Friday, June 4, 2010

Is your advertising outrageous?

An ad that succeeds need not always be politically correct but one that identifies with the target consumer..

Fairness for better prospects, marriage so that you can look like a princess - whether you take theads with a pinch of salt or righteous indignation, they will be successful if the insight is right.

Make them laugh, make them cry, for God's sake make them do something” is an advertising dictum that one has read and heard, even if one has not been able to get the creative person to follow this principle as often as I would have liked. Now why do I say that? Everyday there are hundreds of ads that come on TV (millions or so, it seems, on IPL) and in the newspaper that could easily be described as “ships that pass you by in the night” making no impact whatsoever on you, or on thousands of customers like you. And then suddenly you notice an ad that makes you sit up. An ad that hits you in the gut, an ad that perhaps gets your hackles up and you sit up and take notice and you might even say “how dare they do this”. If you are not the target audience and the ad has still intrigued or irritated you, you may try to get a second opinion and may even take the trouble of asking the person for whom you think the ad was meant.

I remember trying to do a review of one of the earlier Fastrack ads set in a classroom when there is a roll call and a number of girls drool “Yes sir”, “Yes sir” when the name of a handsome boy wearing a sexy watch is called out. Of course, the ad was interesting, but however young at heart I may claim to be, I must confess that I did not get it in its entirety, so I did what most parents do when confronted with something new. I asked my second son who was 19 then, the target audience for the ad, what he thought of it and he said, “It's kickass, Pa!” without batting an eyelid, basically saying that it was up to scratch. Of course, I need to confess that if I had spoken like that to Ramanujam Senior, my dad, I may not have been alive to tell the tale.

But the point I wish to make is that often enough, while all of us view advertising and usually have a strong point of view about it, we are not the target customers. Of course, we can certainly air our views to whoever cares to listen and even write about it in blogs but the advertiser, really speaking, should be concerned about the views of the real target audience who is a genuine prospect for the brand and not so much about everyone who has a point of view. Though I daresay people like me also voice their opinion using the Net and making their opinion heard, if not count.

Is it fair?

Another ad which stirred things up quite a bit was the Fair & Lovely ad - I am sure you remember the one with the air hostess, featuring a father who openly wishes he had a son and the indignant daughter uses Fair & Lovely, becomes an air hostess and takes her father to a five-star restaurant where the father naively asks her for the same cup of coffee that created happy chaos just a few weeks ago.

I have seen enough people rave and rant about this ad. I suppose if you live in Lavelle Road in Bengaluru, Boat Club Road in Chennai or Nepean Sea Road in Mumbai, this ad can affect your sensitivities and make you vocal. But then if you live in these places, chances are that you can get your conditioners from Paris. The target audience, however, lives in interior Tamil Nadu or Gujarat, where people unabashedly demand not only dowry but fair brides. Should Hindustan Unilever worry about the people in these smaller towns or the elite group that lives in high-rise condominiums but will never use their product?

We Indians are a hypocritical race, we often mean exactly the opposite of what we say and often pay lip service to lofty ideals. Mind you, I am not saying that everything that manufacturers and advertisers say is true or has to be accepted, but one of the things going for this commercial is that it strikes a chord in the hearts of dark girls even as it makes you and me say “How dare they?” I have seen enough bridegrooms reject my cousins because they were dark even as they blatantly used to say that the “horoscopes were not matching”. They do say that truly great advertising is “on the verge of being outrageous”. To my mind, at least, this ad fit the bill, never mind what people had to say about it and boy did they have a lot to say, even though this was in the ‘pre-blog' days!

Take me to the church on time

A recent ad that stirs up similar sentiments, if not more acute, given the fact that we have people who are blogging, is the ad for Tanishq. You might have seen this ad, which features a modern family, the daughter driving an SUV, the family speaking English, a girl undecided on marriage, but whose life plans quickly change for the better as she tries on the wedding collection from Tanishq. If the girl is independent as she ostensibly seems to be and is not keen on marriage, how can something like diamonds, however exquisite, make her change her mind, the critics ask. If she is a woman of today who is logical and practical and knows what she wants, how can she change her mind, just for the jewellery? And yet, are decisions about marriage so well thought out? I wish they were. Is it also so easy to unravel a woman's mind? From time immemorial, man has tried and failed miserably. Others like me have given up, as we do not believe we have a hope in hell. Don't people say that a woman's mind is as unpredictable as English weather even if the current one promises to be the hottest in years? Hardly surprising that we are not touring this summer, for we are usually followed by wind and rain!

