September 6, 2012

I call this piece "Advertising"

Do you remember Television advertisements from the 1990s? All they sold back then was Lifebuoy soap, Annapurna Atta, Tata salt, Bajaj Chetak, Meera shampoo (featuring a homely looking housewife who had trouble managing her daughter’s long mane), Parachute Coconut Oil, and Chandana Brothers sarees, “suitings and shirtings for mens!” (Yes, suitings and shirtings, that is exactly what they used to say)

I am personally embarrassed that these were the coolest things we Indians consumed back then.

Thanks to two decades of neo-liberalization during which India first shone and later grew, the nature of advertising significantly changed. Look at the prime time ads. Only things like Volkswagen cars, Luxury holiday resorts, L’Oreal products, smart phones, Reid n’ Taylor suits, credit cards, mutual funds, frozen idlis (unfortunately, they exist) and luxury paints are sold.

Cars, insurance plans, lifestyle products, housing loans and electronic gadgets. Who do you think they are selling this desi version of the American dream to? The middle class can’t afford Volkswagens and 3D TVs. The rich people probably already have them. It’s us – the upper middle class. The real product being sold is a culture of passive consumption where everything is on sale and everyone is sold out. And wow, how proudly we’re buying ourselves into it!

A Tale of two templates

It is not just the portfolio of products. The ads themselves look quite “international” if you notice. "International" in this context means that every model from that little girl in the Rasna ad to the dusky A-list Bollywood celebrity look almost Caucasian and act hyper-sexual over things like coffee, mango juice, second hand cars, bathroom tiles, cement, switch boards, new cable connection etc. If aliens are watching us through a telescope, they would think that our women have thing for plumbing and electrical outlets!

So what kind of a mind does it take to come up with ads like these? Again a lot of guesswork is involved here but I think every copywriter on his/her first day at office is taken into a dark room and is given a crash course on what I call The Copywriter's Model of the Human Brain. According to this model, the human brain has four major areas of activity:

This model dictates that the best way to sell anything is to equate it with sex. That way the guys will not complain and it is easier for the copywriters too. The feminists may rant about it on the internet but who cares about them?

In the unlikely event that they don’t want to use sex to sell, there is another strategy. I call it The Abstract Jingle. This is how a typical ad looks like:
A bunch of rural looking school boys rush towards a sandy open place in the evening. They throw their slippers in the air and run barefooted and divide themselves into teams. One boy tosses a coin to decide who bats first. A soulful jingle in Hindi plays in the background...  
The kids are completely immersed in their game invoking a nostalgic bliss of simple joys from  simpler times. A kid hits the ball and another kid takes a great catch diving to his left in slow motion. The soulful jingle continues… 
And while all this is happening, the viewer has no idea what the ad is trying to sell. This can be an ad for anything. That is the beauty of the Abstract Jingle. There is no way for the viewer to know until the last frame, what the product is. It is this suspense that keeps him hooked!

In the last frame of the ad, if one of the boys grow up to be Dhoni, it is an ad for Reebok. If the kids wear a Team India shirt, they’re promoting Nike. If they are refreshed by a sip of pure water from a nearby lake – it is either Kinley or Hero Honda or if Tendulkar appears holding a bottle of Coke... See, the Abstract Jingle is simple yet versatile and it is completely recyclable.

The Internationals and the Abstract Jingle, these are the only templates for ads there are today. I didn't complain all these days because I don’t watch TV but the same ads started streaming on Youtube and I can’t even skip them. So now, it’s personal!

Image courtesy: which has an amazing collection of editorial cartoons

P.S: Why is it that an ad always streams faster than the actual video?