Wednesday, October 17, 2007

2006 Article: TV Commercials (TVCs) in Pakistan

TVC Talent: What Lies Beneath The Makeup

Laaleen Khan

TVCs in Pakistan have come a long way since their one-dimensional predecessors in the Eighties, where a screeching narrator would proclaim “Shezan Eid Cake” over a crude backdrop of the cake in question. Those were the days of VCRs and cassette recordings, when a single TV channel was watched by the entire country. We thought technology had come a long way back then. For the Pakistani advertising world, it was just the beginning.

Although amateurish simplicity continues to exist in lower-budget TV commercials, in today’s (b)ad world, there has been a healthy boost in both conceptual variety and in the expectations of consumers who are getting duped less easily over time. From high-concept carbonated beverage ads to detailed infomercials for real estate, today’s TVCs come with an array of gimmicks and jingles.

The variety, however, stops there; it’s predominantly just a handful of familiar faces that are chosen to represent hundreds of brands and their products. The talent pool comes across as a very small pond.

Is that Acting or Modeling?
In Hollywood, on-screen TVC talent is specifically trained for TV Commercials and referred to as ‘Actors.’ In Pakistan, anyone who is featured in a TVC is generally called a ‘Model,’ including actors from TV, feature films and the stage. In other words, being cast in a TVC is considered modeling rather than acting. The accuracy of this term could vary depending on the nature of the ‘modeling.’ Posing to endorse a product—such as lying on a mattress and letting one’s tresses blow for effect in front of a pedestal fan—could be perceived as regular modeling. Portraying the characters of a happily docile housewife with three angelic children and a chivalrous husband in an elaborate narrative—wouldn’t that involve some acting skills?

Up-and-coming model Emaad Irfani started out with print and runway modeling and has now shot his 2nd TVC. He feels that “commercial modeling is totally different from fashion modeling. It’s about being expressive and exuding mass appeal. It isn’t necessary to be a fashion model to go into commercial modeling; you just have to be commercially viable.”

Veteran Director Asim Raza, however, prefers not to refer to TVC talent as modeling. “I always call them actors. TV is different from fashion shoots and modeling shoots. There, they’re supposed to look wooden! Here, it’s purely acting and specifically an acto’rs job. Clients want more than good looks, they want talent and credibility for their product, Without convincing expressions, it’s a flat ad. When casting, I tell the agencies that I’m looking for actors, not models—people who are comfortable at getting into character rather than just involved with their looks.”

To Train or Not to Train…
Interestingly, there are no formal acting schools in Pakistan. Salman Munawer, Client Services Director at JWT, Lahore, says: “We have limited options as far as male and female models are concerned. We neither have a training institute nor a proper modeling agency in Pakistan. We have good talent but there is no one to guide or train them.”

For TV Commercials, prepping the model to play a role is regarded as the responsibility of the Director, who takes the place of an Acting Coach. It’s hardly surprising that Directors often prefer to work with talent they have already worked with and trained. In addition to being responsible for the shooting, editing, and sound, the Director also plays a crucial role in casting. Through his ties with particular modeling agencies, he is provided with a list of recommended models for a specific project which he forwards to the Ad Agency who is hiring him for the job.

Mansur Aslam, Client Services Director at Orient Mc Cann, Islamabad, describes the process: “The Director of the commercial provides the Ad Agency with options for talent. During the Pre Production Meeting, the Ad Agency decides on a final list, which it then submits to the Client. The Client is the final decision-maker on which talent is hired. Modeling agencies represent hundreds of people in Catwalk, TV and Print Media. The Director trains them, gets the work out of them, and makes the difference.”

Raza is dismayed with the lack of prior knowledge that untrained talent brings to the shoot and speaks about the responsibilities of Directors: “We take responsibility for the final product. We try to bring out the best of them in front of the camera in the talent hunt. There’s usually no time for rehearsals. We call the actors in for casting sessions, tell them about the characterizations, give them tips for facial expressions, and explain with references from films or ads they’re familiar with. On the shoot, I take them through the storyboards in the morning, get them comfortable with their characters in shot-by-shot sessions. Every actor requires a certain amount of education. When they’re fresh and untrained, we have to be patient and can’t throw tantrums…”

Munawer describes the criteria for selecting talent: “We see whether the model goes with our brand image or not and the consumer would like him or her in that particular role. After that we share the concept with the talent to give them the feel of the role. Then we go for a screen test. This enables us to see how the model looks on the TV screen, to judge their acting skills and level of confidence.”

It’s common knowledge that Agency executives, Directors, and Clients don’t always see eye to eye, whether its about conceptual execution or casting talent. Raza explains that ad agencies, like Directors, have creative minds that can get rigid about their own ideas, leading to a conflict of interest between both parties: “The best combination is when the agency and director knows their boundaries and don’t step on each other’s toes. The biggest cliché in this industry is that it takes ten years work experience for people to start trusting your decisions as a director. Before, I found it difficult to educate clients and agencies and there would be a clash of egos. In time, the client learns that if they’re spending so much money hiring us, they may as well use our ideas!”

