Of chocolate, tea and flying saucers

Harish Bhat | Updated on January 22, 2018

CT09_JADOOALIEN   -  The HIndu

For marketers and brands, aliens and other extra-terrestrial entities are an exciting frontier to chase

“Are we alone? Now is the time to find out” screamed a headline in a full-page newspaper advertisement, just a few weeks ago. The lengthy letter on this full-page went on to say that there has never been a better moment for a large-scale international effort to find life on other planets in the universe. “When do we find the nearest exo-Earth, should we send a probe? Do we try to make contact with advanced civilisations? Who decides?” These are amongst the many weighty questions which the advertisement urged us to ponder over.

This letter was signed by Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire and technology investor who has made his vast fortune by betting on companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp. Joining him in making this somewhat fantastic appeal were more than 25 reputed intellectuals, including the world chess champion Magnus Carlsen, the scientist Stephen Hawking and the Nobel Laureate James Watson.

Then came the exciting news, announced by NASA last month, that running water has been found on Mars. Armed with this thrilling discovery, researchers and writers have now begun actively speculating that conditions for life truly exist on this red planet. Once again, extraterrestrial life on other planets has become a trending topic in our own world.

Aliens – always around

Such interest in aliens from other planets is not new, really. It has always been a hot and interesting and energising topic amongst normal humans living on Mother Earth. Ever so often, there is news that an unidentified flying object (UFO) from outer space has been sighted, somewhere in the world. There are hundreds of such reported sightings each year, and this phenomenon goes back several decades, perhaps centuries. Sites of ancient civilisations such as the Incas bear signs of runways built for extra-terrestrial ships, though such alien theories are always hotly disputed by sceptics.

Hollywood and Bollywood have leveraged this extraordinary interest in aliens, and have built on it wonderfully well, with the characteristic aplomb and imagination that only the world of movies can bring us. How can we ever forget Steven Speilberg’s E.T. the Extraterrestrial, or the equally famous Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Closer home, Aamir Khan’s PK, where the actor himself superbly essayed the role of an alien, has been one of the biggest Bollywood box office grossers of all time. A few years ago, Krrish, featuring superstar Hrithik Roshan, spoke about a mentally challenged boy who has an encounter with an extra-terrestrial being, and how it changes his life forever. Aliens have been some of the most intriguing and loveable characters on the large screen.

Aliens and brands

No wonder aliens have been, and will continue to be, fertile territory for marketers and brands as well. Aliens are a wonderful device to capture the imagination of consumers. In my view, aliens will continue to hold strong interest amongst humans, regardless of whether we actually make contact with them. And if we actually do make contact with a real extra-terrestrial alien, then I think this topic will be on top of all our minds and best-seller charts for years together.

Many brands have used aliens smartly and impactfully in their marketing campaigns. Here are some of these stories, which should inspire many more marketers to take the plunge into the extra-terrestrial world.

Vodafone’s Zoozoos, the funny small aliens, have been one of India’s most loved modern brand icons. These cute, white, egg-headed alien-like creatures were on our television screens for several seasons, and who knows, they may well be back soon. With their fat bellies, funny walk and gibberish speak, Zoozoos cut through the clutter immediately. They made Vodafone one of the most salient and likeable brands in the country. Vodafone could not have found better icons than this family of Zoozoos to communicate all its varied value-added services, always with a nice touch of alien humour.

Argos, the British catalogue retailer, has built a cult following for its “Argos aliens”. This is a family of aliens that loves interacting with humans, watching television and doing extensive shopping. (Well, what else would you expect from a retailer?) Argos’s Alien advertisements have been amongst the most recalled Superbowl advertisements in the US. In recent days, Argos has also run an interesting Twitter campaign requesting consumers to come up with names for a new baby in this family. I wonder what name won!

Reese’s Pieces, a brand of peanut butter candies from Hershey, took the risk of investing a fairly significant amount to partner with Spielberg’s movie E.T. the Extraterrestrial”. This was way back in 1981, when Reese’s Pieces was still a relatively new product. So Reese’s pieces became the alien’s favourite treat in this movie. Sales in the real world skyrocketed within two weeks of the movie’s premiere, beating all expectations. Shops could not meet consumer demand for months, and it is estimated that billions of these peanut butter candies sold, thus also firmly establishing the new brand as a winner. Clearly, humans like eating the foods that cute aliens love. This move has gone down in history as one of the best product placements ever in a movie or serial. Interestingly, a famous rival company, Mars, had refused to undertake this partnership, despite the fact that their brand M&Ms was reportedly Spielberg’s first choice.

Tetley, the much loved British brand of tea, has used aliens very effectively in one of its most recent pieces of advertising. Here, aliens invade London. The city is on the verge of surrender, with millions fleeing the invasion, and alien spaceships hovering above. Talks commence between the aliens and the Prime Minister. These are at a tense point, when Tetley’s loveable Tea Folk diffuse the tension with hot cups of Tetley tea – which the aliens love to drink, and then they eat the porcelain tea cups as well!

Why aliens appeal

These stories speak for themselves. Brands can use aliens in many different ways, and this appears to inevitably work with consumers. One fundamental reason why aliens appeal so well, either as brand icons or in partnerships in brands, is because of mankind’s fascination with life outside earth. Many of us have read in comic books and science fiction tales about strange-looking Martians who enter earth in round spaceships, often with evil intent. These creatures occupy a small deep corner of our sub-conscious mind, because we think they may be lurking somewhere in the big wide universe, yet we are never sure at all whether they exist. Brands that provide some form of expression to this deep fascination therefore tend to appeal immediately, since they tap into this sub-conscious fascination. Because very few brands have used aliens in an active manner, brands that do so also tend to stand out and cut through the clutter.

Another reason for this appeal is perhaps the fact that when we hear about intelligent aliens, we also stand somewhat in awe of them, and we may wish to connect with them in some benign manner, to elevate ourselves. Perhaps we see them as yet another stage in our evolution. As Don Lincoln, the Fermilab physicist and author of the book Alien Universe, says “When we talk about intelligent extra-terrestrials, we are really holding a mirror to ourselves”.

A third reason could be that aliens can be portrayed in a vast range of very striking ways that appeal to us – they can be funny, loveable, cool, dangerous, strange, evil, benevolent. They can fly, or disappear in a trance, or change their shapes at will. In short, aliens can be what marketers make of them, and any such characterisation is seen as entirely natural, because we don’t really know who or what they are. Perhaps we cannot obtain this wide range of flexibility with humans, who have limitations, and whom we know rather well.

For all these reasons and more, it is clear is that marketers and brands can use aliens in a number of interesting and exciting ways that can appeal greatly to our consumers. ET, here we come!

Harish Bhat is Member, Group Executive Council, Tata Sons, and author of Tata Log: Eight modern stories from a timeless institution. These are his personal views. The author acknowledges valuable inputs from Pooja Pai, Tata Sons, in the writing of this article.

Published on October 08, 2015

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