Hindi heartland through the prism of advertisements

A fortnightly look into the world of Hindi news.

ByAnand Vardhan
Hindi heartland through the prism of advertisements
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In the initial years of the noughties, there was a spurt in the number of colour-page supplements in major Hindi dailies. Often glossy, these supplements were designed to cater to interests of specific demographic groups in the non-news category. What, however, was also clear was that they were a reassertion in Hindi press of the need to expand the turf for advertisement revenue.

Along with offering non-news content, these supplements provided an additional space to advertisers to position relevant and aspirational products to a readership that was growing rapidly and diversifying in its choices. A trend that has been well-documented in Robin Jeffrey’s work “India’s Newspaper  Revolution’’, Palgrave Macmillan, 2000, and one of the earliest media business portals had spotted in 2004.

Did the push alter the advertising landscape on Hindi press pages in any remarkable way in the last two decades? Did it change the profile of advertisers, nature of products and services being promoted? Did it bridge the divide that separate the aspirational and high-end promotional campaigns in English press from those on the pages of major Hindi dailies?

A whole different world lies between graffiti on the walls along the railway tracks and shiny billboards in cities. It’s a world that straddles between promoting a variety of oils and ointments, magical cures, aphrodisiacs, hosiery and detergents, and slickly endorsing everything that defines high-end advertising in the media space. This is the world that finds place in the advertising space of major Hindi dailies — connecting the dots in more ways than one. But to know this world also means to know how it carries with it the shadows of a parallel world — advertising in English (the lingual undercurrents of brand positioning in the media).

A clue for it could be found in what journalist and novelist Manu Joseph reported while writing for The New York Times : “When Hindustan Pencils makes cheap pencils, which it sells to rural children for a rupee a piece (about 2 cents), the company prints the brand name, ‘Jobber’, in English. ‘A villager has more respect for a brand that is written in English,’ said Dhruman Sanghvi, a company director.” Does it impact Hindi Press in a way that advertising managers might be looking at media consumers with the prism of their socio-economic groups?

There are some distinct and definite signs, some not-so-definite signs and some mixed ones. To be brief, there are four identifiable contours of the advertising landscape of the Hindi press (which here means major Hindi newspapers).

First, what would catch your eye are the “exclusive” ads that make their way into pages of even the national/Delhi editions of Hindi dailies (exclusive because they aren’t to be seen in any of the English dailies). The wall graffiti ads see their print form in the Hindi dailies. You can either not spot them in English newspapers or can occasionally find them in the maze of Classified ads in the English press. A variety of low-budget medicinal products and services (some dubious claims of magical cures), aphrodisiacs and other sex-related medical solutions ( claiming more virility/ maternity or paternity bliss) local brands of detergents and soaps etc. Does it reveal a thing or two about the perceptions of purchasing power of Hindi readership or the low advertising rates in Hindi press?

Your reading of Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran, Hindustan and Navbharat Times can’t escape the daily sprinkling of ads for hair oils (Kesh Amrit, Kesh Pari, Mahabhringraj Tel, etc), body toner capsules (BT-36), a wide variety of medicines from anti-constipation to anti-piles (mostly Ayurvedic), energy capsules, sensuously marketed sex “power-boosters” (Vita-X Gold, Stay On, etc, low-income group consumer products (like Ghadi detergent), and even an ad of something not only absent but unimaginable in English press — cattle fodder supplements like Kapila Aahar (based on assumptions of a section of readership having pastoral/dairy concerns, though ads for agrarian products like fertilisers and seeds are not to be seen).

Second, it’s interesting to note that Jansatta, an important Hindi daily but with low circulation figures, does not generally fit into the scheme of things of even small-time advertisers. Generally speaking, government and Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) are the only major sources for Jansatta’s ad revenues (same is the fate of less read English newspapers). But government advertisements are shared by other dailies of the Hindi print space also, and for that matter newspapers across the country. In fact, in the Hindi heartland, awarding and denial of government ads is being increasingly viewed in critical terms of a carrot-and-stick device used by state governments to get favourable press.

