It has always been a mystery to me.
When I first came back from studies abroad, I spent most of my time at home with my late grand aunt, Mak Ara. My parents were both working, so for six blissful months of unemployment, I helped Mak Ara wash clothes, hang them out to dry, and also in the kitchen, preparing lunch for when mak and abah would come home.
Once the chores were done, she would shower, and afterwards I would comb her hair in front of the television set.
The afternoon television programmes back then had much fewer ads than these days, but the occasional ones would always solicit responses from Mak Ara, mostly disdainful.
“Agaknya orang yang buat iklan ni ingat kita bodoh, apa,” she would mutter under her breath. (transl. “The people who made these advertisements must think we’re stupid.”)
Even back then I knew there was something seriously wrong with ad people, and how completely out of touch they were with reality. Which was why I nearly fell off my chair when someone suggested I joined the advertising industry.
But joined it I did, and through these years, I have never found any evidence to suggest that perhaps Mak Ara was wrong about ad people, as a whole.
I mean, what do you call people who suggest to Asian women that they look better fair, and that having dark skin is something they should feel bad about? Or people who go out of their way to make women who are short and fleshy feel inferior?
What do you call people who lower the strength of a product for a few months, and then raise it back to its previous state, just so they can say that their product is now stronger than before? (Actually, wait a sec. Those are marketing people, not advertising people. Oh well, same diff.)
We put one product into three different bottles, so we can give them different personalities and price points. That way, we can cash in on people’s insecurities and deceive them.
Even those among us who claim to be God-fearing would, without batting an eyelid, show fat, juicy food items in our posters and television commercials, but serve to our customers much lesser versions of the stuff.
A vehicle, when launched, is described as very spacious, but when these mothers start crawling around our streets and highways, it becomes patently obvious to everyone with eyes that it’s actually quite small.
Why hasn’t anyone cried foul yet?
Why? Because it’s not a matter of life and death, I guess. Far more pressing matters at hand, in the life of the average person these days. And also because folks have long since wised up to the wiles of advertising and marketing.
Now if only the advertising people themselves would wise up to the fact too!
Unless we start recognizing that today’s consumers are far more intelligent and value-conscious than we give them credit for, our days are numbered.
In India, the dairy farmers formed a cooperative called AMUL (Anand Milk Union Limited) on the 14th of December 1946. This began with a handful of farmers who felt they were short-changed by middlemen who bought their milk for pittance, but packaged it and sold it at many times the price for which it was paid.
Today, AMUL is a cooperative where the 2.4 million farmers are themselves the shareholders of the company, and because these farmers are totally in touch with real people, they sell the finest milk and milk-based products at prices even the working class can afford. No lying, no wiles, no over-pricing, no short-changing. Just good value products for regular folks.
AMUL is now the biggest milk producer in the world, well poised to cause the demise of its European and antipodean counterparts.
Perhaps it’s time to wake up and smell the roses.
Ali Mohamed, the Chairman of Leo Burnett Advertising, my professional partner and personal soul mate, once told me about a time he balik kampung for Hari Raya. He’d gone over to his widowed grand aunt Mak Jarah’s house to pay her a visit. Just as he darkened her doorway, he heard her holler from the kitchen to the other members of her family.
“Tu dia, orang kerja menipu dah datang!” (literally translates to “Oh look! Here comes the professional liar!)
Grand aunts. The nemesis of false advertising and deceptive marketing. God bless their souls. (Grand aunts, that is.)