The day before the elections in the US, the most amazing visual showed up on my timeline. It was a shalwar kameez clad Ms Marvel (for those of you that don’t know, the current Ms Marvel is 16-year-old Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American from Jersey City, New Jersey) waving the American flag and a speech bubble that simply said “To the polls…”. The back story to that panel was Kamala Khan going door-to-door and exhorting people to go out and cast their votes. While the sentiment was spot on, what made the visual so arresting was the choice of individuals featured in that image… a woman in hijab, several persons of colour, Hispanics… the same people that the Trump campaign threatened to disenfranchise. Very subtly, but very deliberately, Marvel had picked a side.
And they weren’t the only ones. When Donald Trump Jr. tweeted out a controversial meme comparing refugees to poisoned Skittles, Wrigley, the parent company of Skittles, came out with an extremely dignified statement that read “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it is an appropriate analogy. We will respectfully refrain from further commentary as anything we say could be misinterpreted as marketing.”
That wasn’t all. Johnnie Walker went even further. A full blown TV spot featuring a Hispanic veteran and various people of different ethnicities, quoting Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, capped off with the message ‘Keep Walking America.’ The ad celebrated what is already great about America to counter the fear mongering of ‘Make America Great Again’.
There is no denying that the recent elections in the US have been deeply divisive. The rhetoric was at times outright racist and exclusionist, while the humour went from being cerebral to downright feline-capturing crass over the course of just a few months.
So persuasive was the narrative being churned out by the news networks that even Pakistanis, literally as far away from the US as is geographically possible, felt that they were in the thick of it. We started taking sides in a contest that we believed, perhaps rightly, had a direct impact on our lives.
But isn’t that what humans do? We take sides. We gravitate towards people that share our fears and interests and unite for common causes. Be it Liverpool fans in Pindi singing You’ll never walk alone… in front of their TV sets or Android loyalists mocking what are, in their opinion, the iOS ‘sheeple’.
It makes me wonder why don’t more brands in our neck of the woods take sides? Where is the brand that comes out strongly in support of polio immunisation? Or champions the Women’s Protection Bill?
The truth is that most brands live in mortal fear of causing offense. They are afraid of any backlash that could trigger even a blip in the monthly sales figures. What they fail to consider is that by standing for something, they can have consumers stand by them. Loyalists and evangelists can do more for a brand than all the YouTube mastheads that you spend on when you launch that new TV spot.
It’s time brands in Pakistan took sides and stuck with them.
Ali Hayat Rizvi is Creative Director, Creative Chaos.