Third, moving back to the nature of ads in Hindi print space, it should be remembered that the high-end advertising by top brands in the country hasn’t completely shunned the Hindi press. Newspapers (particularly Dainik Bhaskar and Dainik Jagran) also carry ads of major automobile brands, consumer durables, gadgets and private banking services but their frequency and scale is in no way on par with the big boys of the English press.

An interesting thing to note are the differences in the patterns of advertising in city supplements of English (viz. Delhi Times of The Times of India/HT City of The Hindustan Times) and Hindi (viz Jagran City of Dainik Jagran) newspapers. While the ad spaces in the city supplements of English dailies are more localised and relatively low key vis-à-vis high-end advertising in the main paper, it’s difficult to make a distinction between the advertising spaces of the main papers and city supplements of Hindi dailies. The mix of sundry graffiti advertising and big-time advertising resembling shiny billboards (with scales heavily tilted in favour of the former) appear similar in display and nature of brands in the pages of the main paper as well as city supplements of most of the dailies of Hindi press.

Fourth, the assumptions of higher purchasing power in the urban middle-class and urban rich have been one of the simpler explanations for top brands (having higher price tags) advertising in the English media. Even the nature of advertisements in Hindi news channels (including those having high viewership) reflect the trends of their print counterparts. They too have been allocating air-time to a different product basket for advertisements (which ranges from iron rods and tractors to hosiery products to local professional colleges or coaching institutes).

Talking of supplements, there is one aspect of economy (particularly urban) that is proving as lucrative to the advertising departments of Hindi press as that of the English press. Real estate has clearly kept the cash registers ringing for major Hindi newspapers. For instance, the Property ad pullouts in Dainik Jagran (Dainik Jagran Property) and Hindustan (Hindustan Estates) are as thick (sometimes spreading over eight pages) as in major English dailies. But, the same cannot be said about Career and Education supplements in popular Hindi newspapers. While in English newspapers such supplements (for example, Education Times in The Times of India and Horizons in Hindustan Times) are littered with ads of foreign education-facilitating agencies, these advertisements are conspicuous by their absence in the supplements of Hindi dailies (for example, Josh in Dainik Jagran and Lakshya in Dainik Bhaskar).

One of the commonly-held conspiracy theories is that major English dailies have editorially dropped their guard against or are looking the other way on issues of organised flesh trade or well-heeled prostitution because such prostitution cartels are major advertisers in their Classified pages (under the euphemistic garb of escort services, massage parlours, etc). The Times of India and Hindustan Times give space to such ads in their Classified space. But the pleasant surprise is that the highest circulating Hindi dailies (Dainik Jagran and Dainik Bhaskar) generally tend to have minimal or no space for such stuff. The only major exception is Hindustan.

Two more things also catch your attention in the Classified space of Hindi press, if you have English dailies to compare them with. Though Astrology takes a chunk of space in Hindi as well as the English press Classified pages, the space occupied by black magic practitioners, “masters” of hypnotism and other mystic practices is starkly conspicuous in Hindi press. It might be symptomatic of how dubious solutions are still being sought and publicised.

One more remarkable thing to see is the space for advertising matrimonial alliances in Hindi newspapers (even in market leaders) is very little vis-à-vis English newspapers. Here, the questions to be asked are: (a) do Hindi newspaper-reading parents looking for spouses for their children, view advertising in English newspapers as a projection of their social and educational status or upward social mobility? (b) Do Hindi newspaper readers assume that the chances of reaching the desired social profile are better if the ad reaches readers of English newspapers?

In the advertising landscape of the media space, the language divide continues to reflect defining contours of the socio-economic divide of potential consumers or customers (as the case may be). How accurate is such a reading of the aspirational patterns, disposable income and power of advertisements across the readership groups, should be of interest to sociologists, market researchers and students of consumer behaviour.

Are advertising patterns in Hindi print giving confusing signals about the demographic profile of Hindi readers, or are they a reflection of the complex and fragmented realities of the Hindi heartland market? These could be questions worth exploring.

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