In 2014, a young boy, out on a camping trip, was climbing a hill when a teacher announced, “cake time!” Ever obedient, the boy went to wash his hands with soap, as instructed by his mother. Little did he know, on the neighbouring tap, the kids were treated to Lifebuoy handwash, which takes 10 seconds to rid your hands of germs. Our hapless boy was stuck with a soap that took a whole minute.
Nice guys finish last. While his lips trembled, on the neighbouring tap kid after kid came and fled, partaking the cake. The last girl taunted him, ‘babloo, tumhara sabun slow hay kya?” (is your soap slow?). Cue laughter.
Ah, the sheer tragedy of the situation. The boy was subjected to humiliation due to a situation which was not in his hands (pun intended).
Fast forward to 2017, and I am treated to a radio spot to the effect that although Hush Puppies cannot promise that Justin Bieber will not release a new album in 2017, they can improve the new year through their not-so-hushed sale. Excuse me? Bieber’s last album was pretty good; it was nominated for various Grammies and sold in millions. Hush Puppies, I guess you can go and love yourselves!
Life-shattering incidents come in threes, said someone. Today we have Sajal Ali, taunting tea drinkers (yours truly included) with the notion that drinking tea in morning is akin to sending letters via pigeons, listening to music on cassettes and watching movies on the VCR.
Oh, did I get that correctly, Nescafé? You are undermining tea – as in, TEA? Our very own tea? In your eyes, tea belongs to the past? A small correction: coffee was discovered before tea was! I will also point out that Sajal Ali, now boldly rejecting tea as an ancient tradition, appeared in an ad for Supreme Tea not too long ago, where she was rejuvenated and refreshed after being served the same by none other than Sania Saeed. Are you saying she is ancient too?
Please. Don’t. Touch. Tea!
The above are just some examples of a worrying trend in our advertisements: meanness. In fact, the ads for candies are rife with examples where an authoritative teacher or a hapless parent is put through untold torture while the kids munching on the confectionary, watch gleefully. Similarly, in many washing powder ads (I am looking at you, Sunlight), a new bride silences her in laws by using the branded powder in place of the one favoured by the ‘enemy’.
There is a problem. While we preach the need for tolerance and open discourse, while we hold seminars on the ‘blue ocean strategy’, our advertising and media culture is worryingly ruthless. Yes, your product is better, but do you necessarily have to insult the users of your competing product to make your point? I get it: this is one of the basic tenets of advertising. However, it can be done in a refined manner: witness Apple’s “Mac vs PC” ads, or the earlier launch campaigns for Ariel, which focused on creating a market for washing powder as an alternative to soap rather than hammering their own brand. I believe they expanded the market for everybody.
It seems nobody wants to be nice any more. There is a worldwide shift in cultural values where being abrasive and brash has replaced reason and understanding. It’s everywhere: witness the one major misstep of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign where she termed Donald Trump’s supporters as “a basket of deplorables”. Naturally, she had to walk it back. Speaking of the elephant in the room, it seems that the ascension of The Donald to the most coveted throne in the world has opened the floodgates of negativity. In a pre-Trump world (get used to seeing this!), I believe the Hush Puppies ad would have been far nicer.
Nothing exists in a vacuum. As I pointed out earlier, in the last few years our national discourse on politics has deteriorated into a race to see who can be the meanest to their opponent. Our opinion leaders (be they politicians or celebrities) all have rabid fan bases who try to out-do each other in offensive exchanges.
There is hope. The recent ad for Knorr soup sells the product as a bonding device between estranged friends. Similarly, Nestlé EveryDay positioned their tea whitener as common ground between Shoaib Mailk and Sania Mirza seen squabbling over a Pakistan-India cricket match. Wasn’t that nice? Then, of course, Nestle had to go ahead and alienate the whole tea drinker demographic by pushing Nescafe. Please settle on what you want to sell!
It is high time for the advertising community to bring back some sanity and consideration into our culture. In a changed world, we need to be more understanding and accommodating towards each other, and there is no better place to start than our television sets!
Talha bin Hamid is an accountant by day and an opinionated observer of pop culture, an avid reader, a gamer and an all-around nerd by night.