09 Mar 2007
CHOK SUAT LING
The information minister recently said he wanted Pan-Asians banned from advertisements. The advertising industry dismisses this as a non-issue and urges attention to other more urgent matters, writes CHOK SUAT LING.
LOOKS do matter. They may help seal the heart of a prospective suitor or a future employer, attract people to watch an otherwise insipid movie and make celebrities out of otherwise ordinary people.
They can also help ignite public enthusiasm in a product or brand name. For precisely this reason, companies are very picky about the people chosen to appear in their advertisements.
It is vital that they look “just right” to successfully drive home the desired message or image.
A recent announcement by the information minister in this regard has raised eyebrows and stirred a hubbub.
Last month, Datuk Seri Zainuddin Maidin said he wanted to ban models with Pan-Asian looks and foreign-flavoured advertisements from private television channels, newspapers and billboards.
He stated that such advertisements were already banned on government stations and that his ministry, together with the Arts, Culture and Heritage Ministry, would be coming up with guidelines soon.
In 1997, the ministry had also proposed a ban on Pan-Asians in advertisements but it was shelved after an outcry.
“Pan-Asians” are those who look “universally Asian”, people with neutral features that if placed in an advertisement would appeal to any race.
At casting, modelling and advertising agencies, however, the definition also includes those of Asian-Caucasian parentage.
The industry argues that the focus on Pan-Asians is misplaced. They say this is a trivial issue compared with other more urgent matters they are facing.
What deserves attention, they say, is an influx of foreign advertisements, greater dependence on foreign models and lack of support for aspiring commercial filmmakers the directors, producers and scriptwriters.
They argue that Pan-Asian models are a non-issue as there are not many of them, and they are no longer as much in demand as they were in the 1980s.
Lee Moi of Famous Artistes says only 30 per cent of clients use Pan- Asian models, and those with “typical Chinese, Malay or Indian features” have no problems getting work.
“I have a lot of Chinese models and they can easily secure a job. Some have become quite popular,” says the casting agency director.
"Clients now are not as picky. In many advertisements examples include those for Telekom Malaysia, Maxis, DiGi and KFC the talent used are not Pan-Asian.
“In Petronas advertisements, a lot of typical Malaysian faces are used.”
What needs to change, she says, is the “truly annoying” use of foreign models in locally produced advertisements, and the increasing number of foreign advertisements being aired in Malaysia: "That is not right. It is depriving us of jobs.
"I have been in the industry for 20 years and I can say with certainty that this development is adversely affecting us.
“Things are so bad that sometimes we get desperate. People are getting retrenched.”
One public-listed company using foreign models is Ekowood International Berhad.
Its senior marketing manager Angelina Chin says this is because its product, engineered solid hardwood floors, is largely for the export market so their models need to have a “universal and international appeal”.
Another reason why foreign talent may sometimes be preferred is when a locally produced advertisement is for use not just in Malaysia but the region.
An industry source explains that sometimes Malaysian companies win bids to produce commercials for international brands that are for use in the region. Two examples are Nokia and Coca-Cola.
“In such cases, we cant very well use a pakcik or makcik. The client will usually want models with features consumers in the country who contribute most to its business can identify with.”
But Lee Moi argues that sometimes foreign talent are sought and paid ludicrously high fees when Malaysians can very well bring the same, if not better, results.
"An example would be advertisements for a local telecommunications company.
"Why does it need foreigners when a Malaysian can create a similar impact?
“But if foreign companies want to shoot their commercials here, we welcome them as revenue will then be flowing in, not out.”
According to Karyawan Association of Malaysia model bureau chairman Mazin Ameen Siraj, prior to 2003, all commercials had to adhere to the made-in-Malaysia (MIM) ruling:
“This meant commercials had to be produced locally using local talent. This rule not only helped local models survive but also made a lot of production houses very rich.”
In 2003, before the MIM rule was rescinded, the total commercial billings for productions made in Malaysia were more than RM200 million, notes Mazin.
The first year after MIM was dropped, billings plunged to RM19 million.
“So, the MIM ruling not only helped models but also production houses,” she points out.
Association of Accredited Advertising Agents of Malaysia (4As) president Datuk Vincent Lee does not understand the ministers focus on Pan-Asians, and describes a ban as illogical.
"How can we ban Pan-Asians? They are Malaysians and we cannot deny them their right to appear in advertisements.
“On one hand, we talk about being proud that we are a multiracial society, and on the other, we want to forbid those of mixed parentage from appearing in ads.”
Lee, however, supports any effort to safeguard local content and locally produced television commercials.
He says the continuation of foreign commercials is detrimental to the countrys creative industry. “There will also be fewer opportunities for local creative talent.”
The industry also wants more focus on building the capacities and capabilities of local commercial filmmakers.
Lee Moi says there are many talented commercial directors but due to the lack of assistance and support, some have ventured into filmmaking.
On an optimistic note, Zainuddin says he will consider the views of the industry. He agrees that foreign models should not be given room in advertisements.
"There was a car advertisement several years back featuring Hollywood actor Brad Pitt. Why must he be used?
"Are we saying that a Caucasian face gives the car higher value? Are there no handsome men among the locals?
“It will lead to a feeling of inferiority and leave a psychological impact on those with typical Malaysian features,” Zainuddin contends.
It is for this reason too that Zainuddin is adamant in his stand against Pan-Asian models.
“What is wrong with a typically Malay, Chinese or Indian face? They can be much more beautiful than the Pan-Asians.”
This is too narrow a view, says the senior manager of a Kuala Lumpur ad agency.
“We have to compete with our neighbours, namely Thailand, Indonesia and even India, all of which are far ahead of us,” he says.
"We talk about being world-class but quibble over petty issues like Pan-Asian models.
“If we continue like this, we will only be jaguh kampung (village champions).”