Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Interview: Dr Pirzada Sharf Alam, ACD, Spectrum VMLY&R

Published 06 Jul, 2021 10:47am
What led him to write a book on the decline of Urdu in advertising.

ZEENAT CHAUDHARY: Your book, Urdu Ishtihariyaat Ki Tareekh (Advertising in Urdu Language, a Linguistic, Social, Political, Historical and Analytical Discourse), was published recently. What prompted you to write it?
PIRZADA SHARF ALAM: Urdu Ishtihariyaat Ki Tareekh was the thesis for my PhD in Urdu, which I acquired with an MPhil in 2019. It is a visual compilation of Urdu advertisements, accompanied by my analysis. The ads (including those made for print, TV and radio) date from the 18th century all the way to 2017. I have analysed the Urdu linguistics used in these ads, as well as the fonts and calligraphy. My aim was to critically assess the evolution of Urdu advertising since its inception through socio-economic and cultural prisms.

ZC: Why did you focus on this particular topic?
In Pakistan, advertising has been unfair to the Urdu language which, despite its eloquence, sophistication and ability to ignite public interest and activate a desired brand perception among its target audience, is usually put on the backburner. To make matters worse, the trend of using Roman Urdu has thwarted its effectiveness.

ZC: What were the biggest challenges in compiling your dissertation?
Finding print advertisements that were published 250 years ago in different periodicals. I had to travel from one library to another in various cities across Pakistan. I am grateful to DHA Library (Lahore), Ghalib Library (Karachi) and IBA Sukkur for their support. I used a host of international library databases and online subscription-based libraries run by various academic platforms.

ZC: Was it easy to find a publisher?
I got in touch with several, including Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu and Oxford, before Gufhtugu Publishers (based in Islamabad) agreed to publish the book. It was difficult having it published as most publishers believed it was not profitable.

ZC: How much effort and research did it involve?
It took almost five years to put together. Although I had setbacks, due to the fact that many academics and advertising and communications professionals (who claim to be the go-to authority within their respective domains) were not very cooperative in sharing their knowledge. However, my resolute determination kept me going.

ZC: Are you happy with the result and feedback?
There is always room for improvement. Regarding the feedback, much to my dismay, it is not satisfactory, but this is how it goes in a society such as ours, where reading books is not a popular pastime, let alone a book about the history and evolution of a language. However, I believe the book will be beneficial to students studying communications and media, historians, researchers and advertising and marketing professionals.

ZC: What were the major findings of your research?
My research reveals that posters were the first printed advertisements. This goes against the widely held belief that newspapers were the initial medium for print advertising. I found a poster ad from 1766, which was pasted on the walls of Calcutta. During the 1857 War of Independence and the 1947 freedom struggle, the role of Urdu ads (mainly posters and pamphlets) was instrumental in shaping public opinion. I noted that until the eighties, most ads used proper Urdu, and did not resort to clichés, substandard lingual expressions or street jargon. Sophisticated Urdu words like zood asar, khush zaiqa, lateef ehsaas, husun bakhsh, dil aavez, nafasat pasand, be zarrar, etc., were commonly used in Urdu ads at that time. Even numbers were written in Urdu; now you barely see any ads with numbers written in Urdu.

ZC: When did this change?
As the nineties and noughties progressed, perhaps due to increased media exposure, the deterioration of Urdu began, leading to an increased use of slang, insipid expressions and low-grade jargon in ads. Furthermore, over time, tablets, smartphones and social media have taken away Urdu’s importance and replaced it with Roman Urdu and English, as people find it easier to read and type in Roman Urdu. On the positive side, in recent years, a lot of sophisticated Urdu fonts (which resemble calligraphy) have been introduced that are now being used by major brands.

ZC: Why do you think the use of Urdu has declined in ads?
If we look at the early years of advertising in Pakistan, many well-known poets were employed as copywriters at advertising agencies, such as Shanul Haq Haqqi and Shabeeh Farooqui (the latter wrote famous jingles such as ‘aye khuda meray abu salamat rahein’). Now, if someone displays the same talent, they probably will not even be considered for a copywriter’s job. The reason is that there is a certain classism in our society and people from ‘Urdu medium’ backgrounds are looked down upon. Clients have played a major role to play in not giving Urdu the importance it deserves. If an agency suggests using even a line in Urdu, they reject it and ask for it to be in either Roman Urdu or English. This is because people on the brand side have probably never studied Urdu and do not know any Urdu metaphors or idioms; they do not understand the language.

ZC: Given that only a small percentage of the public speak English rather than Urdu, why are brands hesitant to advertise in Urdu?
Brands believe a certain image must be maintained and that if their communication is in Urdu, their brand’s image will suffer. Some brands do advertise in Urdu, when they deem it necessary to target a specific audience. Colgate-Palmolive for example advertise Bonus in Urdu as it caters to a certain SEC segment, but their toothpaste ads are in Roman Urdu/English. Telecom ads are also mostly in Roman Urdu; Telenor endorsed messages in Urdu from day one when they introduced Easypaisa and djuice; Tapal use Urdu in their communication as do most banks.

ZC: What can be done to regenerate interest in Urdu?
Education. I studied in an Urdu medium school, whereas my children are studying in English medium ones and even had I wanted them to study in Urdu medium public schools, I would have avoided it because the standard of education there is very low. We should run an advertising campaign to encourage different brands to use Urdu. This is a stand that agencies need to take to encourage brands to communicate in Urdu.

ZC: What made you join the advertising industry?
I started my career with Spectrum in 2001 (instead of a CV I sent in an Urdu poem which I wrote) and then moved to Adcom in 2007. After a six-year stint there, where I enjoyed handling Telenor’s commercials, I returned to Spectrum and am still associated with them. The creative impulse within me pushed me into advertising. More than passion, what drives me is the opportunity advertising gives me to create witty sentences, short and crispy jingles, catchy slogans and easy-to-understand but thought-provoking scripts. Advertising is a space for daydreamers, wool gatherers, as well as for those who live in a land of fantasy.

ZC: What have been the major milestones of your career?
I always wanted to become a celebrated wordsmith and I think I have reached that milestone with Karo Mumkin (Telenor), Badle Zindagi Asani Se, (Easypaisa) and Riwayat Se Jurra Khasta Mazza (Bakeri Nankhatai). These are some of my best ad campaigns in terms of copywriting and content creation. However, I feel that my best ideas are yet to be executed. n

Urdu Ishtihariyaat Ki Tareekh is available online here. For feedback: