29 May, 2023


Sri Lanka’a Offensive Commercials

By Gamini Dissanayake – 

Gamini Dissanayake

Gamini Dissanayake

An annual visitor to Sri Lanka over the past eight years, I have been watching how kids are ruthlessly exploited in over 70 percent of all advertising and commercials.

Yes, we had McDonald’s commercials here like the one ‘Are we there yet, mommy?’ about 20 years ago. Some of us are familiar with the infamous McLibel Trial in the mid 90s in England and, those myriad protests and charges against Coca Cola, Tobacco Companies and the Big Pharma.

Yet, I am not sure if any other country can beat Sri Lanka in this game now. I watch very little TV wherever I am but what I saw and heard in Sri Lanka  have been increasingly disturbing and saddening .

They want you to have unlimited ‘fun’ plus nutrition from Prima KotthuMe, the two-minute noodles, pop like Coke, Pepsi and Fanta, cakes like Tiara and many kinds of cookies/biscuits, candy and ice cream. More ambitious claims  are made for powdered milk like Nestomalt [for nutrition, energy and strength], Raththi [for smart intelligence, in this case of a young wife] Anchor to win at Chess, and others.

In one clip, a young white mother is visibly overwhelmed, when her toddler correctly identifies a Cat from a line sketch, thanks to Pedia Pro!   [Never to mother’s milk, no way] Wean early, go Formula and switch to the mother of them all, PediaPro! Thank goodness, breast feeding mothers, in my village told us that their kids hated/refused the pricey Formula stuff when they were offered.

Yet, this clip which is an import, reminds us that  race and colour are still very much in the mix.

It was my turn to be overwhelmed when I saw a near bill board size ad depicting a bunch of kids in the lobby of a new location of the Bank of Ceylon at New Malkaduwawa in Kurunegala.

It was pitching a Kids Savings plan to its customers who are adults, of course. All the kids in the artwork were white!. The simplest of vision needed to have Sri Lanka’s own kids Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim, let alone Burgher, Malay and aboriginal or Veddah kids in that ad was missing and that was amazing. So much for the kids.

This  Philips Electric Shaver  commercial sponsored by Dinapala Bros.

begins with a young Sri Lankan  guy who has not had a shave or a hair cut in the new millennium. He first tries to shave off  his beard with a razor with no luck. He burns himself. Picks up an electric shaver. The clip cuts to a close-up of a clean shaven face, of a handsome, well groomed, white guy with blue eyes, caressing his face as if to say “a man can get his  best”   only from a  Philips Electric Shaver. The “state- of- the- art” tool however, is not for a stupid native. [A new razor’s edge?]

In Sinhala, powdered milk, junk food, candy and beverage ads are  pitched as rasa guna piri meaning rich in taste and nutrition, like those  matrimonial print classifieds looking  for grooms  insist that  prospective candidates be hundred percent clean and virtuous: Siyalu Dusirithen  Thora or free from ALL evil or bad habits.

Paying megabucks for  celebs like Bhatiya and Santosh [Koththu Me- fun thamai/ nothing but fun] Mahela and Sanga  who say something like without Coke, food is nothing or ‘No Coke, No Meal’, the duo is featured prominently holding Coke bottles on the signs that are hung over the front of  many groceries and restaurants all over the country. And Angelo Mathews for Elephant House Ice Cream, and for Milo, to name a  few.

When big bucks come through the door, ethical behaviour and moral responsibility beat it through the window. Trite but still very true.

It’s funny to see how cameras  zoom in to the panel of  judges of  the very popular Dream Star TV series where bottles of pop like Fanta sit longingly staring at them [and us ] throughout  the show. You expect them to drink it, but no, not in this one. Look but don’t even touch.

And Maliban, long before they started marketing fresh milk [Delight, I think] they were calling their powdered milk, ‘Maliban Kiri’ In Sinhala kiri denotes  real fresh milk not the powdered junk. They would sponsor a [repeat]  broadcast of a Buddhist sermon by a late distinguished  monk as the day begins on SLBC radio and then bombard you for minutes on not seconds mind you, hell- bent on praising their Maliban Kiri, and cookies.

Over the years I saw only one good article in Sinhala on how harmful the powdered milk is for the human body and that was written by a lady who had earned her PhD on Nurtrition from the prestigious Imperial College in London, England [if I remember right] and carried in the editorial page of  the best selling Sunday Lankadeepa.

Recently  [in September] I watched a good program in Sinhala on nutrition on SLRC/ Rupavahini in the early evening. Other channels also broadcast a few good ones on health, nutrition and parenting. But they are slotted for mid morning when almost all household members  that matter are out at work. The prime time, specially in the evening does  seem  like non-negotiable  preserve of tele-drama sponsors.

