Thursday, May 5, 2011

Keep it simple, if you can!

On the heels of a crowded, elongated, often boring cricket World Cup that still managed to end brilliantly was another one-day series. You could brand it as the (former) titans versus (the perennial) minnows. Okay, let me try to be simple as that is what I am advocating here – it was Australia vs Bangladesh. And so brilliantly was the itinerary planned by the ICC that if Australia had won the World Cup as they had done on the last three occasions, then they would have flown straight to Dhaka from Mumbai with the World Cup (even if it would not be the real one) in their bag, gloriously hungover, to boot. Of course, Dhoni ensured that Australia was not inconvenienced and remained coldly sober as they quietly flew in to Bangladesh after a rare quarter-final defeat. The low-key series happened even as the diehard Bangladeshi cricket fan (what a glutton for punishment) faithfully turned up thrice in a week at the stadia only to watch his team get trounced (again).

But in other parts of the world there were other dumb viewers like me, who had nothing else to do but watch these games on TV. And, in between Shane Watson's furious and frenetic sixes, there were the sponsors' commercials, but one commercial kept repeating itself and that is the one I will start talking about. After all, it was my old (if not trusted) mobile service provider Airtel with its now old, new logo featuring a young army officer (who a few weeks later became the harassed husband of a pregnant wife for Axis bank) and his good-looking girlfriend. The commercial, I am sure, was brilliantly scripted in Hindi and I must confess upfront that I did not understand a word of it. Kya karen, I belong to the ‘Hindi down-down!' generation that grew up in Madras (which started to watch Hindi movies after Aradhana), even if I still own a mobile phone and can actually afford video calling.

But enough of me and more of the commercial that we will review in this piece. I must have seen the commercial a million times (what is a simple exaggeration in a column that is essentially simple) and each time I watched the commercial I got a different message as I constructed a different script in my mind. We Ramanujams are a creative lot, even if we say so ourselves. After tremendous thinking (difficult at my age) I finally figured out the script. Intelligence will eventually triumph! There is this young, handsome if slightly effeminate soldier making his way to the border and speaking to a pretty girl. He asks her, “Didn't a girl called Tillu live here?'' and the pretty young thing asks him, “What sort of guy are you who can't recognise me in my new hairstyle?” as she tosses her hair saucily. Even as the soldier is figuring out what to say his boss calls him, so he exits with the famous line “I shall return” from the World War II movies of my time. I was particularly happy with my script if not the commercial till I saw the Tamil version on one of the channels and imagine my consternation when I discovered that I had got it slightly wrong. Of course, I am being charitable to myself. I had got it as wrong as the Royal Challengers in not retaining Dayle Steyn, Jacques Kallis and Ross Taylor and Delhi Daredevils in bidding for Irfan Pathan at a fabulous price. So I was in august company. Losers all!

The real thing

As I watched the same commercial in Tamil I realised how wide of the mark my script had been. The same soldier is making a video call to his girlfriend. He is so captivated by her looks that he is tongue-tied. In her usual familiar way, she asks him why he is calling if he is going to be remaining silent. And then he asks her the million-dollar question that I had completely messed up: “Where is the mole that you used to have?” and I realised to my complete chagrin that tillu actually meant a mole!

How much the language seems to have changed in my time! But back to the commercial where the girl, after tossing her hair and showing her mole, gives the killer line where she tells her boyfriend that a soldier's eyes should never look down. What a wonderful piece of advice for all the youngsters who are thinking of pursuing a career in the army! The soldier, not to be outdone, tells her that he would take care of this once he returns even as he hears his boss calling. Most significantly, I realised that the commercial was about video calling. Speak about being intellectually challenged. But it leads me to my concern about commercials that are entirely conceptualised in Hindi and their limited relevance (if at all to Tamilians, Bengalis, Malayalis and a whole host of other Indians to whom Hindi is not the mother tongue and who watch cricket like I do where commercials keep being telecast in Hindi and are created around extensive dialogues and clever turn of phrase). Is this sub-optimal? Most certainly it is. While there is a Hindi audience which is being spoken to, there is another audience that is watching this commercial in Hindi and not making too much sense of it.

