The power of advertising, its ability to shape thoughts and deeds, is not at issue. The global advertising industry is worth trillions of dollars annually and advertising penetrates every corner of our lives. It was a story about advertising that flicked my triggers this week, as well as some cringeworthy excursions into the excruciating world of television advertising in Pakistan.
There was a time when there were no advertisements on television in the UK and the only TV channel was the BBC. There was no advertising on the radio either and yes there was only the BBC. That all changed at 9.01pm on 22nd September 1955 when the first advertisement — for toothpaste — appeared on British TV. My mother thought it was the harbinger of an imminent Apocalypse. She may have been right.
Now we do not question the ubiquity of advertising but there are increasingly questions being asked — but not in Pakistan — about the role advertising has in gender stereotyping and those cranky Brits have decided to do something about it. Adverts that encourage gender stereotypes such as women cleaning up after their messy families, or men failing to do the housework are going to be banned under new watchdog rules. These will come into force over the coming year and will change the face of advertising in the UK — at least on TV. The Advertising Standards Authority has determined that there are ‘potentially harmful’ portrayals of gender stereotypes and that some adverts “can restrict the choices, aspirations and opportunities of children, young people, and adults” — which pretty much covers every one of us. Ad campaigns that suggest that a specific activity is inappropriate for boys because it is stereotypically associated with girls are for the chop.
Cut to a TV screen near you, Dear Reader. As most of my viewing is limited to hardcore news channels my exposure to TV advertising is limited, so in order to educate myself and with the story of the Brits putting the brakes on at the front of my mind, it was off to surf the sunny uplands of the cable channels.
Names and product identification are off limits but what washed my screen was an endless and remorseless parade of the crudest possible gender stereotyping. Nowhere did I see women portrayed in anything other than a secondary or even subservient role. Marital units were portrayed by actors who were whiter than me, quite a lot whiter in most cases, who lived in an appliance-rich environment often with a mother-in-law hovering somewhere played with varying degrees of ogre-ism, never more than two children (which I suppose is at least subliminally no bad thing) and a male who goes into paroxysms of delight as he fondles a bar of washing-up soap and adored by a female clearly close to being paroxysmic herself as she brushes the kitchen sink lovingly. Talk about a Freudian slip.
All about as subtle as a flying mallet and printed across millions of eyeballs hour upon hour 24/7. There is nothing illegal or even remotely offensive about this. There will have been no complaints of obscenity being aired in prime time to any of the regulatory bodies. I have yet to see any procession being taken out to protest at the way biscuits are advertised. Or the fact that ‘doctors’ — actors in reality — promote products of at best questionable medical value but I digress…
Back to the 1950s and Vance Packard who in 1957 authored a seminal — though academically threadbare — book called The Hidden Persuaders. It was followed ten years later by The Medium is the Massage a key work by Marshall McLuhan with the core argument that audiences find the media to be soothing, enjoyable and relaxing — but this is deceptive and fallacious because the changes at the interface between society and technology are incongruent and presage what he called, over 50 years ago, an Age of Anxiety.
That small brave band fighting to reduce gender stereotyping in Pakistan are up against the most powerful fighting machine the world has ever seen. The advertising industry. It already owns the inside of your head and has done for many years. Sweet dreams and tootle-pip!
Published in The Express Tribune, September 21st, 2017.
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