Early this year two medical doctors from Anuradhapura jointly wrote an informative piece on the adverse effects of  chemical pesticides on food supplies to an English language daily.It did not deter a scientist [easy to understand where funding comes from in these cases]   to a retort extolling one of the most harmful weedicides Roundup, which was  discussed in some length by French director Marie-Monique Robin in her 2008 documentary The World According to Monsanto.   [Watch the full movie free on the net]  Until recently Roundup was heavily advertised  for the ‘benefit’ of the rice-paddy farmer in Sri Lanka

As I write this piece the daily Island [Nov 14] reports of an upcoming International Symposium on Biodiversity, Food and Nutrition to be held in Colombo on Dec 8. And quotes Dr Renuka de Silva of the Wayamba University  “Despite attempts to reduce the dramatic rise in the incidence of non-communicable diseases, a formidable challenge is posed by obesity and other NCDs and nutrient deficiencies” due to “neglect of  nutritional importance of the diverse foods available in Sri Lanka and to production strategies focused on few crops –maize, rice and wheat- resulting in reduced consumption of legumes, fruits and vegetables which in turn are associated with negative health impacts.”

True. Add all the best selling  junk food, snacks and beverages displayed on the serried shelves of even in some remote rural groceries,  Dr de Silva’s findings win hands down. What is missing here is that almost all  fruits and veggies sold in Sri Lanka are  sprayed or injected  with harmful chemicals [mostly pesticides] for them to grow bigger and have longer  shelf life

Back to the Sri Lankan media. The commercials are chopped off when for example, Little Star editions are uploaded to the net. In one cookie commercial that I happened to watch with my 15  month old daughter, in what looks like a concert,  a little girl of about four would not render her Tikiri Liya [sweet little girl] song until a Munchee cookie was waved at her and shown nibbled by an older girl,  most likely her sister while their anxious mother was about to swoon, both standing in the opposite wing of the stage behind the curtain!  [A new version of Pavlo’s Dog ]  To Watch a 1997 clip of this commercial search youtube for Munchee Tikiri Marie [tikiri liya] 1997.

This is certainly not to throw black paint on all ads/commercials.

Around 2011 while visiting Sri Lanka, I watched a great 30 second clip for Tokyo Super Cement. After the recent 30 year civil war, a Tamil family [parents and two kids]  who seemed to have been trapped in a border village are seen returning to their former village in a  mini  tractor/trailer loaded with what’s left of their belongings. Across the road we see a Sinhala family building a new home [with palmyrah trees still  in the background] and their  young son spotting the tractor runs towards it screaming in joy Kannan! Kannan!!. And we see the two families Tamil and Sinhala happily reunited for a few seconds before the former move on after getting a gift from the latter.  A 50 kg bag of Tokyo Super Cement.

The symbol here was very powerful. Cement bonds material things. Construction. Spiritually it can heal and bond  the  hearts and minds of people transcending all differences. Reconstruction/reconciliation. The videography was brilliant too. Set in a red sunset, the silhouetted figures begin to disappear towards  a new dawn. No more bloodshed.

My thoughts rushed to Deepika Priyadarshini’s 1997 song Saroja: about an orphaned little Tamil girl in a border village. The lyrics by Mahinda Chandrasekara who then was a teacher in Anuradhapura went like  “ Amidst deafening salvos  of incessant machine gun fire, I see your tiny hands shaking when you write  my child. …I am the [Sinhala] teacher and you are my [Tamil] student, but forget not we both belong to the same class” switching on the  spotlight to a new dimension of  an ongoing  tragedy .

When watching an international cricket game on TV, one gets justifiably  annoyed when commercials become intrusive. Between overs is OK but the moment when a batsman  gets out commercials hit you like swarms of locust, most times blocking out the immediate replay which is supposed to show in slow motion how the batter  got out.

For over two years running now, this insidious commercial can be seen many times over during a cricket game. Set in a busy wayside kiosk [looks close to a bus terminal in a big city] a young female walks  briskly in to buy a reload for her cell phone. In comes a young guy, virtually shoves her to a corner and gets his reload first!  For a fraction of a second she shows her displeasure, then watching the guy gets a bonus deal, asks the salesman “ Can you get that too, really? But it is the young guy who interrupts again saying “Sure, why can’t you?  And walks away.

I know something is lost in translation here.The guy says to the girl “Mokada Aney Bari? in Sinhala. Certainly not in a refined manner [specially when you speak to a female]  carrying with its subtle sexual association. [Wilson Bray Keys examined  these in detail in his  controversial book on advertising: Subliminal Seduction: Are you being sexually aroused  by this picture?]  As expected, the reload commercial fades out  with the sponsor’s slogan: Mobitel. We Care Always!

This is certainly not an isolated case and will never be. The Sri Lankan women, lest we forget got their suffrage or their right to vote in political elections  way back in 1931 along with men. Today over 60 percent of university students are female. [For a population  of 21.4 million, Sri Lanka has 15 universities, almost 10, 000 government schools  and a literacy rate of 98.1.Plus universal health care and free education ]  The first woman Prime Minister of the World [and for three times] first appointed in July 1960 was our own Sirmavo Bandaranaike.Despite all that the way a young woman is treated like in the above clip is totally unacceptable under any circumstance. She was assaulted and then insulted.

The tragedy looks mainly three-fold. [A] One needs only the  brain of a mosquito to know that kids get very much influenced by what they see and hear on TV.

