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Tehran Letter: How To Get Ahead In Iranian Advertising


Thursdays are peculiar days in Iran. They are part of the weekend, and yet officially they are not.

Usually the Iranian week starts on Saturday and ends on Thursday, with only Friday as the weekend, but Thursdays remain something in between. Although all state organizations and ministries are closed on Thursdays, banks and private businesses are usually open till noon.

That means Thursday afternoons are a semi-holiday: a time people cherish to do their shopping or hang out in cafes.

I was having some friends over to dinner, so went to do some shopping at my favorite Baghali (small grocery store) and chatted with the shopkeeper, Mr. Akbar. "What do you have in that's new?" I asked him, "and which products are getting more expensive?”

Dairy products might get cheaper, he said, but the quality is likely to get worse after Ramadan. “Bread has already become more expensive and the government is taking control of the flour. There are complaints about the quality of the flour so the bakers are increasing their prices.”

No one in the neighborhood really doubts Mr. Akbar, but then again, no one has the time or the will to argue with him on a hot summer afternoon.

One of my dinner guests that evening was Ms. Shirin, a 35-year-old creative director at a major advertising agency.
They have their own advertising agencies who pretty much have total immunity. If our agency printed anything related to the United States, you guys would be bringing me cigarettes in Evin Prison


After dinner I served coffee and Shirin asked me if I had a popular brand of instant coffee -- let's call it Brand X -- as if there was something wrong with having instant coffee. “Is there anything wrong with that?” I asked, puzzled and a little taken aback that a newcomer to my house would criticize my choice of coffee.

“No, sorry, I didn't want to complain, I was just wondering if you could find it easily in the shops?” she asked, as if she already knew the answer.

"You know, a few months back we ran into trouble at our agency designing advertising for their products,” she said, referring to Brand X. One of the guests replied, mimicking a horror-movie narrator, “Yes, I heard that they have Zionist shareholders!”

Shirin shook her head. ”This is what we have problems with. We work very hard to get a contract with a big company, and then it's the back-room politics that mess up the whole thing.”

“What do you mean?" I said. "What does advertising have to do with politics? The streets are filled with advertisements. It was only 15 years ago that advertising was considered to be a Western value, but now we have advertisements coming out of our ears. You guys must be rolling in money,” I said.

Liver-Kebab Advertizing

Shirin replied: “Did you know that only five months ago grocers and shops were told that they had to take [Brand X] products off their shelves or their windows would get smashed? This was just after we had signed a contract with a part of this company to advertise their products. We had to cancel the contract.”

I remembered that my favorite grocer Mr. Akbar had told me something along the same lines, so I asked: “So if they are Zionists, why are their products available again? And if you are not doing their advertising for them, then who is?”

Another guest, a professional photographer, piped up: “The liver salesman! I used to work for an advertising agency a couple of years ago whose owner used to be a liver-kebab salesman and was damned proud of it. He got a deal through his brother who was in the Revolutionary Guards for a major advertising campaign and then he opened an agency and hired people like me.”

Shirin shook her head and said, “You know, things like this happen all the time, and they are the most important obstacles preventing the growth of companies like ours. There are not enough projects for us to hire enough people, so we each have to do so much work.“ "And then the liver-kebab salesman gets the big projects, " the photographer said with a laugh.

I began to clear the dinner table and as I picked up a popular brand of American cola, I asked: "What about this? Isn't this American and yet they have posters and adverts?”

Shirin replied quickly: “The guy who owns the local producer is a close friend of Ayatollah Khamenei. It doesn't matter if the company or the brand is American or even has Zionist shareholders back in the United States or wherever," she said. "They have their own advertising agencies who pretty much have total immunity. Now if, God forbid, our agency printed anything related to the United States, you guys would be bringing me cigarettes in Evin Prison.”

Before we turned on the TV to watch the news, Shirin had the last word. “Laws, regulations, and life in Iran is like constantly living on Thursdays, you never know if you can or cannot do things. You just have to live for the moment because the next moment you might not exist.”

Ahmad is a pseudonym for a journalist in the Iranian capital, Tehran, who contributed this piece to RFE/RL's Radio Farda
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