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Inside the mind of a feminist advertising geek

By Sarah Fahim

Is Pakistani advertising any different than the rest of the world?

Sparkling white clothes equated with social dignity.

Boxed spices as a means to appease a hungry household.

A dance number selling a tea whitener.

Our cultural fundamentals in advertisements have remained largely unchanged, but conventional gender representations have shifted course over the years. Advertising in Pakistan is peculiar in nature; while in most cultures it is proven by research to reflect culture, in Pakistan, advertising has the power to reframe it.

All examples of basic ad premises above presumably strike an image of a woman on the forefront. Think twenty years back into our lives, and you’d picture a woman dressed in an ethnic salwar qameez suit behind a kitchen counter smiling warmly at her family. Nearly two decades into the twenty-first century, women in our ads have evolved faster than women who are part of our reality. Ad-women have more liberty towards their bodies and apparel and seem comfortable in their skin and skin color, no matter how fair or brown. Women in our ads put a stronger foot forward into society, defying stereotypes and normative standards of femininity.

In Pakistan, ads have a profound effect on cultural values over time. An unusual effect compared to most other cultures, the curiosities embedded in here are hard to miss. An advertising researcher shared the sentiment and decided to conduct a formal study.

Sarah Fahim is an advertising researcher who graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, USA and from Iqra University, Pakistan before that. Her research study, published on the scholarly database Texas ScholarWorks deeply investigates the effect of ads on society. Her research is independent and designed from a practical standpoint, gathering advertising professionals’ viewpoints and comparing them to layman consumers’ responses. Three main research findings have surfaced from the full-length study:

  1. Conventions are leaking out of culture. While people think the basic tenets of Pakistani culture are unchanged, women have had a major role to play in breaking social conventionalism. Over the past few years, they have been challenging traditional beliefs and stagnant standards concerning their gender. More and more women are entering the workforce and the masses have begun to normalize it, taking away the stigma attached to women leaving the four walls.
  • Ads have a profound effect on social standards. Consumers echo advertising practitioners’ point of view — when a novel idea connected to social and cultural values is introduced via an ad, it has higher memorability and recall. For instance, a premium clothing brand’s ad featuring dark-skinned fashion models replacing the idealized and unrealistic ‘fair & lovely’ imagery of Pakistani women was a recurring mention, thereby confirming that ads in Pakistan can very possibly reframe cultural beliefs.
  • Religious policing bottlenecks gender balance. Advertising practitioners have extensively referred to religious policing as a hurdle for representing women in socially progressive roles. Hyper sexualized representations of women were largely attributed as hypocrisy which aligns with most religious conflicts in mass media. However, practitioners voice that marketing communications for certain products, body washes and beauty soaps for instance, are influenced heavily by religious regulations.

Read Sarah’s full length research study can here: https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/handle/2152/67965

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