escaping advertising. Wherever you look, be it a TV spot, billboard or a sponsored post, some sort of advertising is right behind you, selling you everything from shampoo to legal services. In fact, it is hard to avoid advertising. Nothing is sacred – not even this article, where I will probably include a subtle plug about the advertising agency I run and how super awesome it is. Advertising rules our homes, our roads, our minds and our lives.
But that’s life. There are certain activities we do in order to get away from the hustle and bustle of our monotonous existences. Some of us read fiction. Some of us watch films. As for the latter, the so-called ‘revival of the Pakistani film industry’ provides a wonderful new option to unwind after a long day of cubicle mongering. The mushroom growth of ‘modern’ cinemas across urban Pakistan (did you know there is a Dolby-equipped 3D cinema on Mall Road in Murree?) coupled with the steady stream of films coming out of Lollywood 2.0, has got advertisers really excited. And from the looks of it, they are determined to leave no stone unturned in exploiting this captive audience.
As Pakistanis, we have had to put up with brand integration on the small screen for quite a while. The most glaring example is the constant presence of QMobile in the runaway comedy success Bulbulay. The fact that everybody
I have spoken to seems to know about it suggests that the brand integration exercise was a success – at least from a top-of-mind recall point of view. However, the over the top execution there was terrible, and it seems to have set the tone for all such branded adventures into the entertainment genre for Pakistani products.
With a few exceptions, Pakistani films are quickly evolving into what can arguably be called two hour long commercials. I can understand and appreciate that making a film is a financially taxing project. We don’t have the population and mass appeal that the Indian film industry has to support the production costs through ticket sales alone. Add to this the fact that a lot of our films are made by and feature people largely inexperienced in the medium, talented as they may be. Thus, even in times like now when local cinema is at a fever pitch, making a film is a financially risky initiative.
Brand integration adds two important weapons to a film’s war chest. The first is that it gives a nice little cushion to help mitigate financial risk. The second, and more pertinent to our case, is that brands add the sort of publicity muscle that filmmakers can seldom manage on their own. Unlike India, where the film is bigger than the brand, our films rely on the long reach of advertising to get the word out. Case in point, the horribly executed Fair & Lovely song for Jawani Phir Nahin Aani. Kudos to Unilever, which saw the potential and decided to milk it for all its worth. The result is that the film received unprecedented pre-release publicity because of a single song. The brand gets mileage and new content to hammer their audiences with and the film is thrust into TV channels, billboards and publicity events. Everybody wins, right?
I think not. It is like killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. As I mentioned earlier, films are a form of escapism. They are inherently an art form, designed to create a sensory experience that people will enjoy. People want entertainment; they might even settle for branded entertainment, but they will not tolerate advertising masquerading as entertainment (as is the case in our industry). Not for long anyway.
They will wisen up and they will start ignoring you, just as they have learnt to ignore web ads, TV spots and every other medium that advertisers overdid and killed. Eventually they will hate your brand’s guts, and in the process you will have jeopardised a budding industry because of your greed to push your brand onto their attention spans.
Nowhere was this as apparent as in the indie runaway hit, Shah. Adnan Sarwar, the man behind the film, cleverly positioned the project as a David versus Goliath story. Sarwar claims that the film was brought to life by a visionary, yet rag-tag team of five people, a low-budget camera and a laptop. Add to this the fact that it was the story of a real Pakistani underdog – Hussain Shah – and featured extensive promotional material around his dreams and the struggles he faced to bring them to life. The stage was thus conceptually set for the arrival of a corporate sponsor, which came in the form of Bank Alfalah. The pre and post marketing PR content for the film set the tone for its dependence on big brand assistance. This helped in making the product placements within the film a little more palatable – the branded ATM, sponsored matches within the storyline and other glimpses of corporate sponsorship. As we were closely involved in the project, I have first hand insight into how last-minute most of these additional corporate scenes were. The deals may be made much earlier on, but the integration was, at least from the filmmakers’ point of view, a necessary afterthought, rather than an inherent part of the plot.
Another insight that brand managers often overlook is that some brands are inherently more in tune with film plots than others. The golden rule is that if it fits in naturally with real life scenarios, it will make for good product placement. The most obvious example is Samsung, whose mobile phones and tablets have a natural connect with any film based in contemporary times. And given that Samsung is pretty gung-ho about film sponsorship, much of their branded content seamlessly integrates into the storyline. They too, however, overstep the boundaries every now and then. The protagonist using a smartphone with their logo visible I can understand, but the same scene becomes cringe-worthy when she is also using the microwave and the air-conditioner and the camera actually pans over the logos.
In Wajahat Rauf’s Karachi Se Lahore, Cornetto could have been featured in a tasteful manner (pun intended), but instead the shot-callers decided to add random dialogue that was out of place and forced. In this case it was not just me; I could actually hear the groans from the audience when these scenes appeared. The same goes for the Sprite song from Dekh Magar Pyaar Se, and it seems that while we are all inspired by the mass appeal of India’s Fevicol song, our brands and film directors may not be as capable of pulling off song integration as well as they think they can.
There are examples of non-invasive yet memorable product placements; for example when Gluco and Safeguard were featured in Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s 3 Bahadur. But from where I sit in the cinema hall, these instances are few and far in between. I will go out on a limb and say that no matter how well intentioned a brand may appear to be they will always look at a film as a promotional medium first and as an art form next. But as with so many other things in life, it pays the bills, so we all learn to live with it.
I would recommend that aspiring directors study the progress of Tony and Ridley Scott, whose careers are a testament to the synergy between commercial and film production. As for brand managers, my only suggestion is that they check if the product placement is overkill. If it makes your audience cringe, you are doing a disservice to your brand.
Umair Kazi is Partner at Ishtehari. firstname.lastname@example.org