Chequered across Karachi’s urban-scape, a never-ending series of towering billboards seem to add color, life and dismal obtrusion into the city’s periphery. Shahi Mewa to Diapy, Rooh-e-Afza to Servis, and Ufone to Green Star the list of products, services and key announcements (not to mention their ever-bulking variants) keep inflating astronomically. Being an advertising executive, and aspiring to join the comity of brand-sellers in Karachi, I am going to try to keep this as real as possible.
A quick glance at Karachi’s main boulevards and it is fairly apparent that the billboards are either an eye-sore to the “where-is-my-spacey-city” eyes or an engaging addition to the ‘so-what-else-can-I-possibly-stare-at” eyes. These billboards offer people the chance to depreciate the ingenuinity of the ad-makers (sometimes well-deservedly) and find flaws (both intentional and unintentional). However, for some, it is a chance to appreciate the occasional good looks on offer, the striking color combos, smooth one-liners, light-hearted humor, and of course the knowledge emanating from the ads themselves.
Head out to the intersection that joins Delhi Colony to Punjab Colony and you’ll find billboards selling soap bars, Energic Candy (the moving cow), Adamjee Insurance (the tiger), and the Blind Cricket Tourney that is just around the corner. For many, billboards are a hassle (a defacing nuisance) and their sentiments are justifiable. It lampoons the city with wooden boards, gigantic steel frames, floppy fabric skins, unsightly wirings, and distasteful lighting. Even the wordings (“we set the pace, you win the race” – Standard Chartered, Boat Basin)….like wow, let’s give Jim a super sticker for his ‘show and tell’ poem! Then the images (like the male model with the twisted lips and fake jaw line in Cornetto Bits)… and of course the color schemes (Tibet Snow Cream…green, blue, white, hint of red, golden, black and a dollop of just about everything else that misfits well together). And if that was not enough, there are always the grammatical and connotative delusions of some copywriters, like how about the ‘Now make your house a home’ mortgage ad from Askari near the Abdullah Haroon Road. Talk about chicken-head translation of Urdu into English! I mean c’mon, so people who live in a house aren’t technically in a home, thanks to this ultra-chic metaphor. And so ordinary people renting out apartments, who are not property-owners, are therefore not living in homes? Ok, I think I got my point across. As finicky as it seems, I think there was a much better way, out there in the cosmos, to market Askari home financing than forcing an Urdu adage into some ugly semblance of an English sentence with an even uglier connotation!
Anyways, back to the Karachi billboard boom. As the above renderings would testify, the plethora of issues dogging the mushroom growth of billboards in our city are complex, irritating and even illegal in many cases. From blocking off sunlight rays and outdoor views from apartments and office windows, to creating serious safety issues like lack of firm grounding, poor wind-resistance, exposed electrical wirings and so forth, the problems are complex. The scope for damaging or tainting the city environment, the scenic sights and the local regulations are abundant to say the least and we must acknowledge them. However, as with everything, there is a flipside to the whole billboard issue as well. And flip it is indeed.
Billboards, yes the menace we were just crying over has helped bring down product prices in Karachi, it has given us more freedom of choice, allowed us to strive for better product quality standards, and much more. For example, billboards attached to traffic lights, though small, have provided for better technologies (LED lights). Other things like electronic time display by Siemens at the Civic Centre roundabout (till a year ago before getting ambushed by zealots), major roundabout monuments (Emirates A-380 Airbus at Park Towers roundabout) and many other such additions to the city help give it a much-needed uplift. Firms indirectly pour in millions of Rupees every year into Karachi’s infrastructure. It may not be apparent but it does help in adding that extra bit to make the city more appealing or at least oddly-amusing to the more stringent of judges. Furthermore, billboards are a live testament to the often-forgotten fact that we as a city have realities to cope with and be on terms with. The Gulab soap bar billboard (Sohrab Board) for the poor masses and the Toyota Altis billboard for the more affluent classes (Gulshan roundabout) are perfect examples of realizing this widening gap between the rich man’s life and the poor man’s world. My point being, these billboards inform us about the choices present, the deals available, the arguments for or against the products and services, the social contributors in our community, and the silent reminder that we have just about everything and anything that is available in the cities East and West of Karachi (as long as our dough can match the locally adjusted price-tags, we are bonafide!).
Additionally, advertising allows the Karachi populace to accept or reject a particular style of branding or concept of marketing. In fact, for the people who wonder why the billboards adorning our streets are almost always transcribed in English, the reason is simple. For some reason, us Karachiites can make out what the product is, even if it is being marketed in English, and are more than happy to buy it, knowing that it has got the English words to lend that much needed ‘air of credibility’. Yes, as bizarre and over-the-top as it sounds, it’s true. The locally conducted studies by advertising groups in Pakistan consistently show that English lingo adds value and prestige in varying degrees to a product class and to a particular brand.
All in all, advertising has greatly influenced the way we act and feel and it has fueled the desire to demand more options in order to make better informed decisions that provide quality products at the best possible prices. Advertising standards, within certain spheres, are also continuing to get better as youngsters embellish their souls with new strategies (i.e. the Tetley Tea billboard parody on Lipton saying ‘Don’t jump, there is hope’ near the Clifton Bridge). Such, tit-for-tat, mini brand-wars are sure signs of a maturing market with all the right competitive juices to self-sustain itself in the future. If the current goings are anything to go by, advertising does look more promising than you might be willing to give it credit for.
So Karachi, the city with vast expanses of lush green sprawling parks, glittering lights, sharp accents, blistering pace, sweltering heat, pleasant evenings, savory delights, culinary treasures, and much more, has progressively or regressively (depending on your take) become swarmed by an influx of corporate giants bent upon selling their goodies through whatever medium they can lay their hands on (buses, bus-stands, railway stations, tea-shops, pan kiosks, billboards and etc.). For some these billboards are the biggest nuisance to have hit Karachi since God knows when, and for others they are a sign of modern-day marketing trends ushering in an era of socialist capitalism at last.
Evil or good, either way, these billboards signal a visible change in Karachi’s urban landscape. To rid the city of this stream of billboards would be an onerous undertaking and perhaps impossible too. If laws can be implemented to some degree then billboard hoardings and their emergence can be kept in relative check and monitored systematically. There is no reason why Karachi’s fast-emerging reputation, as one of the world’s leading billboard placement centres, can not be leveraged to its advantage and harnessed for some serious socioeconomic currency. As mentioned earlier, for some these billboards are an evil and for others a necessity. I like to think of it as a necessary evil and take it for what it is, not a speck more or shred less. So let’s live with it and enjoy what we can and reject what we must. Yes people, billboards are here to say. Welcome to Karachi.