Much as I would like to probe the recesses of the woman's mind, let me reluctantly return to the task on hand and the commercial at hand. Once again, I was intrigued by the commercial and not having a daughter to be married, I turned to the young girls in my office who seem to relate to and conform to the girl in the commercial. They too are educated, know what they want in life, have a point of view and are not afraid to express it. ‘Girls want to look good when they get married.' ‘Marriage is an important occasion.' ‘Anyway one has to get married, why not look good on the occasion?' to a lone voice saying “As if a girl would get married for the jewellery!”

Let's take a closer look at the commercial. It gets your attention, has a good cast and one can certainly expect Arundathi Nag to turn in a good performance. It has an element of surprise in the fact that it proposes something that is unexpected, radical even. But does it offend the sensitivities of the core target audience?

Tanishq is probably not a major player in the wedding market, which is a huge buying occasion which perhaps explains the rationale of the commercial. I have attended weddings in small towns in India, in metros such as Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore and more recently in far-off places such as Chicago and Detroit. Last week, I was at a Tambrahm wedding at Detroit where the father of the bride had the first dance with his daughter, a far cry from Mylapore, but the wedding set still seemed to be very critical with all the women, both young and old, going gaga over it.

What should brands do?

I think the easy, boring way is to take the predictable, non-controversial route that most commercials seem to follow. I wish more clients and agency heads would take risks. I know clients will say that it is their money that I am talking about! But having said that, I do know that in creative and in life the dictum ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained' has some merit. And yet a word of caution is in order. It is not about people like me who write or bloggers, however powerful they may be, but focus on the consumer.

When in doubt, go to the consumer. Tanishq might do well to talk to its consumers through the length and breadth of India and ask people whether people are saying ‘It's cool' like the girls in my office or ‘How dare they?' as a blogger asked. As I often do, let me end with a quote of Bill Bernbach: “If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you and nobody for you.”

Stand for something, but just check with your consumer whether you are standing for her or against her!

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly: Branding on Indian Turf)


Vikram Satyanath said...

I think it is wonderful repeat wonderful article. So conversationaly asking some tough questions, provoking a response, and then suggesting a strong insightful point of view, laced with your inimitable irony and humour. And so encouraging, too.
And, ya man, no way could I have said 'its kickass' to my pop!

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Thanks Vikram.

C.Mahalingam said...

Dear Sridhar,

Thanks for mailing me the link. I have recorded my comments in the blog. I do read your columns regularly in BusinessLine and enjoy reading them! I agree with your views completely. It looks to me that companies and their ad agencies have a long way to go in understanding the customer psychology , something very basic. It irks viewers like us as they are very insulting and annoying. May your tribe increase and such senseless advts decrease!

Thanks again for sharing.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Dear Mali,

Thank you for your comments.
It is the good wishes and support of people like you that helps me to keep writing.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Dear Mali,

Thank you for your comments.
It is the good wishes and support of people like you that helps me to keep writing.

Prof. Swami Krishnan said...

Dear Sridhar

I read your arts and thanks for sending me this link …

As the saying goes, everyone has an opinion and the word Sutton (sans his collaborator Pfeffer) used in his classic book!

Here is my opinion ;-)

1. Communications is a Complex (being an ardent devotee of Claude Shannon and entropy I believe so!)

2. Culture, context, Chronos (Samay) and Kairos (Kaala), chromosomes, channels, creative’s … confound communications!

3. Advertising in particular for inducing aspiration seems to rely on aggrandized messages … there is subtlety but due to the evanescent nature of the mind plus carpet bombing by advertisers due to hyper-competition people seem to be pushing what I would call the “modicum of decorum”

4. Dream sellers may ignore these ranting as I dreams too… Hopefully, I don’t allow them to turn into nightmares!

Maya said...

Hey Sridhar,

You are bang on,not surprising as you have spent a lifetime in the field.So naturally the title of your article is provocative making the reader sit up and take stock.
The visual that follows is attractive enough to entice the reader into reading through.
And it is a truism that Ads are created for that particular segment of customers targetting only the true consumers.So much for the moral police!
Even I,as a rank feminist, would balk at the usage of a girl for ads and for a product that is a whitening cream.But one look at matrimonial ads even today has the clause "fair complexioned girl"-that being the reality.One tiny confession,notwithstanding my personal protest,I too try all the new quick-fix products that hit the market,without stopping and worrying about the long-term hazards of using these products.
A good article undoubtedly giving one the reality check!
Congrats Sridhar !

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Thanks for the comments. I feel that it is not only advertising but also articles that need to engage their audience.It is true that matrimonial ads too are up front talking about complexion so that the advertising can hardly lag behind.