A sweeter Hindi commercial

But then there are commercials and commercials in Hindi. Unlike in my time when commercials were conceptualised in English (which had its own share of problems) today's commercials are almost always conceptualised in Hindi- only with varying degrees of difficulty of comprehension. I have been seeing another campaign for Cadbury's dairy milk which, though in Hindi, seems to make much more sense to me, even if I am not allowed to eat sweets. There are these commercials set in a home where the menu invariably seems to be some vegetable that even cows will not eat. (Please don't ask me what “lauki” is, I have no clue, it only sounds detestable!) And to add insult to injury there is even a commercial where the same vegetable presents itself on two consecutive nights! What a household! But what else would you expect in a household where one of the young people is busy texting with foundation on her face and the other is busy drying her hair. But even if this household has some young women with interests other than cooking they certainly seem to have loads of Dairy Milk which seems to compensate for all the dicey vegetables that invariably show up at dinner. I like the commercials because they are strategically sound. Positioning Dairy Milk as a wonderful dessert, particularly in households that are starved of good food, seems a great way to go. Significantly the commercials too are simple to understand even to Hindi-challenged mortals like me, even if it throws up interesting doubts about today's young women. When will they ever learn to cook?

But the prize goes to…

The prize for simplicity, clarity and single-mindedness of thought goes to the Havells commercial. The setting is the grihapravesh of a new house. A young couple is performing a puja with their adorable kid in tow. What wonderful models these agencies source! Anyway, the script is simple .The child watches in anguish as his mother struggles to add ghee to the fire. (Normally it is only the man who does it, or so I thought, but why quibble about a really nice commercial?) Her hand is hurting with the heat. The enterprising kid rushes to action. He takes his mother's permission and leaves the puja area only to find a piece of Havells wiring that he quickly shapes in the form of a ladle for his mother to pour ghee into the fire. She does that easily thanks to the “wires that don't catch fire”. Everyone is happy at the child's smartness. While it is the same theme and tagline as earlier, the execution is refreshing, simple and endearing. The greatest thing for me is that it is not language-dependent and makes sense through the length and breadth of this entire country.

So here are my questions:

How simple is your commercial?

Is it single-minded?

Is it too dependent on the language and the turn of phrase?

Remember, there are lots and lots of customers like me and if they don't understand your message they will just switch the channel, not write columns!

Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO, brand – comm.
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Karthik Srinivasan said...

Good one :)

One of those dairy milk commercials has the word "Karela" uttered which sounded like "Theriyala" the first time I heard it :)

- Karthik, who is utterly disgusted with the translation ads he sees in TV, particularly with the Tamil pronunciations of non-native speakers who dub!

(I should also mention how I thought Chill machao of 7UP was Chill machan when I first saw it)

Ganesh Jeyaraman said...

Very relevant article. Really insightful! true that most commercials are scripted in Hindi these days.. :(

Ameer A said...

Excellent article, as usual. I remember you writing earlier about the blatant dubbing of commercials diluting their impact, since they are over-dependent on turn of phrase and local idiom. I whole-heartedly agree, even discounting my Hindi-phobia.

"Like"? :)

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Karthik, Absolutely agree about the translation. Nice observation about "Karela" sounding like Theriyala.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Ganesh, Only wish they work equally well in other languages.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Ameer, Your memory is better than mine.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Koshy, Yes the consumer is king. But often he does not realize his own strengths.

ilamparithi said...

Sir, Havells' commercial is marvelous. As you said, it's not the language that dominates here, it's the effectiveness of the communication. I could see people being fascinated by this ad, have started keeping Havells in their consideration set when it comes to purchase decision.