FINE, so it’s common practice. But are we unthinkingly embarking on a road where Pakistan’s arts industry will one day find itself held hostage by the commercial concerns of giants? Will this road take it to a point where it will have to compromise on artistic integrity?
Strong words, yes. So first, the problem.
Product placement. We’re no strangers to extended, very expensive advertisements by commercial giants such as phone and tea companies, and that’s fine, because it’s their money; they can make whatever advertisement they like and when it runs on television, we know it’s an advertisement.
We’ve seen the practice in its variations in local television programming. But now, it’s trickling on to the stage, and if it becomes common practice then that, for me, raises more than a few alarms.
Product placement, a.k.a. embedded marketing. This, as most readers must know, is a method of advertising in which a product is brought to the attention of the potential consumer in a context that is not an advertisement. In other words, something — usually a cultural product — is used as a vehicle to deliver an advertising message, but is not in and of itself an advertisement.
Product placement in movies has a history that goes further than the film narrative in the form that we recognise it today. In fact, the term ‘soap opera’ was coined because back in the 1940s and 1950s, the expenses of this specific type of television programme — targeting a primarily female audience, which is the lot that usually does the household shopping — were often borne by packaged-goods companies that wanted above all else to shift goods.
Detractors of the practice call it cheating. An advertisement ought to be presented as exactly that, they say, which is why infomercials and commercials are in format and in content usually expected to be clearly distinguishable from creative products. But the thing is, research seems to show that embedded marketing does help push a product — and the marketing and advertising world is in deadly earnest about and has a bag full of money for research into what makes people buy.
It’s presented in an ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ kind of way: we’ll give you some money to achieve your rather expensive ambition, all you have to do is help us sell our product; or, when the cultural product is stronger, such as James Bond, we’ll let him wear ABC watch if you give us some money.
Thus it was that Knightrider is an example of brand integration with the Pontiac Trans Am, GoldenEye was the focus of a very successful BMW campaign and Sex and the City made one more than a little aware of Absolut.
So why does this make me uncomfortable in terms of the stage in Pakistan? Because here and there, during a play or a comedy sketch, this can of a popular soft drink or that fast food is rather unusually prominently displayed, at the demand of the sponsor or advertiser.
Going beyond mere props on the stage, there have even been instances where the advertising of a certain product has been done with as much discreetness as possible (which is not really that much) woven into the dialogue.
But anyone who has even a little more than pedestrian knowledge of how the stage works ought to know that for the director of a live performance — a play, a dance, a sketch — every single thing on that stage has been carefully, painstakingly, selected for its creative input into the piece as a whole.
If something is there or not there, that is supposed to mean something — or at least, it should, if the director is worth the honorific at all. What is on stage or said on stage should not be dictated by commercial concerns (leaving aside the half-related dimension that all of stage, and some art, is commercial because it must sell a ticket).
But hang on, you might be thinking, what about the long history the arts have had of being able to survive — thrive — over the centuries because of patronage by the elite? What about Beethoven and Archduke Rudolph, to name just one of many?
And in this part of the world, too, art and literature flourished in earlier centuries because of the interest and patronage of the rich and the powerful; how about Ghalib and Bahadur Shah Zafar? Then, and now, it is mainly the elite that at the very least pays the ticket-price.
But here’s the thing: money sponsored art, it also commissioned art, but it didn’t figure in the art produced to the extent of actually being in it. Beethoven wrote a fair bit of music in tune with guidelines presented by patrons, but none of his music said “fealty to the princes”.
The Mona Lisa is thought to have been painted on request, a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. If the latter had run a toothpaste company, or whatever, imagine the results da Vinci could have been asked to produce.
So then, you might ask, why are directors and producers in Pakistan allowing this, if it can compromise their artistic licence and integrity? The answer: money.
In these days of compromised security and economics, sponsorships for the stage are not that easy to come by. In the case of independent productions, that often means either not holding the production (or being out of pocket) or ceding to the advertising industry’s demands.
And, therefore, now would be a very good time for directors and producers to start resisting the demand for product placing on the stage. Can we really risk a future where Lady Macbeth’s problem of “out, damned spot” is said to be easily resolved by a detergent?
The writer is a member of staff.