It has been a busy few weeks for media bans, starting with the calling out of a biscuit ad for having featured inappropriate dancing and PEMRA issuing an advisory regarding whether it should be banned (it was not). And just as that sank in, Zee5’s Pakistani web series Churails was blocked (then subsequently unblocked). And finally TikTok was banned. The common thread? Each one, in their own way, tried to capitalise on the myth that sex sells.
Among the three, the biscuit ad has the distinction of being the tamest bit of the last two weeks' banned content. Yet, if you are scratching your head, wondering what all the fuss was about, chances are that the objectification of women has been normalised for you. In the past countless products have featured men and women dancing. The problem is that when advertisers run with the first lazy idea that comes to mind, commercial breaks tend to become a blur of models singing and dancing their way into oblivion and taking the product along with them. Yeah, that is the fastest way for your advertising rupee to go down the drain and audiences to totally miss your product. Isn’t it time for advertisers to learn the lesson?
The first lesson is that the world has changed. Selling products using women’s bodies is very last decade. The Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo campaign signalled a tectonic shift in the feminist movement that was heard around the world, Pakistan included. Post that, locally, controversial but heavily publicised events such as the Aurat March also indicate that advertisers need to wake up to the fact that feminism, from both a liberal and religious angle, is now a very real conversation in the public space. There is a reason why perceptive advertisers make waves when they feature people such as mountaineer Samina Baig in their ad. There is a reason why Lahore’s CCPO was shamed for saying that the motorway gang rape victim should have sought permission from the husband before leaving home. The narrative is not just the male POV anymore. So pay heed to what is happening around you.
Do images such as those of women thrusting about cause rapes to happen? Who can say? At best the research on this is unreliable. However, let us for a moment assume that the media has that kind of influence over certain individuals ‘making’ them to go rape someone. It is argued that there is a lot more titillating content out there (a mere click away) than what was featured in the ad in question. Yet when women are reduced to titillating body parts in ads that are reminiscent of Bollywood item numbers – when the camera focuses more on a suggestive woman, rather than on the wholesome ingredients of the product – it definitely has a subliminal impact on how society views women. And if you missed the product and only saw the girl, you are right to ask: "Exactly what is being sold here?".
The current controversy also shattered that other advertising myth; the one that holds that all publicity is good publicity. Not in 2020. Not when the media regulatory body advises an ad should be pulled. Not in a world where everyone and their khala is an unrestrained social media warrior. Do advertisers really think they are dealing with brainwashed puppets willing to part with their hard earned cash just because a woman danced suggestively on TV? Didn’t think so.
So does sex sell? Not like it used to.