Ad-Savvy Reformer

If advertising can be defined as ‘strategic marketing communications,’
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan can be described as one of the best advertising
practitioners of the 19th century.

By Pirzada Sharf e Alam | October 2020

The 90-year period starting from the 1857 mutiny against the British ruler in India till the 1947 partition of British India, holds great significance in the history of advertising in the subcontinent. In those days, print advertising of goods or services gradually evolved into a common practice and advertisements were printed in various newspapers, magazines and periodicals in Urdu, English and other languages.

Considering the rapidly evolving socio-political and economic backdrop of the 19th and mid-20th centuries, one must appreciate the farsightedness that characterized the mission and life-long struggle led by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, a social and educational reformer. In place of luring the Muslims to adapt to Western civilization as well as its social fabric blindfolded, Sir Syed emphasised the acquisition of western education since it was based on scientific lines and stressed the need to update the conventional education system of India as per modern requirements.

If advertising can be defined as ‘strategic marketing communications,’ Sir Syed Ahmed Khan can be described as one of the best advertising practitioners of the 19th century. After the 1857 mutiny in particular, Sir Syed embarked on a promotional spree to promote scientific education among the Indian Muslims as a ‘product’ or a saleable commodity, with the manifest intent of bringing in social change and rectifying social behaviour towards knowledge acquisition and reasoning. Making the best of his talents and ability, Syed Ahmed heavily resorted to public relations, took out-of-the-box communication initiatives and exploited almost all marketing channels available in the middle of the 19th century to sell his modern education ideology as a ‘product’. His promotional approach included, but not excluded, the establishment of schools and societies and holding a series of dialogues along these lines, as well as producing supporting literature in the form of journals, books and periodicals.

The publication of the book ‘Asar-Al-Sanadid’ (‘The Remnant Signs of Ancient Heroes’) in 1847 brought Sir Syed Ahmed huge acclaim from literary circles. However, ‘Asar-Al-Sanadid’, together with the rest of his literary contributions, had a dominantly journalistic approach and had negligible literary flavour. He appears to be more a journalist than a man of letters and sometimes even his journalistic side is overshadowed by an advertiser lurking behind him. Interestingly, Sir Syed Ahmed had always been the first person to understand, dissect and explain in writing the causes of the Muslim revolts against the British East India Company, or simply British India.

From writing ‘Tarikh-e-Sarkashi-E-Bijnor’ to publishing ‘Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind,’ he always had a rough and ready communication campaign on hand and took no time in publishing a comprehensive fact-finding report, which was well-researched and duly supplemented by undeniable proofs and supporting documents. Doing so, he emerged as a seasoned advertising practitioner who mostly attracted public attention towards his products and their salient features, while paying less regard to language usage, grammar and sentence structures.

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The writer holds a doctorate in Urdu Advertising and is associated with Spectrum Y&R Communication (Pvt) Ltd. as an Associate Creative Director. He can be reached at sharf15@gmail.com

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