Advertising plays a significant role in our lives and it’s not always a positive one. To understand advertising better, we need to ask ourselves three questions: who is selling what and to whom? Through this prism, the unending ulterior motives, become somewhat clear.

Indeed, when advertising galvanizes people in response to a natural disaster it is a positive force until the same ad replicates the effort of a government announcement on a news channel.

Similarly, when advertising is used to apprise the general public about livelihood programs organized by the state, it is again a positive force, until figureheads of the ruling party, all wearing squeaky clean smiles, encroach onto a majority of the ad space, thereby relegating the core message to a small box within the same ad.

Advertising can inform us about a new public offering, an offering that has the potential to change our lifestyle for the better – heighten our standard of living. But at the same time, advertising will also persuade millions of people into replacing their ‘latest enough gadget’ with another ‘slightly more latest’ gadget that’s probably only different because it was released later. That’s one instance where the value add is at its bare minimum.

Regardless of the situation, advertising can guide people into a consumption pattern that suits them or swindle them into purchasing goods and services they don’t really need. What’s interesting is that neither of the two scenarios are mutually exclusive. And while each individual has his or her own prism to assess the merits and weaknesses of a good pitch on mass media, there is one pitch I am certain no one welcomes.

Often, in Pakistan, you’ll find yourself with a bunch of people, enjoying a cricket game on television. A beautiful delivery will swing through the gap between bat and pad, bamboozle the batsman and go onto the stumps. This is precisely when you want to revel in the joy of the winning team. But just when you’re about to bounce onto your feet, the channel disregards the moment and plugs in a commercial you are forced to watch for the umpteenth time.

What is the channel thinking? Let’s capitalize on the time between the wicket and the next delivery? Are channels not making enough money through endless ads anyway?

From a viewing point of view, untimely insertions, mid program, are jarring, distasteful and perhaps even counterproductive. Even if revenue-hungry channels are unable to understand this against an obvious vested interest, brand managers and advertising agencies (de facto custodians of a brand) should save the brand from negative feedback, especially when an identical ad is forced down the same audience, over and over again.

As a former advertising professional, I often heard the adage, ‘no penetration without repetition’. Not the best sounding quote, I must concede, and not the best understood either. Yes. Consistency is king in establishing a coherent, core message. Especially when the target audience is constantly bombarded with a plethora of messages, the ones that stick are not necessarily the ones that feel and sound better but the ones that surface the most.

Proof? ‘0900 786 01 TELE FUN TELE FUN’. I have no idea what this number and what these letters mean. I have heard the monotonous jingle a million times on radio and on television and I know that it will haunt me – among other unforgettable jingles – until the end of my days. That, essentially, is the power and nuisance of advertising. Advertising can alter memory, habit, behavior, consumption and communication and it can do all of the above so silently, you’ll never really know what changed you.

There is no doubt that advertising, ever since it took shape of a corporate entity in the early 1900s, has been a masterful myth making machine. Enough has been said about it. So in the end, I will only leave you with two questions.

One, did anybody ever stop to notice that cheese manufacturers benefit from associating mousetraps with mice and cheese? And two, did anybody ever stop to notice that the cartoon character, Bugs Bunny, is always munching on a carrot, even though rabbits in their natural habitat consume far more greens than roots?

Beyond the answers to the aforementioned questions I hope that we are able to find healthy skepticism that persuades us to do the math before we choose. We are, after all, ‘ashrafal-makhlooq’. We have no excuse to act like gullible fools.

n    The writer is a communications consultant based in Lahore.