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Dandruff, Djarum & Desire

If TV advertising were the only glimpse of Indonesian society that an interested onlooker ever had, it would certainly create a strange impression. Someone working or studying in Yogyakarta these days has 16 commercial TV channels to choose from*.  And, of course, the raison d’etre for every one of these channels is to carry advertising. This fact is brutally obvious when we see how TV ads are allowed to disrupt the entertainment on offer.

A blockbuster film, for instance, might typically be presented in short 5 to 10 minute segments, broken up by ad sequences which may stretch to 7 or 8 minutes. It can become quite an ordeal. Surely people need to watch the films if they are going to get exposed to the advertising? Only time will tell whether Indonesian TV executives are getting the balance right.

And it’s not the only kind of balance that is questionable. Seen through the peculiar peep hole created by TV advertising, Indonesia might seem like a nation full of people with only one thing on their mind: being terrified of not finding, or hanging on to, true love.

The message is not subtle – nor is it restricted to the more familiar or obvious errors we might make. What chance of finding love do I have if I suffer from dandruff? If I can’t choose the right shampoo, well… what hope is there? Then again, buying the best brands of shampoo, soap, toothpaste, acne cream, skin whitener and deodorant – for example – have long been promoted as ways of keeping us lucky in love. There’s a bit of universality in play, perhaps.

A waitress anywhere in the world – and not just in Indonesia – would thank her lucky stars she’d used an expensive underarm spray before serving her favourite rock star – who happens to be at one of her tables – especially when she manages to get him to bury his nose in her armpit – albeit briefly – as she leans across with his coffee cup. If her hair is in good shape too, her skin is clear, and her toothpaste of choice has an ‘active whitening ingredient’, she will at least have been ‘all she can be’. Fortune smiles on the wise consumer.

Make no mistake about it, in Indonesia the fear of romantic failure affects an ever widening (and worrying) variety of items on our shopping lists. Certain boiled sweets will make our mouths more suitable for kissing. The right fabric conditioner or washing powder will make our partner more inclined to hug and cuddle us. The wrong bottled tea will make my tongue swell up grossly, and I will be unable to talk to my friend’s good-looking friend. If I grease my hair down people will give me a second look. If I use the right hire purchase arrangement to buy a new motorbike I will make myself more eligible (in the eyes of women). Women, meanwhile, are offered the option of more ‘feminine’ motorbikes (over which one can presumably sling a dozen doomed chickens or a rusty blue gas cylinder, just like with all the other motorbikes in Yogyakarta).

Cigarettes, like everywhere else, are smoked by brave, physically fit, sophisticated and, above all, desirable males. (We still do not see women smoking in TV adverts and those who do – in soap operas – are almost invariably wicked). It would also seem that cigarettes may prolong marriage. And ‘staying married’ is certainly an issue addressed by adverts. Without air conditioning (and despite the satin sheets) the wife kicks her husband out of bed. The husband becomes more supportive to his wife now that diapers are more absorbent and easier to use. The wife’s choice of soup seasoning causes the husband to count his children and contemplate adding to them. The soya sauce used by the unmarried neighbour makes the husband feel some unfaithful inklings, but the marriage is saved by his wife’s decision to change to the ‘correct’ brand of soya sauce.

The wrong mosquito coils can make marital harmony impossible. Mobile phones are for chatting idly to loved ones, and nothing else: buy the right SIM card and your circle of friends will apparently include a glamorous selection of Jakarta-based celebrities. And adverts for energy drinks, tonics for men (“Aduh! Tiga kali!”), slimming potions, and feminine ‘stamina’ drinks, all basically have the same thing in mind. Or – more to the point – they all basically want to put the same thing in our minds.

Folks studying at the Wisma Bahasa, generally speaking, don’t have enough time (or the inclination?) to watch a lot of television, and some may find it too brash or bewildering even if they do. It’s not as if these ads are too much help to a new language learner. And yet, despite its lopsided obsessions, TV advertising does offer some clues about how Indonesia is changing. New strains of so-called sophistication are being defined. English words are sprinkled more liberally than they used to be. Gender stereotypes abound but are now being offset by new female images and role models. Consumerism reigns supreme and even deeply ingrained beliefs can be affected by the constant barrage. Values mingle with desires. Love, ambition and shopping are all rolled into one. (by Adrian)

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* The 16 terrestrial channels currently available in Yogyakarta are TVRI, TPI, RCTI, SCTV, TRANS, LATIVI, METRO, TV7, ANTV, MTV, INDOSIAR, TVRI (YOGYA), TVRI (JAVA TENGAH), and three brand new local channels RBTV, JOGJA TV, and the not yet active TUGU TV.

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