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Brand new story

Aditi Sengupta | Updated on November 10, 2018 Published on November 09, 2018

Advertisers are no longer just peddling goods — they are also selling tears, smiles and compassion. Video-sharing and social media platforms are buzzing with short films that address social issues as well as speak up for those on the margins

The market is aglow with golden fairy lights. A woman sits in one corner of the sprawling marketplace, selling earthen diyas for which there are no takers. A small boy notices the woman and pauses near her, but his mother nudges him to move on. He comes back for some lamps and takes a photograph of the dejected woman, whom he addresses as Amma. A few minutes’ work on his laptop, and the boy has printed posters at home which he then shares with others. And the next thing Amma sees is a steady stream of buyers. Her little well-wisher returns to find that she has sold the last lamp. He rides off into the night on his bike before she can thank him for lighting up her Diwali.

Shot in Gurugram’s Galleria Market — surrounded by upscale residential complexes and restaurants — this 3.14-minute film by HP India was released on YouTube and social media on November 2. In five days, 3 million people had watched it. Thousands had left comments in support of buying from local artisans on the company’s Facebook page and Twitter handle; hundreds more had shared the video on WhatsApp.

This Diwali season, advertisers have not just been peddling goods, they have been selling goodwill as well. A spate of short films has flooded cyberspace and gathered eyeballs. These films, revolving around one of India’s biggest festivals, are not merely seasonal offerings. Complete stories in themselves, they are among the hundreds of advertisements that companies are making mainly for video-sharing and social media platforms — such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. While some of these have also appeared on television — ads for Saregama Carvaan and Ghadi Detergent, for example — most remain within the folds of digital media and marketing.

The hashtag #ShorYaSangeet, created by Saregama Carvaan, has struck a chord with those in favour of a peaceful festival. In the 46-second film, an elderly couple comforts their traumatised pet dog by playing an old Hindi film song on a portable music player their daughter has gifted them.

With a focus on issues that range from pets to gender and class divides, advertisements are speaking up for those on the margins. In one short film, a daughter (Khushi) chooses the Diwali evening to thank her mother for a very special gift — that of giving her a home and family. It was also a Diwali evening when Khushi was brought home from an orphanage to loving parents and a doting brother. She is indeed the best gift that a family could ask for, says Oppo India.

Rohan’s Diwali looks less exciting than Khushi’s. He has to tidy up his room and clean the blades of grimy ceiling fans. His mother wants the self-absorbed teenager to understand that the work, reserved for Meenu, the domestic help, requires long hours and patience. By the end of the 3-minute film, Rohan’s tee needs to be cleaned — with Ghadi Detergent — but as his mother points out, that’s easily done. What’s tough is cleaning the grime within. The boy is happy to hand over his Diwali allowance to Meenu, whom he has never thanked.

Then there is mobile phone maker Vivo India’s #PhotoOfYourLife, a 3-minute commercial about a photograph that changes a retired army officer’s life. He comes out of depression after his daughter finds his old friends with the help of a sepia-tinted image she shares with her friends and acquaintances. A music band from yesteryear strums back into being and the grieving widower is finally ready to move on in life.

The old ads haven’t gone anywhere, of course. You still have beautiful women selling everything from soap to cars, perfectly turned out mothers conjuring up magic in kitchens with the right kind of oil, and men oozing charm with long-lasting deos. But a mini revolution — albeit a limited one — is sweeping across electronic and social media. Ads are telling stories, with humour and tenderness, and tugging at heart strings.

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It’s not just the space that distinguishes these campaigns from the standard advertising long seen on TV and in print. The treatment, due to the longer format, makes them stand apart, too. Aggressive catchlines have given way to softer, humane hashtags, while peppy jingles have yielded room to poetry as voiceovers and conversations between characters. Camera movements are not as jerky or restless, and the story is almost always about human emotions and social issues such as the girl child and the environment. The brand finds a mention only towards the tail-end. And in most cases, the product, be it an aerated drink or detergent, is not even shown in the film.

Yet the reach of these films — because of the penetration of the internet and the mobile phone — is setting new patterns in the digital market while encouraging creators and their clients to push the envelope of ad-making. The script has undergone a change; so has brand philosophy and targets.

“New-age consumers are more invested in the choices they make. They have moved beyond mere ‘buy the brand’ kind of advertising. No matter what you claim about the brand, this consumer will put in some research before making a purchase,” says Ritu Sharda, senior executive creative director of BBDO India. “When you are dealing with an informed audience, it becomes important for the brand to establish a one-on-one connection so that the consumer chooses a brand for not just a product on the shelf but also its point of view or a larger message.”