Models are becoming increasingly recognizable among the demographic, reaching supermodel status, particularly when they grace society pages in print rags, appear in TV drama series’, feature in music videos, and adorn mammoth-sized billboards in every major roundabout in the country. If a model is gawked at and asked for autographs at airports and grocery stores, s/he’s probably reached supermodel status. Of course, this would also apply to popular cricket players, who aren’t strangers to hawking products either. These ‘A’ list models (as in ones who are highest paid, widely recognizable, and have a portfolio of multiple brands) tend to be the most sought after and highest paid.

Success, however, doesn’t necessarily mean a more professional attitude towards work. “All models, especially new ones, just want to be famous overnight and are willing to do anything in their pursuit of modeling agencies, advertising agencies, photographers and directors,” describes Munawer. “There are very few professional male and female models. Starting out, they always make themselves available and reach the shoot well before schedule. The moment they have done a couple of commercials they feel that they are the world’s biggest superstar!” Diva behaviour may be unprofessional but it seems that the more ‘professional’ one gets, the more it’s unleashed.

Celluloid actors have rejuvenated their gaudy images of yesteryear by presenting themselves in urbane, polished exteriors. In one TVC, Reema the Actress discards her flesh-bursting ghagra-choli and garish makeup for more natural hues and is almost unrecognizable. She is dressed in denim and listening to her latest download on an I-pod while taking a swig from her carbonated Pepsi. In another TVC, Shaan the Actor’s bushy brows are groomed to suave arches. Sporting lowlights in his hair, he has replaced his characteristic tank tops and satin lungis with a business suit while making important business decisions on his Mobilink BlackBerry.

“Actors are supposed to change their image now and then,” asserts Raza. “Reinventing is important to last longer and evolve with a fresh look. Actors like Shaan and Reema are capable of much more than they are doing in films. By reinventing their images in ad campaigns, it gives them a chance to let out their frustrations and let their creative juices flow. Local talent is worth much more than audiences give them credit for.”

Shaan and Reema’s spruced-up images are certainly striving to keep pace with the stylized new breed of Pakistani spokespersons for commercial products. Capturing the advertising world by storm, some have achieved supermodel status despite a five-footer frame with around 20 brands under their belts. As Irfani puts it, “There are great 5’2” commercial models that aren’t fashion models.”

Just an Illusion?
However, at times it becomes apparent that tricks of the trade from the modeling world are being taken to the extreme in TVCs. ‘Come-hither’ expressions suitable for a magazine spread appear un-sexily overt on TV when not accompanied by competent acting skills nor bear any relation to the product. Open-mouthed pouting may appear fish-like, and saucer-eyed stares could come across as vapid on 24-frames-per-second digital video. Chest-thrusts and hand-on-hip contortions are better suited for music videos than TVCs. The effect of glassy blue-green contact lenses framed by thick false eyelashes can be flat and unnerving.

Consumers often blink at the garishness of some of the ad campaigns. “Feminine beauty in the fashion world has been replaced by women who are made up to look like drag queens rather than real women” says one irate critic. Another scoffs, “Some of the male models are so heavily rouged, lipsticked, and highlighted, that they bring a capital ‘M’ to the term metrosexual.”

Gender-bending is sometimes conveyed through androgynous styling, but in our case, it’s when makeup artists go to such extremes with their cosmetic paraphernalia that the women look like men trying to look like women, while the men are dolled up enough to pass for women. Renowned makeup artists use subtlety and drama where required, but it’s your typical salon that slathers makeup on hundreds of actresses/models/brides a day that churns out an archetypical product that can be frightening in a tight close-up. It all comes down to lighting and cinematography to carry it off. The result is advertisements that are more overtly glamorized than believable. How convincing are the bevy of cookie-cutter human mannequins with their on-screen portrayals?

“Models entering the field of TV would try to use their experiences from fashion photography,” explains Raza, “particularly overconfident models who insist on specific lighting and angles that they feel are more flattering. It’s not about your face looking pretty, it’s about conveying a character with originality. Some characters require a stylized look, others a basic look. Directors do their best to select a style but talent doesn’t always trust us when they are too busy concentrating on how to look their best. It isn’t necessary to look like a Barbie doll in every commercial! The blame for this perception lies with a lot of people. Clients insist on the actor looking like a glamour doll even if she’s portraying the character of a housewife. Who wakes up in the morning with perfectly curled hair? Puffy eyes would be more convincing than rollers but the client would freak out with that suggestion! Also, actors themselves don’t want to be seen as ‘ugly’ by any criteria. The result is commercials that are too cosmetic to be true. Audiences don’t buy it!”

A Famous Face vs. a Fresh Face
Nestle water and Telenor tend to favour less overtly done-up talent in their ad campaigns. They also employ unfamiliar faces, every-day people we could know but pass by without recognition. They seem more natural, more believable. Is this because they’ve been trained so well or because they haven’t been trained at all, hence don’t use any clichés in their acting?

