Hind Shoufani is a Palestinian filmmaker and writer.
“Picture this. You had a rough day at the office, where the client who aggravates you the most spent half the day nitpicking about the curve of the chair in the corner of the photo you used for the job. Or your coworker spilled Bolognese sauce all over the documents you slaved over and somehow you managed to restrain homicide. Or your life partner left you. Or you felt that extra kilo add to your waist as you typed emails all day. Or the war news filtered through your newsfeed, and even kittens didn’t alleviate the sadness.
You drive home. It’s a long highway, with very little but glass and steel on both sides. You feel that you are made of shattered glass inside, but your jaw is set in a teeth-grit stance, much like steel. You look around. You keep looking.
Giant bottles of detergent fill your horizon. A woman parts her humungous lips to wrap them around a syrupy soda drink that will ultimately kill, or at the very least, acidify her stomach. A car is advertised in the middle of the road, on hundreds of small billboards, and as you zoom past, you really can’t read the intolerable amount of text about interest and pricing and yada yada yada.
Out of the corner of your eye a massive hamburger drips luscious fat. You’ve eaten there before, so you know that the half-cooked, half-heated limp-lettuce mayo-dripping meal is nowhere close to the image exhibited. Your wife has used that expensive cream that fills half a skyscraper, she’s used it for years, and yet, her skin is somehow just skin, and not a glowing moon of luminous perfection. You drive on. Nothing inside you is moved, and the troubles of the day have really not been assuaged by the jeweled curtain ad looming over industrial buildings. Even the metro stations, once cool blue azure and shapely glass, are now elongated futuristic domes with detergent-infested material, soda drink retrospectives and razor blade drama, which apparently could change your whole life, not just your morning ritual. You believe none of it. A small part of you wishes the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on these monstrous Godzilla-sized prints were spent on feeding children, clothing the homeless, or building sidewalks for couples to frolic on.
I have a hard time on our highways. I am a writer and a filmmaker, and my deeply active inner world is starving, always, for imagery outside my window to instigate a torrent of words to keep my brain company in long cab rides. Positive words, inspired words, words that sustain. That almost never happens. For what can one glean from astronomical sky-suspended bottles of perfume, or the faces of plastic plastered women hulking over fast cars? Frozen in time, in space, unreal, unreachable.
I long for trees. I long for restaurant fronts where colors play, and children run around. I long for lights, for alleys with graffiti and street art. I long for statues, and when I do, its certainly not oversized buckets of French fries on the JBR walk. I long for paintings, murals, stained glass and glitter. I long for juxtaposed sequences of images that create a sense of urban clash, the hustle of cities that bustle, teeming with life, unbridled. Really, the horrifying close up of a wedge shoe, as big as a villa, is not going to cut it.
And yet, ads are rife. Space on every possible surface in our cities is sold to the highest bidder. I once thought that driving through the mountains of Lebanon would save my life, but found only soup ads and political slogans on magnificent billboards that obliterated snow capped peaks, valleys green and brown landscapes filled with fog and clouds. They sold the city, and then the mountain. They will devise ways to plant billboards in the ocean next. You just wait.
There is no respite for our eyes. We must hide in inner dreams to conjure innocent landscapes for the self to flourish. Your toothpaste ad will not inspire poetry. Or films. Or novels.
And it is relentless. I haven’t turned on the radio in years. Who creates the loathsome radio ads, with the screeching voices, the bad dialogue that simulates a drama failed, the accents and cheery fakeness that makes me want to scratch my ears off?
I unsubscribed from TV cable connections a decade ago, because one can’t tell the fiction entertainment from the frigging parade of ads. I hated seeing news anchors describing death and turmoil in my Middle East followed by a sponsored ad for potato chips. What malarkey.
I blame advertising for many of our social ills. I blame them for the consumer way in which we have started to treat our loves and friends. For the way in which we regard our bodies and hair. For the relationship we have with our phones and laptops, replacing hand holding and long talks. Maybe I am supremely old fashioned, but I feel very comfortable there, in my little forest of conversations with friends, and books.
I am an advertiser’s worst nightmare. I cut and dye my own hair. Don’t own an item of clothing with a brand name stamped on it. I don’t drive. I don’t cook. I don’t think of detergent brands. What smells decent at the supermarket, and works, is fine by me. I don’t believe make up ads, or use traditional perfume, preferring musk and amber from the old souks of Damascus. So, yes, I am a prime example of the failure of Middle Eastern advertising to inspire me to buy anything. Maybe they can say, meh, she’s useless to us. But maybe they can try harder to imprint something into my head, because regardless of this paragraph above, I am still a vain woman with an expendable income who can buy stuff. I just buy it on my own terms.
I buy what my girlfriends advise. Tried and tested, and even then, very rarely. I have lived in the US and seen what consumer culture does to people, and by everything I believe in, I resist that vortex. Retail therapy is no friend of mine.
I often wonder though why the quality here has to be this bad. We as Arabs have a great sense of humour. We have connections between our cultures and accents, and get each other. We are warm and generous and kind. We really are. Why do all our ads appear to be utterly bland, mostly sexist (Really, Beirut, the Arabic cooking ads using the feminine grammar for all the text copy is QUITE sexist!), very phony (You KNOW no one has that picture perfect family on the beach who miraculously have one son, one daughter and a dog), lacking in depth, beauty of design or provocative imagery. They advertise health-ruining soda by showing us a ginormous bottle of it. Really, hardly going to tempt me to try it. They advertise beauty products by using an aging actress, who at age 46, better not look like that, or else, really she’s an alien. I mean, did no one tell the very prominent real estate company that the ad featuring the smiling blonde perfectly made-up woman in bed, being served breakfast by a stunning brunette in a fetishistic maid outfit, that the internet was mostly created to sell videos based on that premise? Really? Or did they think they were being so subversively clever that the apartment suddenly had tremendous seductive appeal? C’mon.
You want to buy massive sized spaces on the roads that WE the people live on? Give us some beauty. Make us smile. Yes, we know you want our cash at the end of the day, but for the love of all the photoshop deities, please attempt to tickle our brains. Keep your company name small; we know it’s you. Brand yourself in unique methods that make me wonder what you’re about, and mentally applaud the creative team behind it. Give me gorgeous paintings. Give me witty copy that has me smirking at your ironic and playful side. Engage my intelligence. Because right now, you big ad agencies with your terrified clients and overworked teams, with your half a million dollar budgets, right now, you are insulting me, my creative potential, my savvy stance as an end user, and most tragically of all, you are boring me to death.
I am bored looking at you like no one’s business.
I am a drone robot on the highways, desperately looking inside the recesses of my mind for memories, poems and dreams that could sustain my spirit till it gets home, till it can immerse itself in experiences that don’t reek of capitalistic hegemony and commercial assaults.
I’ll end with a little example of what does appeal to my beleaguered starving self on the streets. A scrawler who runs around spray-painting various sites and buildings in Dubai makes poignant and sharp comments on the urban sphere around us. Under a particularly large telecommunication billboard, advertising something very basic and sort of unnecessary (considering the monopoly in town, seriously!), he scrawled: “All these lights, and nothing to display”. How true.
Such a waste of time, money, potential cityscapes, and brand-user connections that can go beyond insulting my aesthetic sense, my intelligence and the simple everyday joy of looking around the place we call home, and being the richer for it.”
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