Enjoy the Show

Tracing the journey of Indian advertising

01 December, 2010

IN GURGAON, where I live, ad hoardings drape the skyline. The night is ablaze with neon, rising tall abreast steel and glass skyscrapers. The suburb’s gleaming offices release thousands of young achievers every evening, with deep pockets and deeper desires. From widescreen LCDs to iPads, from haute cuisine to single malts, Gurgaon is a restless urban bazaar, where to be is to shop. In 2009, the iconic ‘ShipBuilding,’ DLF’s flagship property in the Millennium City, was covered entirely by self-adhesive vinyl, flashing Videocon’s new logo. In earlier times, such brazen exhibitionism would have invited charges of pomposity. Now it’s de rigueur. Ever wondered how we got here?

A Mango Frooti ad that appeared about four or five years ago first recorded a series of shifts in the Indian mindset, ranging from the arrangement of public space to gender relations. The ad opens with a shot from behind of two people, sitting next to each other on the Mumbai sea face; one of them sports long hair, the other short. As the camera moves around to the front, you see the long-haired young man resting his head on the short-haired woman’s shoulder. “From women to men,” the voice-over suggests, as another unusual visual fills the screen: young women, assembled inside a college canteen, catcall a young man. One after the other you see inversions of conventional themes—a college teacher grabbing a can of Frooti from a student, a kid dressed as an astronaut at a fancy dress party, and finally, a young man picking up litter strewn by another to drop it inside a ‘use me’ bin, right in front of a big shopping mall. After each of these visuals the voice-over reminds you, “From college canteens to catcalls, from aspirations hidden behind fancy dresses, India is changing.”


What are the points that have marked this shift? How has the transformation of middle-class India been mapped in the popular cultural space? What is the relationship between advertising and social trends, and to what extend do they influence each other?

To understand the philosophy behind the Frooti ad is to understand where advertisements and society intersect. Theorists believe society and popular media have a mutually dependant relationship in the age of information (following those of agriculture and industry). The arts found eager patrons among nobles and kings in the past; both Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were supported by Lorenzo the Magnificent, the great nobleman from the Medici family of  Florence, which, incidentally, managed  Europe’s most famous bank. Modern consumer and market-based societies provide the economic impetus for much of modern mass media. Conversely, societies themselves are increasingly getting more and more dependent on the media for small, everyday things, like aerobics lessons on TV or learning to cook with the internet.

Although the Frooti ad does not necessarily record exact occurrences within our social experiences, the visuals it presents are nevertheless believable because the trends they hint at are what middle-class India aspires towards—kids wanting to be astronauts, young women demanding gender parity, and so on. They creatively evoke the new India, the one anticipated with so much breathlessness, the India of promise, the blue-eyed boy of the new economic order predicted by Goldman Sachs. This constant sharing of meaning and sense between our immediate social reality and the one we envision for our future is the ad person’s playground, the site for playing with memory and market, product and possibility.

We have forever proclaimed ours an essentially non-materialistic society and India as the ‘spiritual mother of the world,’ as famously endorsed by Mark Twain. Somewhere along the way, we forgot what every trader in India has imprinted in pasty saffron on his safe box—‘Subh Labh,’ or ‘Profit, auspicious.’ India has traded for as long as it has existed. Two thousand years ago, in the temple town of the fish-eyed goddess (Madurai), women applied imported rouge and men drank Italian wine—2,000 years before market liberalisation. Some believe it is the Americans who, through the World Bank and the IMF, rewrote India’s socialist story. But a great majority of people are inclined to believe India was always at home in a globalised world, and middle-class Indians were eager to release their entrepreneurial energies on the one hand, and desperate for the mesmerising array of free-market goods and services on the other. The launch of the ubiquitous Maruti 800 in 1983-84 helped the Indian middle class drive up to the ‘Laxman Rekha,’ as it were, but it was liberalisation that pushed India into the embrace of a globalised world.

Advertisements in the 1980s had no electronic media waves on which to surf, save the commercials that flashed cinema audiences before the main feature. Doordarshan was a staid medium, where programming slanted more towards development communication and less towards entertainment. Print was the major medium for advertisers, and even there, black and white pages offered little excitement, except for a Maneka Gandhi draped in Bombay Dyeing towels. The occasional Nandini Sen stared naughtily from billboards, urging you to use Cherry Blossom shoe polish. She and other models like Kimi Katkar, Anna Bredemeyer, Rhea Pillai, Queenie Dhody and Sangeeta Bijlani were the reigning faces on advertisements. Jingles ruled, along with pretty faces. Nirma and Vicco Turmeric gave us memorable melodies, and Liril provided the lilting ‘La la la’ tune as Karen Lunel did her famous act under a waterfall somewhere near Kodaikanal.

