Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Zabardasti Ki Baat

Rather than mirror society, advertising should strive to change it, argues Atiya Zaidi.
Published 10 May, 2024 11:35am

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I), pay gap, representation, inclusion, authenticity, stereotyping, breaking bias, disability, ethnicity…the list goes on. There seems to be no limit to the number of speeches made and articles written on these topics. Yet, any action taken is extremely limited. So, is it a case of all talk and not enough action? According to the UN, it will take 286 years for the world to achieve gender equality. According to the World Economic Forum, it will take another 132 years to close the global gender gap. Bleak facts indeed, and the situation in Pakistan is even more dire when the organisations and the brands that are trying to bring these topics to life are accused of tokenism or pushing a Western agenda.

What prompted me to write this article was a discussion about the Cadbury Dairy Milk ad that featured women cricketers. The point that was being made was that the ad was just zabardasti ki baat (forced). I have nothing to do with the campaign – in fact, it was made by a rival agency – but it definitely has its merits.

Yes, the campaign was labelled as zabardasti ki baat. But then thousands of years of patriarchy require a lot of zabardasti to even make a dent in the equation. Patriarchy, ableism, white supremacy, religious supremacy and gender supremacy are based on archaic practices where merit and equality do not matter – and who you are matters more than what you can be. And this twisted worldview will not get straightened out by itself. It will need to be forced into shape, even if doing so will most likely garner a lot of hate from the people who want to maintain the status quo.

The first stone is thrown when an ad or an initiative is labelled: zabardasti ki baat. The second stone comes with the: “this is part of a Western agenda designed to destroy our cultural values” theme. The third stone is: “It is the brands themselves who benefit from social causes; advertising should stick to selling products” – or put more colloquially: “Sasti shurat ke liye kuch bhi” (cheap tactics to get fame). The last stone is: “This is done only to win awards.” These are the sort of attacks made by people who are critical of any advertising that has a point of view about stereotypes.

I am not concerned with changing the minds of critics. I have one job, and that is to change the mind of society; be it in terms of selling a brand or a point of view.

What does this have to do with advertising you may ask? It has everything to do with advertising. Rather than mirroring society, advertising has the ability to shape it. The best of creativity can change behaviour and influence society. Some people believe that advertising has reinforced negative stereotypes; for example, for a long time, the standard practice in advertising was that all women should be thin, pretty and have long hair. And what was the result of these casting choices?

In an effort to answer the question, Dove explained: “During our global research, we found that 72% of girls feel tremendous pressure to be beautiful. The disadvantages of poor body image are well documented – low self-esteem and confidence, mental health issues, eating disorders, and more… the list is worryingly long.” So when a brand shows a plus-sized model in a zabardasti way, it may positively impact girls going on insane diets to become thin.

The problem is literally more than skin deep. A study by Kantar in 2019 stated that three-quarters of consumers believe that the way they are portrayed in advertising is completely out of touch. Women are often over-represented in categories like laundry and household products, and under-represented in automotive and finance advertising. But only in Pakistan does no one bat an eyelash when a cricketer mansplains to hundreds of women why a particular detergent is better, yet raise a hue and cry when a man is shown doing the laundry.

At BBDO, we have developed a lot of campaigns on women’s rights, climate change, child marriage and other social issues, and we will continue to push the agenda for good work that also makes good business sense for our clients. With every campaign we have done that has seen a brand take a stance against stereotypes, we have seen the brand equity scores go up and a positive impact on sales. Our Shan Recipe Mixes’ ‘Doctor Bahu’ campaign received a great deal of feedback – negative and positive. The critics launched the same formulaic responses (see above), but a young woman told us that after watching the ad, her husband started to give her the time and space to study so that she could resume her medical career. Another woman commented that the ad was the story of her mother-in-law who supported her throughout her medical residency. Over 500 female doctors returned to the field due to the partnership between Shan Foods and Sehat Kahani; that is 500 more doctors in a country that has only one doctor per 1,000 people. This happened because the brand dared to stand up for its values. Yes, we won an award for this initiative, but that was last in the list of objectives.

Go ahead and criticise. You have a voice, use it. But ask yourself: in a world plagued by the injustices of war, atrocities, and inequalities, is my voice adding to the chants for change and a better future, or is it just adding to the general noise of let things be because ye zabardasti ki baat hai?

Atiya Zaidi is CEO and CCO, BBDO Pakistan and co-Founder, Shero Space. The views in this article are her own and do not reflect the views of any organisation.