ENVIRONMENT: Advertising prosperity —Saleem H Ali
Driving by Lahore’s Liberty Market a few weeks ago, I was pleased to see one such behemoth being disassembled. Coming from Vermont, the only American state to have banned billboards completely, this was most welcome
Markets are the fulcrum of capitalism and finding buyers for goods and services is an essential element of the capitalist mantra. Gaining access to buyers requires information to be disseminated as widely and efficiently as possible and an entire industry has developed around this fundamental market need — advertising.
Getting the word out about new products and services through multiple media has been the most miraculous achievement of the internet age. Corporations such as Google and Yahoo! largely arose out of advertising revenue to become massive global players that could invest in their own communication infrastructure to lure as many “eyeballs” as possible to their sites. College kids like Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, have become billionaires on the foamy tide of devolved and targeted advertising. Sub-disciplines such as consumer psychology and consumer economics have emerged to study and spew out dissertations on marketing and advertising by the thousands all over the planet.
In the developing world, there is another side of advertising that seems to permeate our consciousness. In the last few decades, the mere presence of advertisements has become associated with prosperity. Visitors are somehow impressed by seeing the choicest brands emblazoned across the urban landscape. In many cases, the brands can only be afforded by a minute segment of the population but their mere presence gives onlookers an allure of prosperity.
The most glaring manifestation of this has been the rise of grotesque billboards all over Pakistani cities. With new printing technologies, photographic images can be readily printed on plastic coverings that are draped over the metal plates, towering over parks and buildings alike. Gone are the days when there was still some charm to billboards because local artists gave an exaggerated and delightfully garish interpretation of their subjects. Such art thankfully still survives on the ancient Bedford trucks and buses that still blaze across our land with blaring horns of sixties’ tunes like “Never on a Sunday!”
The advertising billboards of today are largely artless and cheesy eyesores that have questionable efficacy in even serving their purpose. These days, it seems that mobile phone companies are the most likely buyers of advertising space on the billboards.
In one random sample I did in driving around Lahore and Karachi last month, 75% of the billboards had mobile phone company advertisements. Furthermore, with the economic downturn, the most common advertising statement is five letters “TO LET”, with some mobile number scribbled underneath. Even the vacant boards are inadvertently offering free advertisement for the mobile companies!
In a free society, advertising is certainly a fundamental right but along with this right comes the responsibility to provide accurate information. Unfortunately, the advertising industry has become notorious for providing misleading information about products all over the world.
In the United States, pharmaceutical advertisements have come under particular scrutiny since many drug companies have been making clinically inaccurate claims about particular medicines that can lead to grave consequences. By law, all pharmaceutical advertisements for pharmaceuticals have to also air a series of disclaimers and full disclosure about the side effects of the medication. This is particularly a concern with lifestyle medications like Viagra that can lead to some rather rash purchase decisions!
In Pakistan, our conservative societal norms have spared us Viagra advertisements but we still have to contend with some other misleading products. Recently I viewed an advertisement for disposable baby diapers in which an ailing child is brought to a doctor with a cold. The doctor admonishes the parents for using cloth diapers by claiming that wet cloth diapers can cause a “chill”.
Give me a break, doctor sahib! In a country where most of the population resides in high tropical temperature conditions, cloth diapers would evaporate water within a matter of minutes for most of the year, this is hardly the rationale to be given for buying frightfully expensive disposable diapers. Furthermore, what about the dermatological problems of using too many disposable nappies or the environmental cost of their production and disposal?
A responsible advertisement for disposable diapers would instead focus on the practicality and ease of their use rather on some spurious claims of preferential protection against “chills” without any clinical study to back up such a claim.
In this day and age, journalism in all its various forms is heavily dependent on advertising revenues. Even the BBC is now broadcasting advertisements in all its international services and even on its website (except for UK users). This also raises serious questions about the influence of advertising more widely on the dissemination of information to the public. Even if there are no state censors, the corporate world can exercise its own leverage by withholding advertising from particular outlets because of a particular editorial stance. There needs to be a clear code of ethics enforced by advertisers and journalists alike about this issue.
As for the billboards, they finally seem to be on the decline. Driving by Lahore’s Liberty Market a few weeks ago, I was pleased to see one such behemoth being disassembled. Coming from Vermont, the only American state to have banned billboards completely, this was most welcome. The steel can be put to much better by building much-needed infrastructure around the city.
As we eyeball the next smiling face on an advertisement, let us not delude ourselves into considering prosperity to be marked by marketing.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and Asian studies at the University of Vermont. His latest book is Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassahs (Oxford University Press, 2009). www.saleemali.net