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Celebrating the Indian idiom

LiveMint logoLiveMint 20-08-2017 Shuchi Bansal

Mitch Barns, the chief executive officer of research and information firm Nielsen, firmly believes that big TV is still the dominant screen in terms of time spent in watching premium video content, “which is really what advertisers want to be associated with”. He said that in a recent interview.

That’s probably why the majority of the advertisements that Mint has collated to mark 70 years of India’s Independence are television commercials.

There are other reasons too why so many Indian television commercials—and not as many print or radio jingles—feature in the list of iconic ads. Indian advertising came into its own only in the age of commercial television, which happened in the early 1980s. Even after Independence, for several years, there was no audio-visual medium to speak of.

To be sure, in pre-Independence India, advertising was mostly in the hands of foreign agencies which created work inspired by western sensibilities. Actually the trend—or call it the British hangover—of portraying western lifestyle in Indian ads continued for about a decade even after independence.

It was much later, only in the 1960s and 1970s that cinema spread and cinema advertising became popular, making commercials like “Gold Spot—The Zing Thing iconic”. State broadcaster Doordarshan started allowing television commercials post-1976 and it was with the arrival of colour TV in 1982 that interesting creative work started tumbling out of Indian advertising agencies which had set up shop in the 1950s and 1960s.

But first let’s look at what makes an advertisement iconic: An ad that connects in a truly emotional way becomes iconic. Its appeal is timeless. “So in addition to selling the product, that is, a brand’s rational and emotional benefits, an iconic ad often has something more; may be a musical track, or an emotional hook or a look at human life and its frailties,” says advertising veteran Ambi Parameswaran, the author of a book on 50 years of advertising titled Nawabs, Nudes, Noodles.

Clearly, iconic ads are those that provide universal insights. For instance, detergent brand Surf’s Lalita ji campaign is one such ad which has stood the test of time.

“An iconic campaign is born when storytelling is integrated well with the brand philosophy,” says Santosh Padhi, chief creative officer and co-founder at Taproot Dentsu.

Parameswaran believes that over the last 70 years, Indian advertising has been able to create an idiom that is unique to our culture and society. Indian advertising may not have won many international awards but that is not necessarily a bad thing because what it has created are works in a unique Indian setting. “So our ads reflected our popular culture, our music, our way of celebrating relationships and festivals. They have been a little too Indian in their approach, so they don’t travel too well outside our shores,” he says.

Advertising started becoming Indianised in the 1970s and the 1980s, especially once Doordarshan started telecasting entertainment programmes in Hindi. In his book Nawabs, Nudes, Noodles, Parameswaran says that “…it was only in the last fifty years, or more specifically since the winds of liberalization started blowing strongly from 1991, that advertising as an industry has come into its own—truly reflecting the changing Indian consumers, their aspirations and desires….”

K.V. Sridhar, founder of the creative outfit Hyper Collective, agrees that the Indian idiom in advertising reached its full potential, mostly post-liberalization. “Suddenly we realised we’re more Indian. Mass marketing became everything,” he says. He views the 1990s and 2000s as the golden era of advertising when print and television advertising shifted to the next level. The advertising industry found a voice of its own.

From product attributes, advertising shifted to emotional appeal. It made you laugh and cry. “It became a little more evolved but remained essentially Indian,” he says.

In the decade beginning 2000, Indian ad agencies helped build great multinational brands so much so that their creative work started getting admired and awarded at international festivals. “We fine-tuned our skills of finding insights which touched India. Everything became evolved—storytelling, insights, craft,” Sridhar observes.

However, there are challenges which the industry faces going forward. In a fast moving world, the life span of campaigns is getting shorter. Even ad agencies get little time to create these campaigns. “It’s like playing in the T20 format. We need to hit fours and sixes quickly,” says Padhi. Besides, consumers increasingly have a wider range of content to choose from. So advertising needs to create fresh, unique and entertaining stuff. “Indian advertising needs to keep investing in understanding the changing Indian consumer, changing Indian society and popular culture. If they don’t invest in studying these continuously they will fall behind and become just purveyors of mundane messages,” says Parameswaran.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff. Respond to this column at shuchi.b@livemint.com.

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