Saad’s Death and the Super-Power Status of Corporations in Our Lives

Posted on August 31, 2009
Filed Under >Sabeen Mahmud, Economy & Development, Law & Justice, Society
24 Comments
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Sabeen Mahmud

ATP’s earlier post What Happened to Saad Khan, coherently summarizes the tragedy of a young man’s death during the filming of a reality TV show for a Unilever product. Elsewhere, Farrukh Ahmed raises a number of critical questions and has focused on demanding a response, from the multinational giants, Unilever and Mindshare.

I did a lot of multimedia and technology work for Unilever between 2000-2005 and my colleagues and I spent many nights there to get projects completed on time. There was a lot of camaraderie and we got the opportunity to observe almost all the departments in action, practically as insiders. Some of the key people who worked there during that time were fantastic and those were heady days. But I do remember commenting one day, rather wryly, that if someone were to drop dead in the next cubicle, it would probably take a week for anyone to notice.

‘The Corporation’ is a soulless machine, dedicated to the pursuit of profit. Vision statements, ethical guidelines, and corporate social responsibility programs are merely legal requirements that have no practical bearing on how companies do business. I’ll never forget the “wise” words of an intern who flippantly said one day that business and personal life have nothing to do with each other. This is what the kids are taught at business school and this is the dream that plays out in the corporate world.

Some blog commenters have questioned Saad’s sense of (ir)responsibility for participating in a potentially dangerous reality show. Others have spun conspiracy theories around the fact that Unilever’s Corporate Affairs Manager is married to the head of Geo, and hence the media silence. Facebook groups are springing up each day demanding explanations. A magazine editor has urged people to stop jumping to conclusions and has dissed online crusaders. A satirical comic strip has emerged. Twitter is abuzz with the #SaadKhan hashtag. Irrespective of points of view, people are speaking up and most of them are enraged.

While Big Media is relatively quiet, possibly in connivance with the country’s largest advertiser and media agency, the online airwaves are on fire. Hopefully, Unilever will soon have a PR crisis on its hands, because “the people” are only just getting started.

I have a single demand.

Multiple third-party vendors were involved in the Clear Shampoo reality TV show. However, the project was commissioned by Unilever, and therefore, they owe the public an explanation, supported by documentary evidence. Once they do that, next steps can be determined. The public has a “right to know” and has a responsibility to demand accountability. Right now, the facts have to be brought out into the open.

It takes a tragedy that affects people personally for a shift in perception to occur and I hope that after this, people will start thinking, even just a little bit, about the “military-industrial complex” and questioning the super-power status of corporations in our lives.

Anyone who thinks “The Corporation” genuinely gives a damn about people is naive and needs to read a lot more and watch documentaries such as “The Corporation.” This is not about Unilever but about capitalism, collusion, and greed.

For those who choose to work at behemoth corporations and consume mindlessly, of course it’s a choice. Unfortunately, peer pressure, parental pressure, and societal pressure make a lot of hapless young people believe the MNC is the only career option and that the acquisition of the latest Nike sneaker is the path to coolness and acceptance. So, relentless advocacy and activism is needed to help people understand that there are alternatives.

When I wrote my original note on my facebook page, one commenter accused me of bringing up side agendas. There was no way I was going to give up the opportunity to bring up the military-industrial complex and the status of corporations. Hardly a side-agenda, it’s central to the issue.

The flippant use of phrases such as “collateral damage” is abhorrent and just has to stop. On a side note, we have to reclaim language from corporations, advertising agencies, journos, and the Pentagon.

A lot of people discredit online activism and ask for “action”. This is a step towards action. These discussions need to be kept alive; they contribute towards building a critical mass of “resistance”. This is not about “publicity”, it’s about demanding accountability, it’s about asking questions, it’s about saying NO, we will not sit back and allow <insert appropriate invective here> to walk all over us.

