In Pakistan, through excesses of placement and frequency, the ideally purely informative and persuasive dimensions of advertising have been converted in recent years into cacophonous and hegemonistic dimensions. This degradation of the normal process of advertising requires a new term such as ‘Adversitising’ (or ‘Adworsetising’) to accurately reflect the distortion.
Placing advertising has a lot to do with aptness. Both within and outside the mass media the positioning of commercial messages has exponentially expanded over the past three decades; in fact about 30 years ago, one began to spot the initial signs. During a visit to the shrine of the great saint Bahauddin Zakaria in Multan, it was disturbing to see a clock on the wall just above the tomb crudely promoting a soft drink. The protest by the departed soul was almost audible. One could not recall similar crudeness being displayed in the crypts of Westminster Abbey in the United Kingdom, a country which has been one of the major global driving forces to shape media and advertising in the 20th century. Nor has one seen in British or American newspapers the bizarre practice adopted by leading Pakistani Urdu newspapers whereby verses of the Holy Quran are published on the front page as box advertisements sponsored by a cooking oil or a toothbrush brand. Then, not to be left behind, kiosks and traffic signs put up by the Islamabad Police were sponsored by a major brand of cigarettes, another sight unmatched elsewhere.
Within the context of the mass media, both print and the electronic media have kept pace with each other in their respective deviations from established norms. Except for the commendable refusal of DAWN to compromise, virtually all the leading Urdu, English, Sindhi (and other) language newspapers have surrendered their front pages to the obtrusive presence of advertising, a trend that has substantially reduced the space available on the front page for hard news, therefore depriving readers of their right to be informed of the front-page importance of certain news and views. On the other pages as well, advertisements often occupy more space than appropriate, and this is further compounded by the imbalanced allocation of space devoted to sports; for example, three pages daily, while news about a large city like Karachi often receives less than two or even one page.
On the TV channels, ad placements are equally aggressive and pervasive. In terms of sports coverage, this presence begins with the logos and messages displayed on the clothing of the players and the billboards on the grounds. In terms of news and current affairs, the intrusion is quite innocuous. First come the news presenters announcing that we will shortly hear the bad-good news and the headlines, but before we can do so, there is a message from the sponsor. When we watch the news and listen to the information polluted by opinions and caricatured comments, commercial messages rush on to the screen, then shrink and disappear only to be replaced by others. Meanwhile, other commercial messages drift across the tickers right up until the inevitable and prolonged mid-breaks. There is also the category of branded songs and shows where the name of the advertiser is made part of the programming content.
Justifications expressed for this encroachment include the plea that this offensive predominance of advertising is only to make it possible for the mass media to render their vital services to the public. However, the poor public is never informed as to when unavoidable need becomes avoidable greed. This writer held forth on this aspect in these very columns of Aurora, yet in the ensuing seven years, the situation has deteriorated further. One only hopes that a similar decline does not occur after the publication of this article!
A second factor that contributes to the malaise is frequency. A fine line has to be drawn between the impact the frequency of repeating the same message within a period of time can achieve with the sheer repetitiveness of the message. And if this fine line is not drawn and visible in the offices where such decisions are made, then these lines should be made mandatory, if necessary by external regulation that will oblige advertisers and the media to respect the difference between reasonable frequency and unreasonable repetition. One finds that in many cases the same single TV spot being repeated within a single slot of a mid-break or chunk of commercials and/or within a single programme on a single day. The same content is telecast again and again within minutes and hours, for days and weeks, without change or variation. This reflects an inability to produce even minor variations on a single theme, yet this is a task that does not call for extraordinary talent or enormous resources. While this failure speaks poorly of the limited innovation and imagination on the part of those concerned – advertiser, agency, production house, writer, director, etc., the tendency also indicates a total lack of respect for audiences, the very people at whom these messages are targeted. Frequency of placement becomes the inanity – or insanity – of heedless repetition, audiences and citizens are being credited with little intelligence and no sensitivity.
Counterproductive, repetitive advertising is the commercial equivalent of the loop of images that TV news channels run. Merely because they do not have an adequate length of filmed material about a given topic, we are subjected to the thoughtless ad nauseum recycling of the same shots and images of the same person and event that we have already seen five times within 30 seconds and which will continue thereafter for another 60 seconds and 120 seconds. In other words, in the space of two minutes, we may see self proclaimed killers and terrorists brandishing their weapons at least 10 times to make some sublime point which we have missed but which has also escaped the attention of those who make decisions in the newsrooms.
This is a practice that advertisers should not match with virtual loops of their own commercials.
The impact of excessive placement and frequency is converting advertising into adversitising, which is (ironically) accompanied by occasional examples of excellence in creative content and technical execution. Yet the smile cannot mask the scars.
The many reasons that have caused this disorder can be identified. The ascendancy of the free market ethos that promotes wanton consumption and self-indulgence. The complicity of media, media houses and agencies combined with the unbridled market share ambitions of advertisers. The absence of effective professional self-regulation and the complete absence of state regulation of the advertising sector. If the slide is to be arrested and reform attempted, responsibility begins with each individual who has the authority to take decisions on the placement and frequency of advertising in and outside the mass media.
Javed Jabbar co-founded and led MNJ Communications from 1969 to 1988 and served as Jury Chairman, PAS Awards 2014. www.javedjabbar.com