Through the advertising lens

November 26, 2016

“While American cultural historian Jackson Lears dismisses advertising as ‘the folklore of industrial society’, I believe Indian advertising, considering the last few decades, provides not just folklore but also some interesting insights into a society in transition.” It is this perception that unfolds in Ambi M G Parameswaran’s latest book Nawabs, Nudes, Noodles. In an exclusive interview with The Smart Manager, he talks about how Indian advertising has evolved over the years into a vibrant medium, shaping society and being shaped by it.


Could you give us a broad overview with regard to the context of Nawabs, Nudes, Noodles?

The book Nawabs, Nudes, Noodles looks at the changes in Indian society, over the last fifty years through the advertising lens. We have seen dramatic changes in the way we consume products and services, and this has been wonderfully captured in the advertising we have been subjected to, over the last fifty years. So the book is not a history of Indian advertising, but a view of Indian society and consumer culture through the advertising lens.


Does advertising assume a different colour in the Indian context? Does not the typical Indian consumer’s quest for ‘value for money’ pose a tough challenge?

In one sense, consumers are the same in all parts of the world and you will see some examples of this in the book. But each country and each culture puts its own filters on how we consume products and even advertising. We used to be a country of value-conscious penny pinchers, but that was due to the era of shortages and even famine. But if we are going to see continuous economic growth over the next decade or so, we will see many of these things changing. Having said that, we have seen Indian advertising moving from simple, rational selling (safety of your wife Jo Biwi Se Kare Pyar) to emotional selling to now social selling.


The ad world offers an interesting study of the Indian male—how he has been “transformed into a marketer’s dream”. Could you elaborate on this?

Indian males have been the focus of a lot of our advertising; from soaps to suitings, from two-wheelers to mobile phones, they have been a key part of the Indian advertising narrative. But there have been several dramatic changes that have happened in the last ten odd years. From depicting men as macho achievers, we are now seeing several products and services pitching to a different side of men. Indian men are now being cajoled into using skin creams and face washes. They are being pushed into using deos and new forms of gents apparel.


‘Converting Indian consumers from a commodity mindset to brand mindset.’ How difficult has this task been?

The biggest job of advertising is to build brands and brand promise. Indian consumers have been used to buying a lot of products from a commodity mindset. For example, a number of food products are purchased in ‘loose’ form even today. However, in some categories such as biscuits, we have seen a significant uptake of brands. The secret lies, I believe, in providing an acceptable quality product, at an affordable price, at a nearby locale, and back it with pretty focused advertising. Parle G and Maggi Noodles are great examples of this.


As you have pointed out, ready-to-eat brands have not found acceptance in the Indian market. How best can advertisers break the palpable mental barrier?

Ready-to-eat products face a challenge even in developed markets since consumers feel they are losing their ‘creative cooking’ chops if they just microwave a pack and put it in front of their family. The way to handle this is by making ready–to-eat into a ready-to-cook category. So instead of asking the consumer to just pop the pack in a microwave, brands should offer the consumer the flexibility to add his or her own special touch. Brands such as Quaker Masala Oats are doing just that. They are tailoring a rather boring international product and making it palatable and culturally relevant to Indians. And they are going great guns, I am told.


You say, too much focus on children could bring about problems for brands. Could you explain with an example?

Regulatory authorities around the world have trained their guns on brands that are aimed at children and show children in their ads. A number of soft drinks and confectionery brands have been pulled up. There is now a global code on when it is okay to show a child in an ad. These rules will come to India soon. So brands that depend on showing children need to take cognizance of that. The basis behind these rules is that young minds are a lot more absorbent of advertising messages. They have not developed the inane ‘filtering’ capability of an adult. Hence the caution.


Could you sum up the marketing-religiosity connect in the Indian context?

Indians are intensely religious. We celebrate all festivals with gusto and even the young are not shy of going to temples and other places of worship every week. Marketers have started understanding this and are using it to target messages. I suppose in no other country are cars and television sets, apartments and holidays sold under the label of religion. We are seeing that in India. It could be that by attaching a religious pastiche to the message we are helping the consumer rationalise the expense.


How have ads changed the perception of old age in India? Can you elucidate this point with an example?

Around three decades ago, all ads featuring old people were for medicinal brands. Even other category advertising (Bajaj Bulbs: Goli Khake Jeeta Hoon) were presenting old age as an age of ‘pills and potions’. Compared to that, today we are seeing a lot of brands targeting old people. For example, a number of financial services ads have presented old age as the time to enjoy. I am not sure how correct they are in

their depiction of old age as an age of fun and frolic. But it is interesting to see this narrative being played out in Indian ads.


How much has technology impacted the approach to advertising?

Technology has impacted all our lives; so no wonder it has impacted advertising as well, from the way it is produced to how it is consumed. I suspect this will continue to change as we see more and more media consumption shifting to the smartphone. I also suspect technological developments such as AR and VR will find great application

in advertising.


Could you list three future trends in Indian advertising?

In the last chapter, I have spoken of several future trends. If I were to pull out just three, these may be the top ones:

01 The consumption culture will take root as Indians become more easy with spending their money. The young will be ready to live it up and not worry about saving for a rainy day. This will open up new segments and we should see a rapid upgrade of consumer tastes.

02 The media landscape will change with handheld devices and smartphones becoming the primary mode of consuming ads. We should be ready to think mobile first and then all else, just as ten years ago we became television first.

03  We should see one India emerging with a rapid adoption of one uniform socio-economic classification across urban and rural India. The passage of the GST Bill will help in the unification of the market.