Ad designer Parvez Sheik Fareed recently made an image so controversial that the Swiss Federal Railways removed it from their train stations: a Swiss cross turned into a swastika. Today, he has no regrets and doesn’t believe in boundaries for political advertising.
Like his work, Parvez Sheik Fareed makes a statement wherever he goes – the Zurich-based copywriter stands out from the crowd with his thick, round glasses, groomed mustache and statement wardrobe. Born to British and Swiss parents, he speaks impeccable English although he grew up in Switzerland.
Here are the first steps he takes when coming up with ideas for provocative and effective ads.
In a longer conversation with swissinfo.ch, he also shared why he thinks political advertisers should take more risks and why money isn’t the only factor in successful campaigns.
swissinfo.ch: Should there be rules about what is and isn’t allowed in advertising – such as lying or exaggerating statistics – for the sake of a healthy democracy?
Parvez Sheik Fareed: I think you can provide interpretations, I don't think that's a problem. One example I saw was from the [conservative right] Swiss People’s Party, showing a linear development of the number of foreigners coming into Switzerland. You can say that, it's not a lie - it's a look into the future of how things could be. Maybe it's linear, maybe it's not, I don't know. If somebody wants to say that, I think they should be able to say that.
I don't think that advertising itself has the power to shape people's opinions to the extent that people will become robots who just follow in one direction. Other things also come into play - the media, the newspaper, chats with friends, personal experiences which are not to be underestimated.
If we have rules, who is going to check that they are being followed? I think the public debate will regulate it anyway. If somebody is lying, I just need to be smarter than them and out-think them, rather than be upset that they didn't comply with the rules. I don't think making more rules or more fences accomplishes anything good.
You always have to question everything in life. If I were charged with doing an ad for a political party or campaign, I would think about how we're going to do it better than everybody else and get noticed for the right thing.
swissinfo.ch: Do you ever design or take on a project where you don't fully believe in the cause?
P.S.F.: When you get asked to do a [commercial] ad, you're not supposed to ask whether the product behind it is good or rubbish. The job is to do better advertising to beat the competing advertising out there. Of course, if the product doesn't work, people will realise that even with brilliant advertising.
If I worked for a political party, I think I would have to at least have a certain level of agreement with the political values the party stands for. If a party were to approach me, I would have to think it through and decide whether or not to do it.
Certain political parties want to feel comfortable with what advertising is out there, rather than…having the goal of getting people’s attention. It’s about working with people who understand the goal of advertising and are willing to take the necessary steps to get exposed. Being exposed is uncomfortable from time to time, people will not agree with you, people will insult you and attack you. And if you're not comfortable with that, you'd better not do it.
The swastika ad was my private initiative, I believed in the cause of voting against [the issue]. I thought we had to spark the debate to another level where it actually shows the bigger picture, in light of other upcoming initiatives from the Swiss People’s Party.
I think it's important to have a reflective thought process, you shouldn't just be provocative for the sake of it. I obviously thought, was it too radical? Was it offending people? Is it right to offend people? Should we offend people? At the end of the day, it's just pointing out something in a very straight-talking way. And based on my principles I thought, it's the right thing to do.
swissinfo.ch: What did you learn about Swiss society from the way people reacted to the ad?
P.S.F.: Generally, regardless of what it is, the first reaction people have towards something is negative. And a couple days later when everything has calmed down, then you have the more reflective opinions of people who might agree with what you had to say or what you did. But this always takes a bit of time, it's always a bit delayed.
Particularly in the age of social media, the fact that people write negative comments doesn't prove that the overall reaction is negative. It's always a question of what you're measuring it against.
One benefit of the so-called "digital age" is that you can react faster. You can see what's happening, you can read newspapers, you can chat, people can approach you. The idea to put the ad up on a billboard in the station came during the campaign.
If [politician] Martin Landolt hadn't picked up the ad and tweeted it, I don't know what would have happened - maybe it wouldn't have gotten the attention it did. We don't know.
swissinfo.ch: How does Switzerland’s political advertising culture stack up against other countries?
P.S.F.: The Swiss People’s Party has a unique way in the world of advertising. Their advertising is brilliant. They understand how to make good advertising and get people to vote…but there’s a lack of other parties making better advertising and outsmarting them.
Switzerland in particular has a great variety of political parties, and they all have clear ideas of the kind of society and values they want to create. But [most of] their advertisements seem to fail, and I've always been a bit puzzled by why they haven't been able to put what they want people to vote for out there in clear, striking ways.
I think the UK does a far better job. The conservatives had this brilliant ‘Labour isn't working’ ad and then…the Labour party finally managed to up the game and did some brilliant ads as well. And that's when you really had good advertisements from all corners. In Switzerland, people say ‘I'm going to vote for that because I don't know what the other parties stand for’. From that point of view I think there's room for much improvement in Switzerland.
swissinfo.ch: What would you change about your approach to the swastika advertisement, in hindsight?
P.S.F.: I would get more billboards.
Contact the author of this article on Twitter: @vdevore