Published in Nov-Dec 2022
Imagine having a conversation with a friend. It’s a normal conversation. You discuss careers, goals and aspirations. There is a little bit of gossip about your friend’s recent breakup and about two friends who may potentially be dating, and also about how another friend has lost a job. All is going pretty smoothly. Your friend, after a rough day at work and a third cup of chai, feels the stirring of a hunger pang and says, “What do you wanna eat?” And that is when it happens. That is when your mind automatically transcends into another dimension, and you unintentionally blurt “Mujhay aaanday wala burger!” You have no idea why you said it, but man does it make you both laugh. That, friends, is the beauty of pop culture.
Let’s decode pop culture. In textbook terms, it is “modern popular culture transmitted via the mass media and aimed particularly at younger people”. In simpler terms, it is any form of communication that automatically becomes relevant to the audience and resonates with it.
Pop culture is a phenomenon that we are always consuming. It is not only relevant in Pakistan, but across the globe. Think of all the times, when growing up, we asked one another “What’s up, doc?” Or, more recently, singing Gucci Gang in the most awkward settings. That is how pop culture becomes embedded in our lives.
Pop culture can be inspired by anything. Music, films, art, politics, and now memes. Pop culture is not just what we reference in our conversations. It comes in the form of merchandise or the most modern forms of communication – memes. But there is one particular form of pop culture that every country has to develop, nurture and amplify, and that is brands.
Brands across the globe have developed an association with pop culture which has proved to be relevant across the ages. But where does the Pakistani diaspora fit into this, and how do brands become part of pop culture?
Digink is a Pakistani pop culture artist, who developed their niche while producing content (specifically on Instagram), inspired extensively by local brands. The content merges pop culture with brands, and the memes are always worth sharing. According to Digink, “We have a lot of brands that are in that spotlight of pop culture.”
However, in Pakistan, with a population of 220 million people, pop culture becomes subjective, based on usage, experience and brand love. According to Digink, brands like Wall’s Feast, Shezan’s mango juice, Bubble Your Name etc. are part of their list because they form an active part of their lifestyle – although it may not be true for everyone.
Another digital artist, @sadlymrym on Twitter, chimed in that the problem runs deeper than visual imagery. She cited hyperconsumerism as part of the problem. Brands try to shove 30 seconds of functional details to consumers, without making the effort to connect with them on an emotional level. She feels this is why Pakistani audiences take a liking to Indian ads; because of their authenticity and relatability – and the reason why they keep churning in new inductees into pop culture through catchy jingles and taglines that can be used in everyday settings.
Alina Ahad, an expat Pakistani artist, shares her experiences of Pakistani pop culture in brands by mentioning Rooh Afza – because it has become a culturally relevant product for people in and outside Pakistan. In an attempt to reconnect with her Pakistani roots, Alina has been trying to find t-shirts that have Shan Chaat Masala printed on them, along with other references. Her quest to reconnect with Pakistani pop culture through brands brings out the question, do we have the references?
Salman Abedin, Head of Digital Platforms, Greeniche Natural Health, believes brands like Rooh Afza and Saniplast are deeply rooted in our tradition and therefore do not qualify as pop culture references; a better example, he says, are Khaadi, Pakola and Shan. He also points out that Coke Studio is arguably the biggest pop culture phenomenon to come out of Pakistan. This example is key to what pop culture stands for. It is the relevancy that the public can relate to easily.
After these discussions, it became easier to understand which brands have succeeded in that direction. Shan is a good example given the global impact they have created with their “Ye bhi koi Eid hui bhai” – haven’t we all said this at some point or other in our life? We have also heard about how Shan makes life so easy, or “Shan ke saath banaa lou!” Khaadi is another example. Their clothing, merchandise and branding have become so relevant that anyone can recognise them. “Ye Khaadi ka hai,” comes up in most conversations. As for Pakola, we regularly drink it on special occasions – it has become part of every Pakistani’s life. Dennis Does Cricket, an Australian-rooted Twitter celebrity and Pakistani cricket aficionado, jokingly has “Pakola brand ambassador” in his bio.
However, are there enough brands that have truly created a pop culture? Is pop culture derived in Pakistan through brands? The answer is subjective. Recently, we have not seen brands creating pop culture. The nineties and the 2000s saw Tullo, Ding Dong, Dalda, Pepsi and others create the kind of pop culture that became embedded in our references. However, in the past few years, most brands have not done so. Sure, Pepsi probably did with ‘Why Not Meri Jaan’, or Foodpanda with Pau Pau. Nevertheless, pop culture derived from brands has become limited. As for our entertainment industry, it has never really made the rounds at a mass level, so this was bound to happen, and if you are expecting a film or a series like Mirzapur to be integrated into pop culture, it may take some time. Until then, we will keep on drawing pop culture references from India’s entertainment industry.
Instead, two new mediums have taken over our pop culture references. Politics and memes. Imran Khan has become a pop culture icon. From merchandising to references, to regular memeworthy content, he has given it all, be it: “Absolutely not,” or “Inko rulaoonga mein.” And this was always coming. A country that has limited access to storytelling, needs some relief, whether emotional or comical to keep going. Politics have played a strong role in developing a pop culture for us.
We have Jeeto Pakistan and we have our memes. But when it comes to brands infusing pop culture, the light has faded. However, you never know, we could have our brand pop culture references reignited again. Until then, let’s remember the good old days when we had “Cocomo, mujhay bhi dou!”