Here on CBC we get some good stuff like David Suzuki’s  “Nature of Things” on Thursday nights at 8  but not  in Sri Lanka. You might remember when SL launched TV in April 1979  they had Nature of Things in their evening programming soon after. Now like Hiru TV  boasts itself it is Tele Perahera  or a Procession of Tele Dramas from 7 thru 9  [raking in bagfuls of big bills from sponsors]

Even  programs for kids except for a few like the UK made serial called the Car, abound with aggression and violence.

[B] Little or no ethical and moral concerns seem to affect the sponsors and distributors, publishers and broadcasters.

[C] Regulatory process by government authorities seems totally absent or dead

Back to where we began. It was both funny and interesting, reading the response from Maliban’s director of the commercial Udaya Dharmawardena who had said he had no say over the script since the project was merely handed  to him by a PR agency

“ We’ve come across worse adverts in the recent past, many viewers do not know the extent to which children are abused for the sake of an advert , so this isn’t particularly glaring” 

Well said dude. If Andare, Sri Lanka’s  legendary court jester were around he would surely have said, your words were  worth in 24 carat pure gold, and would have even tried to ram some pebbles [for gold  nuggets ] down your throat, all for  good “fun” of course…Udaya, at least you are honest. Thank you.

When in Sri Lanka, you hear over and over again that school children are getting more and more diabetic and that 25 percent of big  city kids are now obese. Obviously, advertising has done its part successfully, like the cliché  from its jargon goes “exceeding their expectations”.

Sure you can buy Dialog or SLT bundles to watch Discovery Channel or may be Nature of Things, but only if you got rich parents. My house sits in a village which has about 300 households. Almost all got electricity, cell phones, TV and most own  a motor bike or a bicycle but to my knowledge only four families got those bundles.One girl got through to med school this year.

Let me close this short essay with a quote from James B. Twitchell’s trail blazer Twenty ADS That Shook The World: The Century’s Most Groundbreaking Advertising and How it Changed Us All  [Three Rivers Press: NY. 2000]

Calling ads the sponsored art of capitalism, and the dominant culture of today,  Twitchell wrote   “ As the language of commercialism has become louder, the language of high culture has become quieter… Our cultural literacy, the wink-wink of  allusions to hundreds of years of ‘the best that has been thought and said’ has all but disappeared thanks to ‘a few words from the sponsor’..”

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Two Thumbs Up!

    Please add me on Facebook…. one needs to address the above in the future.

    Fazl Muhammed Nizar


    • 0

      Kumar Sangakkara is a main culprit and his contributions towards this are appalling , most of his commercials are very misleading , I.e Anlene , coke,NTB etc !

  • 0

    I am reminded of the advts. For hair growth “Ervomatin”, “Fair&Lovlely”and “Coca Cola”which assail us daily on TV.
    I immediately switch it off and get to the window to have a fresh breath of fresh air.

  • 0

    Angelo Mathews proudly proclaims, with a Milo drink in hand, that he overcomes any challenge by the power/energy from Milo. What a shame! The star could stoop to any low if it is to earn mega bucks.

  • 0

    a refreshing article on CT which I hope has or will appear in the main stream press too. The managements of the F&B industry project very poor corporate social responsibility via such advts while sportsmen send unhealthy messages to those who look up to them as their heroes and will consume all those “brands” which they endorse. There are hoardings in the city showing Malinga hugging a mega bottle of Pepsi! Type 2 diabetes is rampant in Sri Lanka and the primary causes are those refined carbs and sugar contained in these foods and beverages advertised with gay abandon. The milk food industry’s message that certain infant formulas contribute, enhance and develop IQ is an insult to our intelligence. It’s time that such advertisements are effectively regularised, not by the ministry of mass media and communications but by the ministry of health services!

  • 0

    Excellent piece and about time too ! I recently tried to count the number of caucasian looking persons featured in our local newespaper advertisement, specially in the Sunday papers and gave up because it was going to be a long count. I am surprised that a person as intelligent, articulate and responsible as Sangakkara (who may not really need this money) lends his name to all sorts of ridiculous advertisements.

    Some time ago the media were in all sorts of frenzy about award ceremonies for the Advertisement industry – distributing ‘metals’ as they were called to each other, with pictures of females all dressed to the nines and their male counterparts from different Agencies with their arms in the air shouting ‘Yeh Yeh’ as each award was announced. To me many of these fprize winning advertisements were absolute and total tosh, objects of contempt or amusement. I hope this article can spur a constructive rethink of the values and focus of the industry

  • 1

    Go take a Chill Pill Gamini!! Don’t make mountains out of mole hills. This sort of rubbish benefits no one but your ilk and clan to make living. Just waste of time!!!!

  • 1

    Gamini Dissanayake

    Your observations are remarkable and very very true and timely. In Sri Lanka money rules. This is because society is brain dead. They deserve the politicians they have.

    One of the Advertising Company shills calling himself Asaipillai has commented “Go take a Chill Pill Gamini!! Don’t make mountains out of mole hills. This sort of rubbish benefits no one but your ilk and clan to make living. Just waste of time!!!!”. On your behalf Gamini I take the liberty to ask this MF to fukoff.

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