A new face of capitalism in Pakistan

Advertising helps pay for the 24-hour-a-day police checkpoints in Islamabad, Pakistan, though the authority to collect the fees is in question.
Advertising helps pay for the 24-hour-a-day police checkpoints in Islamabad, Pakistan, though the authority to collect the fees is in question. (David Nakamura)
By David Nakamura
Monday, November 8, 2010

IN ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN In this capital city, where preventing terrorist attacks is a growth industry, the police department and private entrepreneurs have teamed up on a creative method of protecting the public while marketing to a uniquely captive audience.

At the city's 60-plus police checkpoints, slowing motorists are greeted by officers armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles - and by a dazzling display of brightly colored advertisements plastered on jersey barriers, metal gates, guard booths and sun umbrellas. Juxtaposed with the stern-faced gunmen peering out from nearby snipers' nests, the ads create an awkward tableau of peppy marketing and deadly serious force.

"Zefra Restaurante - Bar-B-Que with a twist," announces the wraparound red-and-orange wallpaper encircling one guard booth.

"Stop. Security Check. Tasty," reads the lettering on a metal gate sponsored by Tasty snack foods, producer of "supari sweets," which are made of betel nuts and saccharine menthol. Pepsi, Wateen telecommunications, Ufone mobile and Murree Brewery are among the other companies shelling out cash for the prime marketing real estate.

This strange concoction of creative, free-market capitalism and claustrophobic police-state security reflects the fitful transition underway in Pakistan as it leaves behind its history of military rule and tries to make democracy work under the shadow of a persistent terrorist threat.

But to executives such as Fahd Haroon, communications chief for Samaa television, the arrangement makes perfect sense.

"For people in Islamabad, whenever they see the checkpoints, they see Samaa - a news channel that is responsible and committed to the war against terror," said Haroon, whose company signed a one-year marketing deal to slap its blue logo and Web address on seven police booths. "It's a very good advertising opportunity."

Islamabad's checkpoints were erected as a response to a series of high-profile attacks that culminated with the September 2008 suicide bombing at the Marriott Hotel, which killed 52 people.

Unlike most Pakistani cities, Islamabad has a lush suburban feel, with wide roads and a healthy tree canopy, grand government buildings and upscale neighborhoods for wealthy Pakistanis and foreigners.

The checkpoints are located primarily on major access points in and out of the city and on roads near government offices, embassies and tourist attractions. An inconvenience for motorists, the checkpoints also have created an unavoidable eyesore. Still, most residents have been willing to put up with them, considering that attacks in the capital are down sharply.

But in answering the government's call for tighter security, the Islamabad police struggled to pay for it, said Mirwais Niaz, a senior police official.

Cost wasn't the only problem. No sooner did police set up the jersey barriers, Niaz said, than several motorists - apparently unable to see the unadorned concrete blocks - plowed into them.

"What we did was paint them with reflective paint, but even that didn't work," Niaz said. "Then we made some boards that said, 'Sorry for the inconvenience.' But at times they would break in a full-blown wind."

Running short on cash, the police cut a deal with Zic, a Bolivian motor oil company that agreed to cover the barriers in bright paint and reflective tape in exchange for the right to put its name on them. Not to be outdone, the Emirates National Oil Co. painted hundreds of barriers in bright yellow and red, with its own green logo on the side.

By late 2009, Muhammad Taimur Hassan, 26, the heir to the United Neon Signs company, had a brainstorm. On a trip to China, Hassan had seen guard booths with small bathrooms and kitchens. Why not let his company build similar structures in Islamabad, Hassan proposed to the police, with the construction costs covered by advertisers?

United Neon Signs completed its first guard booth in March and has built 12 altogether, at about $60,000 apiece, Hassan said. Samaa television is paying an undisclosed monthly fee to put its logo on seven booths, and Hassan recently returned from Karachi, the country's business hub, where he pitched his concept to other companies.

He sees the effort as nothing less than a patriotic call to duty.

"The private sector has always been scared to invest in Pakistan," Hassan said. "We have to provoke the investors, the private sector, the businessmen who can build the nation in this manner, and also save the country."

Alas, not everyone has acted so nobly. The success of the checkpoint advertising has spawned a predictable cash grab: The national Capital Development Authority, which controls Islamabad's advertising rights, recently ruled that the police department does not have the legal authority to collect the revenue, and the two parties are negotiating a settlement.

On a recent afternoon, university students Asad Mehmood, 21, and Shahbaz Khan, 20, were waiting for a bus across the street from a checkpoint.

"They should avoid putting those in busy places," Mehmood said of the advertising. "Someone might stare at them and have an accident."

Perhaps, Khan suggested, police could instead put up public service announcements, such as traffic rules or security restrictions.

On the street in front of them, cars crawled through the police stop, then headed toward the president's palace, where more guards, razor wire and Zic-sponsored barriers awaited.

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