Model Irfani states: “Some corporations such as Unilever prefer to use fresh faces because they don’t want to use faces that are associated with other brands.” However, according to Client Services Director Aslam, clients insist on easily-recognizable faces for the representations of their brand: “We guide the client but the final decision rests with them. Using fresh faces means taking a risk, which pays off if the face becomes famous afterwards. There are about 20 to 30 models that play lead roles in major commercials. Someone as recognizable as actress Sameena Peerzada will charge Rs. 600,000 to appear in a TVC. The cost of hiring talent is not included in production costs; the client pays for the talent directly.”

Raza explains, “After a little while the freshness of the commercial suffers if you use the same actors again and again and might not bring that kind of credibility as audiences know they’re professional actors making money. At times you need fresh talent!”

A face, however, doesn’t necessarily launch a thousand ships: “A famous face or a good fresh face sells the product once or twice,” insists Munawer. “At the end, it’s the product that sells itself. If there is no life in the product then no matter how effective the communication is, it will be difficult or impossible to sell that product.”

Acting Schools? No. Talent Agencies? Yes.
Major salons housing the best-known makeup artistry and still photography often double as Talent and Modeling Agencies. They link the models they represent with their networking of specific advertising agencies and Directors that they choose to work in collaboration with. Munawer complains about the inefficiencies of this system: “There are very few good, professional modeling agencies…Frankly speaking, they are not doing justice with the modeling professional since they aren’t providing training. I agree we are all working for money but we must justify the amount we charge. They see it more about signing a 2 to 3 year contract with the talent and making money.”

Is it necessary for everyone to go through the modeling agency route? “If you’re established, you get contacted directly for TVC work,” reveals Irfani. “Relative unknowns in the industry go through modeling agencies. Sometimes agencies promote certain talent with whom they charge a much higher commission than, say, talent that may be right for the TVC but won’t bring in as high as a commission for them! Certain models collaborate exclusively with certain makeup artists. Others collaborate exclusively with specific Directors.”

Lip-Synching that Jingle:
“Being a good model doesn’t mean you can speak well,” states Aslam. Many a time, the voices we hear do not match the smiling face we see touting a product, gadget or promoting a service on screen. “Everything is dubbed,” explains Irfani. “You charge extra for your voice if it’s required.” One of the main reasons why director Raza doesn’t record sound live is because sound-proof studios aren’t 100% effective and sound facilities arent good enough for recording. “With TV ads you have to be very specific. It would be too time-consuming to record sound in location shooting.”

Typically dubbed by narrators endeavouring the smug musical tones of a flight attendant, there are very few voice-trained professionals in Pakistan. The smiling housewife on TV who expresses her thrill at using a new cooking-oil by dressing in a matching outfit has been dubbed by someone who sounds eerily like the Shezan Eid Cake lady. The voice of the beaming young man who has smoothly secured bank financing for his car without pulling any strings has been provided by an underpaid newscaster at Radio Pakistan. The Radio version of a specific TVC will feature the same narrators for continuity and recognition purposes.

Some voice artists go through the same modeling agency route while others are naturals who haven’t received specific training. Says Munawer: “Most models are not well educated. They look very decent after grooming, but the moment they speak they disappoint you a great deal. Also, there is a pronunciation issue. We have recently done a Mitsubishi split air conditioner TVC and used voiceover for it.”

Raza blames clients for the sometimes ridiculous mismatches between the actor and the voice s/he is lip-synching. “Instead of trying to match voices with people, they hear them independently like a radio ad and look for the voice that sounds best to them. They immediately choose the voice that sounds most familiar to them and prefer to play it safe. With few exceptions in terms of exciting visuals and sounds, the whole industry is redundant and boring.”

Certain TVCs have incorporated mehndi choreography dance routines in a Bollywoodesque way. In lieu of Dance-school, perhaps ‘dance-practice’ experience from a mehndi could suffice as adequate training for this particular skill. A TVC for chemical fertilizer that features a twirly-mustached kissan bhangr-pao-ing in the middle of his chemical-bazooka crop wouldn’t have trained at dance-school either. “That’s the choreographer’s job,” says Irfani. This genre includes sponsored music-videos where the sponsorships are blatant: “Tulsi ads have no sensitivity and are a killer for the industry. It just doesn’t work,” laments Raza.

Where do we go from here?
Munawer describes an ideal scenario with a larger talent pool to select from. “What we need are well-educated people to come into this profession and take it seriously, and for them to be paid well for their efforts. In our society, it isn’t always considered a respectable profession. Females are particularly hesitant to become models.” Raza also wishes he could change the mindset of people, namely, the actors themselves: Actors should come with the mindset that they are going to be acting and not modeling, and accept that a TVC is not another modeling assignment. We may have better looking models here than any of our neighbours, but the quality of acting is far better in India, where it’s understood that it’s about more than looking pretty!”

Without enough potential candidates, the talent pool will remain nothing more than a pool. In the last few years, it’s increased from a wading pool to a swimming pool but remains a far cry from an ocean of promising, trained candidates.

Now that there are media-education courses at local institutions that provide training in TV production, it’s just a matter of time before somebody gets the sense to start an acting school to rear a new generation of professional actors. For now, we’ll have to settle for the Director taking that responsibility. On-set training is still a major improvement from watching 30 seconds of pout and pose time. Come to think of it, even that’s better than that horrendous Shezan Eid Cake ad…!

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