Soft frame: Shoojit Sircar directed All Out’s #StandByToughMoms and Mirinda’s #ReleaseThePressure campaigns. The former focuses on a patriarchal family’s attitude towards a mother who wants to discipline her son.

Two of BBDO's campaigns — All Out and Mirinda — are examples of how brands are trying to connect consumers with their outlook.

The former, #StandByToughMoms, aired in February this year, had 15 million views in less than a month. According to sources, the number has touched 81 million, with viewers as far as the US and the UK, and neighbour Pakistan. The message of the film is — “When a mother is being tough, she is protecting the next generation”.

Directed by filmmaker Shoojit Sircar, it shows a joint family from north India at dinner. A spoilt grandson refuses to eat because he has been chastised by his mother for taking ₹10 out of her wallet. Most members are upset that the boy is not eating, and with his mother for being so stern. The boy’s father stresses that the money is his, implying that the mother has no right to pull up the child. It’s finally up to the family patriarch to weigh in for his daughter-in-law, stressing the difference between “taking” and “stealing” money.

Comments on the campaign's Facebook page reveal that some viewers found the film regressive because of how it portrays the woman’s position in the family — someone who is silent in the face of criticism, someone who has to plate food for the family, someone who is financially dependent on her father and later the husband. Others have argued that the has to fight the system from within, she cannot walk out of the marriage.But she can still do something to ensure that her child does not grow up to be like most others in the family.

Shot in just over three hours, the film has also won director Sircar praise for his handling of a sensitive topic such as parenthood. “Everyone loves a mother who pampers and indulges her children. The strong, principled mother has to face opposition. These examples are all around us. And the dinner table setting seemed just right to bring out a patriarchal family’s feudal attitude towards women,” says Sircar.

Soft target: The #ReleaseThePressure campaign, aired before board exams, is about teenagers burdened with parental expectations

Also directed by Sircar, Mirinda’s #ReleaseThePressure took much longer to film. The reactions to the two-part series have also been more dramatic. The first part was released in February 2017, just before school board exams. The target audience — like that for the beverage — consisted of 14- and 15-year-olds, and their parents. The second part was released in January this year.

“We invited 12 teenagers to our office and asked them to write letters to their parents and we used lines from these letters as dialogues in the film,” says Sharda. Each of them came up with disturbing accounts of living under tremendous parental pressure on performing well and being successful in life. The letters were read out to the parents. Expectedly, many of them — teenagers and the parents — broke down during the process. The videos were shared widely on parent-teacher WhatsApp groups while Mirinda makers Pepsico, in collaboration with Fortis Hospitals, launched a helpline where students could consult a psychologist. The helpline sometimes receives 100 calls a day, Sharda says.

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Filmmaker Deepti Nagia, who has spent 15 years in the industry, believes this line of advertising gives the director greater flexibility. “There is no fixed mantra for this space. There are set rules for the other kind of ad films, which are for direct sales. In this sphere, an ad is almost like cinema. Earlier, no one expected ads to change views and opinions. Now they do,” she tells BLink.

Nagia has been widely praised for the HP Diwali ad film, which she directed. “The response is unexpected. I didn’t think that a simple story of a village woman trying to sell diyas in an urban space would go viral.”

She also didn’t foresee the response her #KeralaIsOpen film would elicit. Released on September 25, a little more than a month after Kerala was ravaged by floods, the Samsonite ad appeals to tourists to help revive the state’s economy. The only product placement in the film is a strolley a tourist carries into a homestay in Alleppey.

“People reached out to me on FB and WhatsApp, thanking me for making this film for Kerala. Not all of them have a Kerala connection. It just shows that where there is a story to tell, people will always be receptive,” she says.

You are welcome: Released in September 2018, Samsonite’s #KeralaIsOpen ad film is an appeal to tourists to help revive Kerala’s flood-ravaged economy

Actor Swaroopa Ghosh — Amma in the Diwali film — seconds the view. “The idea is to make people think about the kind of future that artisans like Amma have in the current day and age. We did it without intellectualising the story and that’s what has appealed to viewers. In fact, during the shoot, a few women even stopped by to buy diyas from me,” says Ghosh. She adds that actor and director Vijay Raaz’s recitation of a Yatharth Sharma poem — Nikle jo tum aaj ghar se — has made the film more poignant.

For many, the advertisement is also that — an advertisement. Kawal Shoor, co-founder of The Womb, the Mumbai agency behind the #ShorYaSangeet campaign, stresses that the Carvaan Diwali ad is not a social media experiment. “It is ‘the’ campaign for the brand for Diwali and the success will ultimately be measured by sales,” he says.

