Ad And Subtract

Ogilvy was wrong. The consumer is a moron. The latest ads released by media houses definitely think so.

Sacha Baron Cohen, in his Ali G avatar, raised a question that has hovered in many a room: “What is the the meedja?” It’s a question that has appeared in conferences, negotiations, over the morning newspaper, at the dinner table and during brainstorming sessions of Indian ad agencies. While in most cases this discussion need not have a conclusion, the ad agency does need to come up with an answer. On the basis of that answer, a campaign is formulated which comprises individual advertisements that, ideally, give the viewer an understanding of the product and its uses.

It doesn’t always work this way.

For example, last year Hindustan Times presented television watchers with the “It is time” campaign. The ads showed sensible, Hindustan Times readers roll up the newspaper and thwack the not-so-sensible. Which implies that rather than being a publication valued for the news it prints, the notable aspect of this particular newspaper is its weight and subsequent whacking potential.

Recently, Hindustan Times presented viewers with another tagline: “You read, they learn”. This sounds noble, particularly when the “they” are underprivileged children, but the idea got lost in translation. What are we to understand when we see children with the newspaper open in front of their faces while a voiceover has them reciting their multiplication tables and the Hindi alphabet? That along with the news, the paper has pages teaching basic Math and Hindi?

However, when it comes to absurdity, The Times of India does it best, and with fanfare. A superb example is the set of Mumbai Mirror ads, in which people with megaphones holler their grievances on public thoroughfares. Apparently, it didn’t strike anyone at either Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd or the agency they hired, that the ads are actually the opposite of an advertisement for the tabloid. If Mumbai Mirror was doing its reporting right, then surely an author whose book has been banned would be featured in its pages, rather than be forced to yell, “I am Mumbai!” in a picturesque part of south Mumbai with a burning pile of books behind him in order to direct attention to his woes?

Then there’s Bombay Times’ recent “Born Glamorous” campaign, which commemorates 18 years of the supplement which is now synonymous with celebrity gossip and socialite party coverage. The tv spot shows some outlandishly-dressed models pretending to be “working class icons” like the dabbawallah and koli fisherwoman. While a buff man – wearing shiny golden wrapping paper on his nether regions like a half dhoti – lugs a gas cylinder around, a throaty feminine voice croons, “Style maara toh darna kya”. Back in 2008, when Vogue India carried a photo shoot in which impoverished Rajasthani villagers were used as models for luxury accessories, the magazine was roundly criticised for being insensitive. Presumably Bombay Times doesn’t get its knuckles rapped because they didn’t dress up an actual koli fisherwoman or autorickshaw driver or dabbawallah in designer gear. Instead, they got models to wear ridiculous clothing, pout and strut their stuff. No, of course that’s not callous condescension. Perish the thought. It’s also worth pointing out that not once do we see a copy of Bombay Times in the advertisement.

Perhaps the most disappointing ad is Firstpost’s recent spot, which showcases the life of a journalist as imagined by the ad agency that was hired by the news website. The first ad underlined the fundamental challenge faced by newspapers in the digital age: by the time we get them, the news is dated.

In complete contrast to the cleverness of the first ad, Firstpost’s second ad posits that the journalist

– is “the man”

– is “the source of knowledge”

– dresses like he’s auditioning for Mad Men

– strides in slow-mo

– walks miles, captures smiles

– slumps drunkenly in empty coffee shops

– types his articles on Remington typewriter

– “gets everything right”

– belongs in a black and white movie.

At the end of the ad, the voiceover asks the journalist what sense is there in working for a publication that will publish the news one day late, thus turning the ad into a career guidance capsule. The ad is misogynist, laughably anachronistic and, apparently, targeted at other journalists, few of whom would need an advertisement to introduce them to Firstpost. I would elaborate on nitty gritty such as newspapers do have women journalists, that (regardless of gender) journalists use computers to type out stories and so on, but it feels almost like telling a kid Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

David Ogilvy, one of the gods of modern advertising, once said, “The best ideas come as jokes”. While there may be some debate about whether these ideas qualify for “best”, and only the creative people in the relevant ad agencies can confirm what inspired these ideas, there’s no doubt that the end result is a joke


Image By: [ Reetika Verma]

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