Do commercial messages that pounce at us from newspapers reflect what we are all about or are they an attempt to shape our priorities?
By Krish Warrier
To paraphrase British writer Norman Douglas—You can tell the idea of a nation by its advertisements. Let’s take a look at what the advertisements say about our nation. A cursory glance at the print ads appearing in the Old Lady of Bori Bunder aka The Times of India is revealing. There’s something to be said about the “flap” ads—not very flattering at that. Most of them confuse the hell out of the reader. For starters, you cannot figure out where to open the newspaper, how to open it and where the first page begins. But, for sure, the formula seems to be working. Because, as everyone can see, “what The Times of India thinks today, the other newspapers think tomorrow.”
Who are the ones who advertise on the flap and multiple masthead pages while shelling out huge amounts of money? The issue of The Times of India, dated February 20, 2016, had four mast-head pages. Besides tender advertisements, the advertisers were a builder, e-commerce portals and, of course, a cell phone brand.
Gone are the days of the builders’ ads from Jaya or Makhija (two advertising agencies that used to specialize in ads for builders) in the solus position. Those ads were targeted at the middle class looking for a roof over the head and talked about affordability and proximity to the railway station. Today, you have “lifestyle” advertising. And the philosophy is: if you have it, flaunt it. So you have an Amitabh Bachchan endorsing Palava City somewhere near Dombivli (Bachchan wouldn’t have heard about this distant suburb of Mumbai before he was paid mega-bucks to endorse it) and his daughter-in-law “ambassadoring” some other pencil-in-the-sky. And what about the price of a two-bedroom apartment in one of these advertized projects in a far-flung suburb like Thane? Nothing less than a crore and a quarter minimum. Looks like India’s wallowing in the moolah and the banks drowning in NPAs.
So, what does all this mean for us as a nation?
First off, the use of celebrities to promote everything from soaps to residential complexes. Aravind Adiga captures the essence of it. In his Booker Prize winning book, The White Tiger, the protagonist asks, “Do you know about Hanuman, sir? He was the faithful servant of the god Rama, and we worship him in our temples because he is a shining example of how to serve your masters with absolute fidelity, love, and devotion. These are the kinds of gods they have foisted on us Mr. Jiabao. Understand, now, how hard it is for a man to win his freedom in India.” So, yes, as a people we don’t want to think for ourselves, we prefer just to follow someone or something. We want to be led.
Then there’s the e-commerce brigade. It dreams of mega-bucks. The young are chucking lucrative jobs to see if they can become the next Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg, or whoever it is. Most are working out of a hole in the wall with dreams in their eyes. For every Ola or Flipkart or Snapdeal, there are a thousand others working on projects which have no barriers to entry. Of course, it’s a wonderful thing—this attempt to be your own boss. Today’s young are not afraid to challenge the status quo. They are not afraid of losing. Young boys and girls hear a different drummer—be it in their choice of clothes, lifestyle or sexual preferences. Are they getting self-centred? Take a look at the lyrics of one of the hit songs: “Matlabi ho ja zara matlabi/Duniya ki sunta hai kyun,Khud ki bhi sun le kabhie.”
SEX AND FAIRNESS
You also have women’s undergarments jostling for ad space. There are ads for bras and panties jumping out of the pages of newspapers and magazines. Does this mean that today’s woman is more conscious of what she wears under—as she’s of what she flaunts? Maybe. But one thing is for sure—women are celebrating their bodies. How are the men looking at this? The answer is, lecherously.
Of late there has been a spate of ads promoting male libido. These talk about everything from “staying power” to “getting charged”. Just goes to show how obsessed we, as a nation, are with sex (the question to be asked is: is there a huge population of India that is sexually dysfunctional?). Or do the men want to be tumescent all the time? Of course, you’ll find an undercurrent of sex in all our day-to-day exposure—it begins with a sprinkling of gaalis to gyrating Bollywood heroes, heroines and extras thrusting their pelvis in our face. Talking about sex is taboo, but it’s playing on our minds at all times.
Indians like to ape the West. So it’s not surprising that what holds good for the West holds good for us too. We want to be super-thin, next to invisible. We want to be sexual in a Rasputin way. For women, professionalism is ideal, yet they must still be able to cook a full-course meal. Men need to make more and more money to purchase everything.
Which brings me to the obsession with fairness—and I am not talking about justice. Look at the plethora of ads promoting men and women’s fairness creams and lotions. Are we racist? Sad to say, but to quite an extent, yes.
Which is why it’s all the more important why ad campaigns such as Real Beauty by Dove are so important for us to embrace into our advertising culture. (According to Wikipedia, the Dove Real Beauty was conceived in 2004 during a three-year strategic research. The creative was by Ogilvy & Mather Düsseldorf and London. The research led to a new advertising strategy, created by Joah Santos, which led to the top three campaigns of the century, according to AdAge. The strategy eschewed the brand essence ladder used by Unilever and called for a mission strategy “To make women feel comfortable in the skin they are in, to create a world where beauty is a source of confidence and not anxiety.”)
The same potential to increase a person’s sophistication or personality that exists in music or theatre also exists in advertising. The only difference is that one particular ad has more of an influence on a greater audience than does one song or one play. Advertising can not only reinforce a perception, it can also change perceptions. Will India’s ad-wallahs rise to the occasion?