Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Nov-Dec 2017

70 steps forward and several back

A look back at Pakistan's advertising journey.

Many moons ago, changes of government or social policy, announcements of fêtes and the hawking of wares were announced with great fanfare by the town crier. He would walk about beating his drum or blowing a bugle, bellowing out information with a bit of creative copy. The more enterprising would make a song, or perhaps a dance, to attract attention and get the message across – reiterated on pinned posters.

The town crier has been replaced by the television and the posters by the billboards, with the addition of a few other mediums. There is the bellowing of the message with the occasional song and dance. Subtle? Sometimes. Informative? Usually. Enjoyable and meaningful? Not often.

But if you think nothing has changed over the last seven decades in Pakistan, think again. The archives reveal a Pakistan that clearly does not exist anymore. In fact, it is hard to believe that it existed at all. Starting from the 60s and 70s.

Pakistan Railways politely guided people to its information bureau at the Hotel Metropole where they promised to plan your holidays with the utmost efficiency. The railways were used frequently for internal tourism. Sadly, I have never experienced Pakistan Railways, but it is safe to assume that our parents had comfortable and enjoyable journeys – though they were urged not to ‘rob the nation’ and buy a ticket.

On the more elusive side of travel, smart PIA air stewardesses told us the airline connected us to the rest of the world with a formidable flight schedule. Ironic, that the same is now discontinuing flights to New York. PIA was also one of the first to start in-flight entertainment. The best in-flight entertainment is now with Emirates, an airline that PIA helped to start.

Tudor cigarettes highlighted their superior filter and flavour with an ad targeted toward women – three specific women. One in a dress, one in a sari and the third in a sleeveless kameez, all enjoying their smoke. The objective of increasing market share across demographics was clearly addressed. Red & White cigarettes assured young men and women that ‘their’ smoke was the most satisfying. A far cry from the Pakistan which recently had an apoplectic fit at a popular film star taking a smoke break on the streets of New York. Good girls don’t smoke anymore it seems. Because it threatens our national fibre more than our health.


Saris were clearly the fashion statement of the day. Clothing manufacturers boasted having the desired ‘seven yards’. This was before outfits acquired religions and were dis-appropriated from our national fabric. Before culture had the ominous (and undefined) ‘our’ attached to it.


A very young Babra Sharif advertised Jet washing powder before she became a celebrity and endorsed Lux. A euphoric housewife in a sari with her pallu tucked in the waist celebrated the return of Dalda vanaspati to a manufacturing unit in Pakistan. Incidentally, Dalda, originally owned by the Dada family had the L added in the name after being acquired by Lever Brothers (later Unilever).

Saris were clearly the fashion statement of the day. Clothing manufacturers boasted having the desired ‘seven yards’. This was before outfits acquired religions and were dis-appropriated from our national fabric. Before culture had the ominous (and undefined) ‘our’ attached to it.

Hotel Excelsior invited us to a starlit roof garden where there would be dinner, dance and a cabaret to while away your weekend nights with friends or a date. And the sophisticated and the sensible were pointed in the direction of Johnnie Walker whiskey because it was the ‘samajhdar logon ki whiskey’. Today, it is the whiskey of those with a reliable bootlegger and a fat wallet.

A West Pakistan family planning advertisement announced that great strides had been taken over the decade. Judging by the ever-increasing millions, it is safe to assume that no great strides have ever been taken, but as is the case with all government-related advertising to date, who is fact-checking?

By the time we hit the 80s, a new medium opened up a whole new world and a new industry – television.

The ‘flower power’ packaging of Polka was blithe and carefree and not trying as hard as we do now. For a child of the 80s, growing up in the music-rich environment, the catchy and infectious jingles were sung along to. Whether it was the pretty teacher asking ‘Pyaray Bachon Kiwi Kya Hai, Kiwi Aik Parinda Hai’’, the little girl imploring her father to bring home a bottle of Naurus for her and her brother, the other girl singing about Billi Marka Metro Milan agarbatti, or yet another girl in State Life’s ad singing ‘Ae Khuda Meray Abbu Salamat Rahain’.

Experimentations in execution started with hand-drawn animations for brands as diverse as Polka and Dentonic – the latter had one of the most distinct sad/sweet loopy characters created. We missed the insidious restrictions creeping in until it was too late.

Western influences were embraced as Pakistan came under the spotlight as the beacon of hope, a valiant ally of the US against the tyrannical Soviet expansion. It was also the rise of Pepsi. A young Imran Khan in his cricket whites and an easy, sexy smile urged us to cool down the summer heat with an ice-cold Pepsi. ‘Yeah! Come on, come on, come, let’s have a Pepsi day!’ That Pepsi became our very own piece of Americana – the elixir of escape into a world of opportunity. Brite gave us a mom in a skirt and her son roller-skating past a white picket fence, not a shaadi-baiting khuraant aunty. And the most popular model wasn’t Sadaf, but the imported Sadie.

Tea advertising was classy, led by Brooke Bond Supreme – a fusion number between folk singer Allan Faqir and popstar Muhammed Ali Shehki, for their dust brand, or the young female professionals in the office enjoying a quick cup with tea bags, or the sumptuous storytelling trilogy of a couple’s courtship, this was the tea brand that was modern, progressive and experimental with nary a kitchen in sight.


But this world, for the better part of this decade, is starting to look unfamiliar and alien. The majority of ads focused on children featured the boy child – because the male child is desired and the female child is not. Male voiceovers are preferred because they are more authoritative. And women don’t share a cup of tea in the workplace; they slog it out in the kitchen (barring one noteworthy example).


The highlight of 90s advertising was (and to me still is) the cinematic Morven Gold commercial, telling us we could flaunt our colours as boldly as we wanted to. As the noose tightened around tobacco advertising, Gold Leaf hired Shoaib Mansoor for a celebrity studded travelogue that took us around a visa-friendly Europe.

Ironically, it was an all-American company that truly brought in Pakistan into all of its advertising – Procter & Gamble. From the ‘Baat Pakki’ in the Head & Shoulders’ launch copy to the ordinary woman telling us about her laundry woes and ultimate triumph with Ariel, advertising became sociological and insight-driven. And it was the Ariel Maa programme that started the trend of branded entertainment. Consumers were exposed to advertising that forced them to take a decision based on rational deliberation as well as emotional gratification. Safeguard talked germs and taught children hygiene in schools with the country’s first superhero – Commander Safeguard. Competitors and categories followed in its lead. P&G taught advertisers to think strategically as well as explore new dimensions of executions across mediums – broadening the horizons of our little world.

But this world, for the better part of this decade, is starting to look unfamiliar and alien. The majority of ads focused on children featured the boy child – because the male child is desired and the female child is not. Male voiceovers are preferred because they are more authoritative. And women don’t share a cup of tea in the workplace; they slog it out in the kitchen (barring one noteworthy example). The consumer is increasingly seen as two-dimensional, with self-flagellation and cynicism as the approach to every brief, instead of excitement and anticipation.

Perhaps we have all become plain lazy – agencies as well as clients. We create what we ‘like’ and are ‘comfortable’ with not what will challenge the status quo.

What is worse is that as advertisers, we shift the onus of responsibility solely to the client without looking at ourselves first. The new entrants are (largely) vacuous with no interest in literature, little exposure to art and no education about the advertising field. They sift through the vast wealth of Google on a daily basis and expect an epiphany, hankering after that elusive award.

That bright new era of Pakistani advertising that we so hope to see? It’s not happening anytime soon.


Rashna Abdi is Chief Creative Officer, IAL Saatchi & Saatchi and can be reached on Twitter @rsabdi