Portrait of the author as brand ambassador

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on November 12, 2020

Product placement: The writing life provides a reservoir of sellable ideas   -  ISTOCK.COM

Shobhaa De can endorse MDH spices; Chetan Bhagat may be the poster boy for Orient fans

* Rarely though do we see authors playing themselves in commercials, endorsing products

* The possibilities are endless

Marianne Moore was an inveterate letter writer, at times writing more than 50 a day. Her Selected Letters contains a fascinating correspondence between her and a Robert Young, from the marketing department of Ford Motor Company. The year is 1955 and Ford is launching a new model. Young writes, “We should like this name to be more than a label. Specifically, we should like it to have a compelling quality in and by itself. A name, in short, that flashes a dramatically desirable picture in people’s minds.” Moore replies, “Let me take it under advisement, Mr Young. I am complimented to be recruited in this high matter”.

For inspiration, the poet turns to the natural world and comes up with options: The Ford Silver Sword, Hurricane Hirundo, the Mongoose Civic and the Utopian Turtle Top. In response, the company sends Moore 24 roses; the accompanying card bears the greeting “To our favourite Turtle Topper”. Ford rejects Moore’s suggestions and, eventually, settles on the consummately unliterary ‘Edson’. Young writes a final letter to Moore, which ends, “I remain your faithful Utopian”. Moore apologises to Ford for having been unable to come up with something they liked. “I am a little piqued that I concentrated on physical phenomena.”

Oh well, so that didn’t turn out favourably. I tell this story because, lately, I’ve been thinking about writers and advertising. Writers at times work in advertising. At other times, like in Moore’s case, their advice is called for. Rarely though do we see authors playing themselves in commercials, endorsing products. Kindle did run a one-off mini campaign featuring two or three bestselling Indian authors but why should writers only be restricted to selling reading devices. Why can’t they, like Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Amitabh Bachchan, sell anything and everything from salt to cement? Why don’t writers feature in advertisements? I can think of several products that could benefit from deploying writers and drawing upon their writing lives.

The possibilities are endless. Shobhaa De could endorse MDH Masala: “Eat spicy, write spicy”. As Manu Joseph, an avowed jogger, runs up to India Gate, a slogan appears on the TV screen, “Boost is the secret of my writing energy”. As winter arrives in Landour and the skin begins to chap, the camera zooms in on Ruskin Bond’s lips, “Ruskin. Uses Boroline”. Shashi Tharoor finishes yet another book. In the TVC, he finds himself surrounded by reporters and fans, “Sir, how do you manage to write so much?” “Simple,” replies Tharoor, “Main Amigo double mileage ball point pen jo istemaal karta hoon!” Vikram Chandra can easily be recruited for Ambuja cement: “Binding plots”. Chetan Bhagat would do well as the poster boy for Orient Ceiling Fans: “Spinning yarns effortlessly”.

Even if we don’t use real writers, the writing life itself provides a reservoir of sellable ideas. A pack of 30 disposable VIP Frenchies can be sold under the tagline, “Don’t let dirty undies get in the way of your novel. One for every day of the month”. Or how about Jameson whiskey, “Drink Irish, write Irish.” Closer home, Imperial Blue can replace its sexist ‘Men will be Men’ slogan with the more accommodating “Indian writers will be Indian writers”. Center fresh gum might feature a writer crumpling sheets of paper and throwing them into the waste bin, “Chew on it”.

An insurance company can have an author playing snakes and ladders with an intent expression. She looks up at the camera. “People say a career in writing is risky. I never worry, because I have LIC.” A company manufacturing kitchenware will find writers useful too. “Orpat choppers, cutters and knives. Chops veggies. Chops chicken. Chops sentences.” Or how about a long shot of a famous poet driving down a freeway, blue bay shimmering in the distance. “They used to say that poets don’t drive. The new Tesla automatic. For the poet in you.” Ads for earth diggers are easy. “JCB. Excavating authors for your exclusive reading pleasure.”

Writing has a dark side and that should be tapped as well. I’ve worked especially hard on this visualisation. A split screen; two jealous writers who can’t concentrate on the writing ‘process’ because they are too busy stalking each other on social media. “Tata namak. Rubbing salt into wounds for decades.” How about this for a gas stove commercial: A frustrated writer, rejected by publishers, burns his manuscript one page at a time. “Sunflame Hob Glass. Cooks everything.”

The advert for Emirates airline will feature the writer as flight attendant, walking down the aisle, placing a copy of her novel on every food tray: “Serving readers”. Writing also has a naughty, playful side; the commercial for Kamasutra condoms will feature the writer holding a copy of the sexual treatise: “I didn’t write it. But I wear it”. Sticking with the naughty theme, how about this for Kent RO water purifiers: “Drink pure. Write pure. Think impure”. Meanwhile, any number of unfinished apartment blocks in Noida and Greater Noida can be endorsed by ghost writers: “Selling stories”.

I’m not sure if I’m famous enough to sell anything but, if approached, I’d love to endorse psyllium husk. “From irritable bowel syndrome to irritable vowel syndrome. A single letter makes all the difference. I for Isabgol!”

Palash Krishna Mehrotra   -  BUSINESS LINE


Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

Published on November 12, 2020

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