Where Are Our Advertisers Leading Us?

Advertising is a strong medium, which has a profound impact on people’s attitudes, behaviour and their values. It is indeed the responsibility of the media to contribute to the positive development of people and to foster the wellbeing of society. In this regard, it is important to note that advertising can and does raise ethical and moral problems.

Advertisers should ensure ethically responsible practices and observe high ethical standards in regard to truthfulness, human dignity and social responsibility. Youth appear to be particularly vulnerable to the effects of advertising. Children and adolescents at this development stage are
persuaded more by the emotive content of the commercials. Thus, some commercials may even encourage irrational or unacceptable behaviour and beliefs held by youth.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a radical or neo-conservative. In-fact in my lifetime I have been called by many names – progressive, leftist, socialist, feminist, even non-conformist, but never an extremist or a fundamentalist. However being a Pakistani, I feel that certain things are happening that leave a bitter taste in the mouth. And one of these is the way that standards of decency and of ethics are being systematically violated by our advertisers. The biggest culprits in this regard, I feel, are the mobile service providers, who in this mad race for one-upmanship are trampling over the few surviving remnants of our traditions and family values.

Take a simple thing like respect for elders. This is something that is instilled inside us from early childhood and as we grow up it becomes a part of our nature. But what is happening now? For example: A new service is being provided that enables us to block calls from unwanted numbers. This is something that was rarely needed. Ask the women who are harassed day and night with calls from unwanted romeos. But how do we relate to it? Our commercial shows a worried looking wife wondering why her mother has not been calling for so many days while her sheepish looking husband chokes on a cup of tea!

Or, in another commercial, a girl is out, shopping with a group of friends when she receives a call from her aunty. “Make an excuse”, her friends tell her. So, she holds the phone away from her ear and nonchalantly says, “I can’t hear you”.

What about the right to privacy and the sanctity of our home? But what have we got? A set of servants and neighbours crowding at a window and peeping in to see why a husband and wife are not, repeat not, quarrelling! Commercials like these are obviously meant to make us laugh. “What’s the harm?” say the detractors. “These are not to be taken seriously”. True, but is it also correct to say that things like this are not having an effect on the viewers an on the society?

The effects of media on society is a matter that has been under the microscope for a long time. Myriad studies, large and small have been conducted on this issue, and as it happens with most social sciences research, the results are contentious.

However most experts agree that the media does not directly affect the audience’s perceptions as was formerly believed and as stated by the bullet theory and the SR (Stimulus-Response) theory. But the messages conveyed through the media, especially in the form of advertising, have a subliminal effect.

The messages and the images, especially if they continue to be reinforced, work like slow poison as they punctuate into the subconscious, and change the receivers perceptions without them even being conscious of it.

Another factor that plays a major role in the receptivity of advertising messages or any other communication, for that matter, is that of age. People who are set in their ways and values generally have a hard time adjusting to new thoughts or ideas, or any kind of change. But there is a particular stage in everyone’s life, when the mind is in conflict and wants to break away from everything old and adopt everything new- no matter how outrageous or irrational it might appear. And that is the time of adolescence, generally the period between 13 and 20 years. Is it any coincidence then that most car and mobile snatchers, first time smokers and drug users are in this age group.

Most advertising the world over is targeted towards this age group and they are the biggest consumers of mobile phones, computer games, fast food, soft drinks, fashion accessories and beauty products.

In Pakistan too, this group is effectively being targeted and the buzz word for the advertisers in keeping with the global trends, is westernization. I have no issue with western dresses, music, eating habits or pastimes; they are in fact a part of the global culture. But the problem arises when youth is encouraged to adopt bad manners, lack of reverence, selfishness, disrespect towards the elders, which is at variance with our traditional values and culture.

There are several codes of ethics to which our advertisers are supposed to adhere to. These include the codes of the APNS, the PBC, the PTV, and that of their own body, the PAA. But all these codes show a remarkable similarity in that they are purposefully vague and non specific in matters concerning social and moral values and of decency.

For example, one of the codes says, “Members shall neither prepare nor place any advertisement in any medium which is indecent, vulgar, suggestive, repulsive, offensive, either in theme or treatment”.

Another says, “Exploitation of females in a sensuous manner for propagation of any product is not allowed”. Now the question that arises is, what are the criteria to determine whether an advertisement is indecent or vulgar or offensive? Or whether a female is being depicted in a ‘sensuous manner’? Doesn’t the mobile service commercial which features the girl with the husky voice and suggestive looks, looking for a “new connection”, embrace all these categories?

Talking of females depicted in a sensuous manner, even makers of such prosaic objects like home appliances can’t seem to do without that: images of girls in provocative clothes gyrating round and looking flirtatiously at fridges and microwaves while proclaiming their ‘undying love’.

I think the time has come for all advertising personnel and their clients to wake up and rethink their strategies. We need people of vision who do not just blindly imitate the west but give fresh ideas, keeping in mind our culture and values. For if these are lost, the biggest losers will be our own new generation, for whom even today – “rudeness is cool and manners are out”.

    Author Information

    Professor Shahida Kazi has been involved in the media field for the last forty years. She is currently professor and chairperson of the Mass Communication Department of Karachi University. Shahida is the author of two books ‘Pakistan Studies in Focus’ and ‘Television Journalism’, and has written a number of articles. She holds an M.A. in Journalism from Karachi University.

    One Response to “Where Are Our Advertisers Leading Us?”

    1. Tamour Khan #

      I am a student of MBA and I happened to go though your splendid article on an issue which apparently seems to be of little importance to us but subliminally altering the traditions and our cultural norms. Language of the article is awesome, full of convincing and logical arguments and prominently depicts your insight on the topic.

      May 21, 2009 at 10:54 am Reply

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