This was a time when advertisers found little that excited them in everyday experiences; yet there was nothing on the horizon that gave them the courage to go beyond what they saw. Contemporary cultural experiences were circumscribed by  sarkari  endowments; popular culture was limited to formulaic films. The represented type was rooted in everyday life. ‘Lalitaji,’ the hardnosed stentorian housewife (the term ‘homemaker’ came much later) who admonished all as she waxed eloquent about Surf detergent, became the cult figure for pushing FMCG products. They presented the real India of everyday experience, not an idealised dreamscape. The visuals were excruciatingly boring, the action slow and the pitch deliberately low on aspiration and heavy on prudence. Besides the one-off Vimal Suitings ad that sold exaggerated dreams—dashing young men in satin suits and dark glasses, with nubile, seductive women on their arms—the real India had little to say to advertisers, and vice versa.


The year 1991 reshaped the make of the Indian middle class.  Among the many other revolutions liberalisation brought with it, the most significant was private television, freeing entertainment from the clutches of state sponsorship. For better or worse, consumers began to decide what they wanted. The market was suddenly flooded with goodies that earlier only came in the suitcases of foreign-settled relatives. This explosion created an open field for advertisers. Indian advertising had finally arrived. The Satyajit Rays and Alyque Padamsees were true talents, but even their best work was limited by the ‘Hindu rate of growth.’ New India was in search of new narratives.

A truly transformational idea of that era, in my opinion, was the Raymond ‘complete man’ ad series of the early 1990s. Raymond’s pitch was contrapuntal to Vimal’s idea of the hero. Here was a man who could take time off a board meeting to share a quick drive and lunch with his school-going daughter. He could come back to a litter of puppies and tuck them into the soft folds of his exquisitely tailored suit. Rivals sniggered and Indian men initially baulked at the apparent emasculation. Indian men had a certain self-image in public, complete with deathly seriousness and earnest bravado; Raymond robbed the man of his mardangi. The ‘complete man’ was a far cry from the filmy macho type. Raymond decided that the urban Indian male had evolved beyond stereotypes, had Westernised, if you will, and was in desperate need of a makeover. Sensitive and vulnerable, versatile and caring, intellectual and fun, this was the new Indian urban man. The fact that the series lasted more than a decade, and went off the air only when unstitched clothing finally lost out to branded apparel, is significant. Rivals tried their spin on the theme, showcasing a connoisseur here or a charming prince there, but never quite found a credible alternative to the Vimal action hero.

The sensitive man was a great creation, but it was still restricted to personal space. By the time the 21st century dawned, India began to surprise the world with its wonderful catch-up act. It was no longer just an economic miracle; it was edging close to the high table. Exciting things were happening in advertising. New media was being explored for product placement. Even veteran ad makers were excited. In 2000, Alyque Padamsee and Sam Mathews launched  bigideasunlimited.com, a for-profit portal that offered advertising ideas.  Co-branding, product placement in popular Hindi cinema, the dotcom boom and the ever-expanding number of television channels made advertising a powerful industry. Ads became a talking point, creeping into discussions among small groups and eventually demanding attention from the public domain.

It was about this time that I conceived of a column dedicated to ads, reviewing and surveying the best among those on television, exploring the sociological subtext that underpinned them. The column continues, in one form or another. What made the study of ad trends interesting at the time was the Indian economy’s coming of age. The BJP had lost the 2004 elections and with that loss, the ‘India Shining’ campaign was discredited, perhaps forever. Yet, there was some truth in that slogan. Urban India was finally prospering like never before. Young students at the university where I teach were contemplating career possibilities the older generation could have never imagined. They wanted to become filmmakers and start-up publishers. Simply put, they wanted to do their own thing. I recall a bike ad  from the time that rode on this theme. It featured wild young man, a biker, who has out-of-the-box ideas about his career. His father is, predictably, not happy about his chosen path. As the ad progresses, you see him making it as a photographer. The punchline is prescient; he says, “I’m getting there.” This ability to think differently, and the spunk it required, set the direction for the definitive switch in advertising we have seen over the past ten years.

The noughties marked the coming of age of the Indian free market, as well as the tools used to sell its products. {{name}}

Towards the latter half of the decade, the consumer class started to overtly concern itself with matters of politics and policies. With the dimming of the ‘India Shining’ slogan, Indians began to ask the big question: Why is the state unable to deliver whereas the economy clearly is? Along with aspiration, now there was anxiety.