Also a co-founder of The Womb, Navin Talreja points out that Carvaan had to compete with brands in big categories as a gift option by the young to the old. The use of an Indian street dog, instead of an expensive breed, drives home the message that in the “cacophony of the festival, it is the indie dog that suffers in the streets”.

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Clearly, advertisers are mining what is referred to as India’s “emotional economy”. And they are making the most of social media, which gives them the space to tell a story. TV has done this earlier — notably with jeweller Tanishq’s ad on a dark-skinned mother’s second marriage in 2013. Elaborating on this, Puneet Anand, senior general manager and group head, marketing, Hyundai Motor India, says: “Ads of 30 or 40 seconds are transactional in nature and help you make quick decisions. But to ‘connect’ with a brand, you need a longer format.”

The company’s #BrilliantMoments campaign, launched in July 2018, has got 224 million views. It took only 15 days for one of the ads — in which a young man, on his way to a job interview in his Santro, decides instead to take a detour to drop an army man to his destination — to clock 100 million views. “We ran a campaign for people to share their [Hyundai] stories; we got 18,000 entries. We have shortlisted 10 to be put up on YouTube,” says Anand.

But while the advertisements make people reach for their tissues, do they also reach out for their wallets? Hyundai conducted a survey to analyse the reach and effects of this campaign. “We were able to reach 100 per cent unique users of the YouTube channel. And every month, it gets 240 million unique users on the platform. This campaign became a case study for Google. It showed that for 20 per cent of the people who watched this ad, the intention to buy a Hyundai has increased,” Anand says.

He also goes on to explain the economics behind long-format ads on social media and video-sharing channels. “Digital ads cost less than a 20-30-second ad on TV. Production costs are higher because of the longer duration but they still cost a third of putting out an ad on prime time TV.” With data becoming cheaper by the day — apart from the growing popularity of subscription-based services such as Amazon Prime, Netflix and Hotstar — more and more people are bidding goodbye to television.

To top it, consumers do not like the way TV thrusts an ad on them; on social media, on the other hand, they can (mostly) decide if they want to see a commercial. And the emotional tagline on top or an evocative cover image usually prompts them to click on a link. “Ads on TV are something that many people are forced to watch; every time there is an ad break, we tend to switch the channel. Watching an ad video is voluntary, therefore the involvement is higher,” says Sharda.

Quite naturally, the subject or the theme also goes a long way in deciding a viewer’s emotional link with the ad film. Though not in the same league as gender issues such as women’s empowerment and education, a subject such as water conservation, too, has many takers. Livpure’s #CuttingPaani campaign (March 2018) — highlighting the need to use only as much water as one requires — is a case in point. Its #FinishYourGlass series talks about not leaving water in the glass.

“The branding in our campaigns is very elusive because we want the issue to be at the forefront. When people discuss the topic, critique or review it, the brand’s mention comes up,” says Sushil Matey, Livpure’s director — marketing. “(But) marketing campaigns with a personal relevance for consumers have proved to be profitable for brands and business.”

The brand image stands to gain even with ad films that are solely a CSR (corporate social responsibility) exercise, a practice under which companies earmark a part of their earnings to a social cause. Take the Mahindra Group’s #LadkiHaathSeNikalJaayegi, an offering under its Nanhi Kali project. It was released on YouTube this August. In less than three months, it had 26 million views and .12 million shares to its credit. There is no Mahindra vehicle or tractor in the frame — just a loving father who wants to educate his daughter, and residents of a town that still seems to think that education will take her out of his control. Vivek Nayer, chief marketing officer, group corporate brand, says that Mahindra is planning similar ad films for other social causes. “Next time, we may choose the environment,” he says.

But the task of operating without a specific objective, especially commercial, can also be viewed as marketing duplicity, says Shoor of The Womb. “Brands are now beginning to posture in a new (good) way but they continue to sell the way they used to. Earlier, the heroes and the villains were clear and visible. Now, not so,” he says.

Most ad makers, however, hold that companies are happy to sell an emotional message — with their product being portrayed as a subtext. Sircar admits that he was unsure of the client’s reaction vis-à-vis brand placement in the All Out ad about the strong mother: “I kept thinking they would plaster the product all over the film. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.”

There was an age when companies — and ad agencies — sold envy. This is seemingly the time for tears and smiles. With the products in the footnotes.

(With inputs from Rashmi Pratap)

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Published on November 09, 2018
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