Ethics in Advertisements, business; it’s BRAC

Social businesses: the BRAC Chicken case

June 17, 2012

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Advertising has always been a subtle art, and it is an art that businessmen carry off well. Pollution, bribery, worker abuse, monopoly pricing – no matter what blames we lay upon them, businessmen can rarely be accused of hurting the public sentiment. That is where social businesses stand out. Take the BRAC Chicken case. The automated broiler chicken processing plant started in 2004 and currently processes 5,000 chickens a day. They are the biggest suppliers of chicken to the popular food chain KFC. BRAC Chicken launched their frozen foods franchise earlier last month. The media was abuzz with it. Nutritious food and whatnot. Everybody had a good meal at the press conference and the reports were full of praise about the virtues of frozen processed chicken.

Then came their advertisement. Suddenly across billboards in the city and in newspaper front pages there were children stating with sour faces that they ‘hated khichuri, tehari, semai’ (our own cuisine) and other children with smiles saying they ‘loved BRAC chicken’ (The billboards have been replaced now with only the latter part). Well the most obvious fact that some noticed is that using children to advertise is pure evil but nobody cares. There are thousands of ads everyday with kids in them.

This particular ad however, is an outrage by its own virtue. What do you mean children hate khichuri? (That seemed to be the worst part. Tehari and semai are festive and heavy food perhaps, but khichuri is a household thing. It’s one of the things we Bangalees associate ourselves with.) The blogosphere went mad. And when BRAC started withdrawing the ad, an online newspaper took a potshot at them (actually they called up nutritionists who said frozen chicken was absolute junk, so, more than a potshot). In blogs, angry reactions to the ad mostly ended up in heated discussions about how NGOs and civil society folk are ‘making money selling poverty’, but that’s another story.

So, why this fiasco? One has to admit this is unprecedented in the history of marketing, unless you count the ‘lost in translation’ cases – there was this once that KFC’s ‘finger lickin’ good’ allegedly turned into a less-than-appetising ‘bite your fingers off’ in Mandarin. Look at it this way. Let’s pick the most common soap commercial. I’m absolutely certain the big bollywood star with glowing skin does not use the 30-taka soap I buy every month. But she’s nice to look at, and not challenging established social notions. Businessmen know their PR 101.

Rumour has it that those terrible khichuri-hating lines were meted out by Nazra Sabet, the head of programs at BRAC Enterprises. A civil engineer from BUET, Nazra joined BRAC in 2007. Her husband owns an advertising firm. That might have compelled her to believe she could write ad slogans too. This is one possibility – that the mess was one person’s fault.

Then again, one of my colleagues have suggested that this is an effect of westernisation, or the conscious effort to westernise the society. Well, no. Junk food has been here in this country for the last 40 years, fried chicken for the last 20, frozen chicken products (Aftab) about the same. It is this large- scale advertising that is new.

Truth is that with this commercial, the cat is out of the bag. In their own little cloistered world, our society’s most educated and revered people, with their personal cults (www.fazleabed.com), are wholly unlike businessmen or politicians because they don’t even understand the people that they are trying to deceive.

BRAC Chicken is one of BRAC’s social enterprises, which essentially have two targets: one, empowering the poor, two, financing BRAC’s development programmes. This the broiler plant apparently achieves by buying chicken from ‘a large number of independent rural farmers’ and BRAC’s own commercial poultry farms. Some one million women are supposedly employed under the poultry programme.

The idea of social business was borne into the world by the Nobel laureate Dr. Muhammad Yunus, who stated in his book, Building Social Business, that such businesses were meant to do “everything for the benefit of others and nothing for the owners”. BRAC Chicken’s sudden venture into frozen food arena is understandable – they are cheap to make and can be priced fairly high. The profits accrued will certainly be deployed to the welfare of our poverty-striken land. No doubt that once poverty is eradicated, there will arise a new generation who will love chicken nuggets and wear fashionable clothes, thereby ensuring that the development programmes continue to build our beloved nation. Unless, that is, those idiot bloggers keep complaining and nutritionists keep saying that nuggets are junk food and khichuri is a balanced, healthy meal.

In conclusion, another far simpler explanation for the advertisement does peep into my mind, though. I’ve had the khichuri they sell at BUET cafeteria, and it is a culinary nightmare. Could it be, perhaps, that the head of programmes at BRAC Enterprises really hates khichuri and the ad was simply a expression of her anguished student life?