October Issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

Saad Khan, 32, father of four children, tragically lost his life on August 19 while completing a challenge for a reality show that was being filmed in Bangkok, Thailand. Sponsored by Unilever Pakistan, the winner of the 13-episode show was to be crowned as the brand ambassador for Clear shampoo (a Unilever product).

On September 14, nearly a month after Mr Khan’s death, Newsline’s Amna Khalique had the opportunity to interview Fareshteh Aslam, 
external communications manager 
at Unilever Pakistan. Newsline has published this interview in two parts. Below is Part 2. (Click here to read Part 1).

To read Amna Khalique’s in-depth article on the tragedy, “Who is to Blame?” please pick up a copy of the October issue of Newsline on newsstands now.

Q: Did someone from Unilever review the proposal of the show, including a thorough examination of the safety procedures involved?

A: Mindshare came up with the idea of the reality show. Yes, we had the choice to say no, but reality shows are what draw audiences, and it seemed like a very good idea at that point. Our brand managers were sitting through it; they said, “I hope all safety measures will be taken.” And they [Mindshare] said, “Of course all safety measures will be taken.”

Q: So no one from Unilever reviewed the safety procedures?

A: They [Mindshare] were the producers who were supposed to ensure that everything goes well on the set.

Q: What about the production house based in Karachi …

A: That is Seemi Productions, but again, they were contacted by Mindshare.

Q: What about the contract the contestants signed? Was that with Mindshare or Unilever?

A: They signed a contract with Unilever and not Mindshare.

Q: Why didn’t they sign one with the producers of the show instead of Unilever?

A: You see, when you look at it right now, you wonder why it was done this way. Unilever and Mindshare work very closely together, so it wasn’t even a consideration. ‘Theek hai, contract hai [sign] kar diya.’ It was a standard talent contract [which stated that] this content which is being shot will be used for Unilever’s programme. Sometimes content is shot and then goes over to our competition. Keeping that in mind we had sort of drawn this contract which didn’t include any other legal clause in it.

Q: Would it be possible to have a copy of the contract the contestants signed?

A: It was a standard talent contract. Basically the kind of contract we got Aaminah Sheikh to sign, [saying] that whatever they film will be used for Unilever. I don’t think there was a special contract made for the reality show.

Q: Was there insurance money involved, in case of an accident or an emergency?

A: That is all something you need to ask Mindshare — whether they had [allocated money for] insurance — because all that was outsourced to them.

Q: So who was accountable in case of an emergency? Unilever or Mindshare? Where does the buck stop?

A: Regardless of whether Unilever is accountable or not, we are compensating the family.

Q: Is the compensation amount known to the media?

A: Come on, we can’t give the amount because it’s something that’s not done. Its information that only the family is privy to. It’s a sizable amount and if, in a country like Pakistan, it becomes known, then you’re actually putting the kids at risk. There’s no way that we’ll ever disclose how much it was and I don’t think the family will either.

Q: The news of Saad’s death was broken via the internet and after his obituary was published in the newspaper. Why didn’t Unilever issue a press release immediately after his death?

A: The day it happened, August 19, I think everybody was in shock. The second and third day was when his family started to come in from Australia and Dubai.  And the only thing we were interested in at that point was when and how to bring the body across. That became everyone’s top priority because the way flights were structured, if it had come on Saturday we would’ve lost another three days. So I think no body was even thinking of the media at that point.

Q: Was Unilever in touch with the family?

A: Constantly. The moment it happened, we were constantly in touch with the family. When his brother flew in, our brand manager was there to greet the brother. We kept meeting with them, twice a day. Ever since then we’ve been talking to him [the brother] practically every day, to the mamu who flew in from the States, and as well to the girl’s father, who also came down from the States. We’ve been meeting with them for the two weeks [after the incident]. All of last week, because they’ve all gone away, there’s been phone contact.

Q: Did someone from Unilever break the news to the family?

A: Mindshare contacted the brother, and the moment he landed in Karachi, the Unilever team was with them.

Q: I have heard that Saad Khan’s wife was supposed to fly in that evening to join her husband …

A: I’ve heard the same, that she was supposed to fly out and meet him after the challenge [on August 19], but she was supposed to be on a holiday. I’m not sure and I haven’t asked.

Q: Again, in terms of safety, were the contestants given any safety training?

A: Mindshare would’ve known about this. As far as I know, there was no safety training. It wasn’t supposed to be life threatening. Nobody set out thinking that this is going to take their lives. They were just supposed to walk across the pond. Sure, that thing was tested by the local Thai who were shorter and smaller. It [the challenge] was pre-tested. In fact, they [the testers] had to put on 12-kg backpacks and had to swim across.

Q: So what exactly went wrong? Did he pull a muscle or …?