Public services and the state had simply failed to keep step with this new order. The social landscape was changing  fast. Not for nothing did ‘bijlisadakpani’ become the new slogan. Advertising cashed in on this new engagement among the middle class to present some great works. In 2009, Tata Tea ran anambitious and trendsetting campaign premised on citizen activism. It successfully dovetails the early morning cup of tea experience into the wider metaphor of the nation by picking up the word ‘uthna’ (arise) and paring it with ‘jagna’ (awaken). The ad opens with a politician canvassing votes at election time. He’s accompanied by a redoubtable retinue of sarkari types, mostly safari clad,

possibly hinting at his ministerial status in the existing dispensation. As Bhawar Lal Bhandari (the politician) approaches a young man with folded hands, the stubble-faced, rather cool-looking guy (a Ranbir Kapoor lookalike?), first orders another cup of tea, and then stumps his would be neta with a plucky, “What is your qualification?” The query about qualification is as pertinent as it is simple. In today’s India, the big contention between civil society and the political establishment is whether our netas qualify in any way to take charge of our lives.  As the neta fumbles, the young man asks him for his work experience—he is perhaps on the cusp of a career of his own in emergent India. You see in the young man a part of you that’s always wanted to ask our netas discomfiting questions. The neta is brought into our world from the high perch he’s used to occupying. The tension mounts when a sidekick intervenes to add that the big man has been in this line of work for 20 years. Somewhat emboldened, the neta asks if he’s being interviewed. The young man shoots back, “Why not, you’re lining up for a big job, aren’t you?” “What job?” the neta asks. “Why,” replies the young man, “the job of managing this country.”

Yet another ad from this time, one for a bike brand,  reveals the pluck of a young man who decides to seize the prerogative to inaugurate a flyover while vehicles are trapped in a jam, even as officials await the arrival of the VIP to do the honours. When challenged, the young man retorts, “If I am good enough to build this flyover, I’m good enough to inaugurate it!” So there, he has worked as an engineer on the project.

The new slew of mobile telephone ads (a story in themselves) takes this theme of citizen activism a little further. The brilliant Shreyas Talpade ad by Airtel, where the character promises his dad, as he leaves his rural home, that he will not be lost in the urban rat race, leads to the finale where he enters the legislature as a fearless crusader for truth, untainted by corruption. The Idea ads featuring Abhishek Bachchan explore a similar theme, although with different inflexions. When social and political activism becomes the theme for selling mobile phone services, surely we must acknowledge the long road Indian advertising and the middle classes have travelled since 1991.


The Indian ad journey spans many other significant instances. There are the grand India stories, showcased by corporate ads for big companies like the Aditya Birla group and Videocon (which once featured an ad where people from all nationalities were shown mouthing the ‘Gayatri Mantra’). Multinational companies have paid homage to traditional India, even as Indian brands have gone global. When Coke relaunched itself, it took up the ‘josh ka rang’ theme, evoking scenes from muffasil India. When Chevrolet wanted to highlight the sunroof in its Optra, it showed a bride breaking her ‘karwa chauth’ fast by looking at the moon through it.

Women have both gained and lost in the madness that makes up the world of advertising amidst the broad sweep of commerce and mass media. Which way the balance tilts depends on your perspective. But when you see a Hero Honda Pleasure ad, with the tagline ‘Why should boys have all the fun?’ you know it’s time the boys moved over. One of the ads from the campaign, which featured Priyanka Chopra as Manjeet, an educated, smart girl from rural Punjab who dumps her supercilious suitor because he has little respect for her world, warmed the cockles of many a heart. Apart from Chopra’s performance in that little spot, what was significant about the narrative were its little flourishes. The village girl speaks perfect English, she does not defer to her suitor, or to his city slickness or borrowed accent. She zips around on her scooter with the man riding pillion, looking pretty in her salwar kameez. She exhibits wit while playing word games with the city boy, taking him for a ride—literally—before she dumps him at the railway station, showing him the way back.

India  has more young people than any other country in the world. The middle class is exploding, and the young are becoming serious consumers of expensive products and services. There is a world out there waiting to reveal itself. We can only speculate about what shape it will take, or where it will finally lead us. Advertising is ultimately a product of the times.  In the contemporary world, we are quickly becoming the ‘king of good times.’ That optimism helps unfurl a canvas that is large enough to capture our myriad aspirations, like the recently inaugurated Kingdom of Dreams theatre and cultural showpiece in Gurgaon. It is Broadway, Bollywood, and a slice of India rolled into one. The razzmatazz is somewhat disorienting, like a performance at the Moulin Rouge; so much is happening simultaneously that it is often difficult to keep track. Maybe the point is not to keep track, but simply to sit back and enjoy the show.