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April 23, 2004

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Not a Cardboard Cutout!

Aly Zaker

A front page report in the Daily Bangkok Post triggered in me an urge to write this piece today. There was a picture of a poor peasant with the front page lead item in the daily. The name of the man was Banlue Yaemjad. The caption read, "Surin farmer sits with his cow and calf at dehydrated waterhole yesterday in Prasat district". The story was on the danger of water reservoirs drying up. This man looked emaciated, older than his age and wore a dazed hopeless expression on his face. Seeing Banlue on the front page of the Bangkok Post, as I sat within the confines of my comfortably appointed hotel room, the face of Sobhan, the poor peasant of my village back home came to mind. In Bangladesh, you don't even have to look around. You can see a million Banlues all around all the time. What made Banlue different is that in spite of thousands like him in Thailand I made it to Pattaya from the Bangkok airport, a distance of nearly two hundred kilometres, in less than two hours and I literally flew over the city of Bangkok, almost half the way through to Pattaya, where the Seventh Asia Pacific Advertising Festival was happening. If you ever have a chance to travel on this express way, you will know what flyovers really mean. But then, they still have Banlues, just as we have Sobhans.

Permit me to start on what prompted me to write this piece. Because a little more on the plight of the Banlues would make me tread on dangerous grounds. And that should best be avoided. The Asia Pacific, as I have noticed from my experience, is more South East Asia and Far East than South Asia. Most creative people in the congregation here were either from east of Myanmar or from the west of Suez. I have no problem with that. What, however, perplexes me is that almost all campaigns in their buff and glitter were as blasé as any I have seen in the west. We have, within the region of Asia Pacific, countries as India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the entire South East Asia and the Far East. Between Pakistan in the west and countries like Vietnam, Laos or China in the East, the vast majority of the population, I dare say, would not be able to consume communication in the language that it is made in and displayed in such festivals. Here, language goes to signify the content, manner and the intent. The advertisements we saw in the Ad Fest were superbly conceived and wonderfully executed and needed a minimum level of enlightenment at the receiving end to be understood, let alone consumed. It seemed to me that ordinary people did not live in these countries, that there were no villages here and that the literacy rate was a hundred percent. I felt very sad for the Banlues and the Sobhans and others like them coming from Surin or Ratanpur. I know about my country and I know that the majority of the population are them. Only a few of us are like us. I may hazard a guess and say that even in Thailand, the majority of them are like Banlue.

So now, where do we want to go with our communication that would sell a product, a service or an idea to the majority of the population living in countries like ours? In social communication we talk about changing the attitude, behaviour pattern the belief systems in which the people, by and large, are born. This is a fact of life. How do we sell our shampoo to this target audience? Or ask them to unlearn the fact that Tube Well water is not a God's gift to human kind any more because it may be contaminated by Arsenic? In consumer goods marketing we often hear things like lateral expansion of the market, of expanding base and the horizon et al. How can we laterally expand our market to the vast majority of marginalised population with communication that is reminiscent of the ones created in the Madison Avenues of the world, the franchise of which have now extended to the third world? After all, people are made of flesh and blood and are not cardboard cut outs.

At the end of the day, at the end of the Fest, I return home a sad man. Sad for the Banlues and Sobhans of the world. Verily, age is catching up with me.



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