A: I wish I knew. The autopsy said it was death by drowning, I really wish I could give you that answer.

Q: Do you know if the contestants were told what to do in case of an emergency? Any signal or anything else perhaps?

A: He said help before he started to go down. He cried “Help!” Then he flipped on his back and went forward for another 30 seconds, I think. They all saw he moved and thought he was was fine, but then when he started to go down, they all dived in. The crew, the finalists who were there, and even the one who was on the ladder, he turned around and went back into the pond. They couldn’t get to him.

Q: You’ve told me how deep the pond was, but how big was the pond?

A: I’ve not been able to understand because different people say different things. The length of a small room is what they keep saying. See, the other three contestants went across it in a minute, so it can’t be very big.

Q: So why were they not able to find him?

A: Because the water was very dirty. It has rained and it had become very muddy so they couldn’t locate him.

Q: Was there underwater footage?

A: When this happened, it became a police case and the police confiscated all the footage.

Q: What were the previous challenges like?

A: There’s a whole booklet and I can get that [for] you if you want.

Author’s Note:

Fareshteh Aslam later emailed Newsline and provided these descriptions of some of the other challenges:

  • In a grooming episode, contestants were given 20 minutes to go to a shared walk-in closet, get dressed and return. They were judged on this hurried appearance and then given cash and tips by judges to go revamp their look.
  • The type of tasks they had to do during the earlier sessions involved using sports cycles, jet skis; [they also had to] find their way through a jungle in five minutes making use of signposts along the way.
  • Participants were asked to perform a dance genre (with the help of a choreographer) that depicted their style (bhangra, disco, rap, etc).
  • Run through a football field with high pressure hoses trained on contestants while they attempt to erect a tower from cubes.

Q: So who was responsible for the safety of the contestants?

A: All the production people involved, who should’ve ensured safety.

Q: So would that include Mindshare, Working Hands and Seemi Productions?

A: From what I know, Seemi Productions was just hired to source the talent. I don’t think they were involved in the filming of the show, but you need to check with Mindshare on this.

Q: Before undertaking any project/sponsorships, at every MNC, a representative from the brand activation department or the Health, Safety and Environment department reviews the proposal. Was Unilever’s brand activation department involved?

A: They weren’t involved in this, not at all. You know when when it comes to big events like this and the Lux Style Awards, we are hardly involved. It’s all given over to a third party. Because they are the experts in the field, we know how to sell soap and shampoo we don’t know how to make shows.

Q: Was anyone from Mindshare in Bangkok for the filming of the show?

A: The whole team from Mindshare was present.

Q: Were the contestants aware of who would be responsible in case of an accident?

A: I don’t know. I don’t think anybody expected there to be an accident like this. I don’t think the topic ever came up. It wasn’t supposed to be risky. Nobody set out to deliberately put them at risk in any way. They were just supposed to swim across a pond.

Q: So basically, safety was overlooked by all the parties concerned?

A: I’m sure the production house must’ve thought about this, I can’t say for sure. When you’re doing something like this, if they had an ambulance there, I’m sure they had a fair idea that they may just need some help.

Q: How many contestants were there?

A: There were seven in total. I don’t know how they were eliminating them. I know up to three rounds, all of them were present. On the third round, one of them got eliminated. I think each stunt might have taken two episodes … I don’t know how they did it. I know four of them were to make it to the finals. Three made it, and of the four that were eliminated, one was going to join the finalists.

Q: How were the contestants picked out?

A: They were auditioned — Seemi Productions handled that.

Q: Was it advertised in the papers or was it by word-of-mouth?

A: I think it was by word-of-mouth.

Q: Do you know what kind of auditions they held? Were they asked to undergo similar challenges?

A: No idea.

Q: Which channel was this show going to be aired on?

A: We were going to record and make a pilot and then give it to a channel.

Q: So what exactly was Unilever’s role in this?

A: Unilever was the sponsor of the show — we were paying for the filming and such.

Q: Again, can I have the contact information for Working Hands?

A: That you’ll have to get from Mindshare.

We don’t have any issues talking to the media. At Unilever, we understand that this is our show and we will take responsibility for it. Regardless of … liability is a very legal term right now. Liability is something that if we were to talk about that, we would’ve waited for the police report, waited for the investigation to be completed or asked them to take us to court to establish liability. We didn’t do any of that. A guy had died on our set and the family has to be looked after.

Q: Is Unilever going to continue to work with Mindshare?

A: Broadmind is a department of Mindshare, its an activation arm of Mindshare. For the moment we are not dealing with them at all. Not with them or with the company in Bangkok who did all the arrangements, not with Seemi Productions. Mindshare is our media buying agency, and so that is a global contract and that we have to honour. But media buying is separate to activation.

Q: How is it different?

A: Activation is on-ground, recording and filming the show. It does not include ads, those are done by agencies.