Whatever we do, it will be a pitiful drop in the ocean, perhaps with no tangible effect. We have, however, started a conversation – and that means something. We need to ramp it up and take it to the next level now and that is something the community needs to brainstorm and figure out together.

As far as reality TV shows go, I despise the genre, especially the current fear flavour that appears to be all the rage. The contribution of television to the overall dumbing down of society is bad enough, but this awful content, often premeditated and misleading, nurtures mindless competitiveness and humiliates losers. And … is often extremely dangerous.

Having said that, I agree that the show that took Saad Khan’s life was in a completely controlled environment and the tragedy could have been avoided. It does indeed smell like a case of total negligence.

Whatever comes to pass in the case of Saad Khan, there is a dire need to condemn these horrific reality shows, get people like Waqar Zaka off the air before more lives are lost, and at the risk of repetition, to analyze the super-power status of corporations!!

Sabeen Mahmud is the moving spirit behind T2F (The Second Floor) and PeaceNiche. This post is based on an original note Sabeen had written on her Facebook page, the second half of the post is new and was written in response to the many comments that came on the original note.

24 responses to “Saad’s Death and the Super-Power Status of Corporations in Our Lives”

  1. MJ says:

    Well in Pakistan, reality shows are not governed under media policy. As a matter of fact there is no media policy. In other countries not only proper safety arrangements are ensured, but paramedics are on stand by and participants are covered under some insurance. At waqar zaka’s show he cunnigly asks participants to take a oath on Television that says ” I am responsible for all the actions and reactions caused by my actions” and in a way shifts the entire responsibility to the participant. There was once an incident in which the particpant was hurt but waqar said it is not my responsibility.

    As far as the unilever killing is concerned, few days back i was shocked to read unilever saying that they are not liable for this accident. It is true that these MNCs that are a dream work place for most of the b school grads practice policies that are worst then the seth companies. The only forum that is active in this incident is internet and initially aarpix.com was told to remove this news but then it spread like wild fire. Unfortunately other media groups do not have the conscious to report that incident.

    The only way to make unilever realize of thier ill practices is a massive online protest and boycott of their products. When thier numbers will fall then only these blood suckers will realize the crime.

    Amazingly Justice Chaudhry is yet to take a SUO moto against it but this is least likely.

    Today it is Saad, next can be our loved one. Rise before it is too late.

  2. Ammar says:

    It is essential to understand that these corporations are pretty much number driven, any variance from targets, and the gora boss sitting in Europe would make sure heads start rolling.

    Firstly, just stop using its products, its Ice Cream division is already in a loss, so simply switching to other better ice-creams can send some sort of ripples through their system. Start vandalizing their billboards, random advertisments etc. If they can get away with murder, why can’t we just screw around with their publicity campaigns which take millions to develop. Sabotage their BTL events, you know those events where random wasted people come over to get their hair shampooed, and how kids get excited when their clothes get dirty. Protests should happen where their dumb activities take place.

    If you people are expecting the BIG MEDIA to do something, then I don’t think any of these useless media channels would actually do anything about it, because they’re bloody fed by this company, and integrity is the last thing that they care about.

    This issue should not die down, the company should come forward and ACCEPT responsibility. I wouldn’t be surprised if their PR/External/Wasted/Useless Shit department is monitoring all these blogs and stuff.

    And has anyone tried contacting NYT,WSJ typish newspapers, they just love to expose something bad done by a big corp. which is not paying them. So just sending out this story to all those major newspapers out there, just might be a good idea. After all, their may be FREE MEDIA somewhere in the world. Just somewhere.

  3. Farrukh says:

    The larger issue of corporate responsibility deserves to be discussed seriously and not latched on to emotional episodes like this one. I think the topic is very important but is treated flippantly by this piece and deserves a more thought out discussion that does look at all sides of the issue. I hope ATP will carry more on this and maybe Prof. Najam himself will write about it looking at what can actually be done rather than just emotional slogans.

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