Ramanujam Sridhar

How dare they?

Ramanujam Sridhar | Updated on August 21, 2014 Published on August 21, 2014

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Shouldn’t companies spending millions on advertising worry about their basic offering?

Do you remember the Fair & Lovely air-hostess commercial? Okay, let me tell you the story at the risk of killing the commercial. The commercial is set in a lower-middle-class household. The father asks for one more cup of coffee even as the mother tells him there is no milk and goes on to ask him “how many cups of coffee will you drink out of your daughter’s earnings?” The father announces to the world “I wish I had a son” in a voice loud enough for the daughter to hear. The disillusioned and angry daughter keeps brooding about the unfairness of it all and her own dark complexion.

With something approaching a quiet rage, she applies for the job of air-hostess, responding to an advertisement in the newspaper with no real hope. As with lots of people in India, she has a tremendous complex about her dark complexion. She simultaneously applies the Fair & Lovely treatment to herself. The result is a fairy tale. She is transformed, charms her interviewers and gets the job. The film ends with her taking her admiring parents to a five-star hotel and the father sheepishly asking his daughter for a cup of coffee.

It was a commercial that hit complexion-conscious India in the gut as it also attacked the Indian predilection for a male child. Having grown up entirely in an environment where the colour of one’s skin was paramount, I could certainly relate to it. It did wonders for the brand and yet it raised the hackles of the educated, affluent Indian elite who had no use for the product.

“How dare they?” thundered the elite in their cocktail circuits. When I asked Balki (whose agency had created it), about the ad, he smilingly said “Pedder Road does not seem to like it”. I remember showing this to a delegation of international students and explained how the ad ran the risk of being banned because it had tackled sensitive issues head on. The global audience was really impressed as they believed controversy helped any ad and brand gain visibility by leaps and bounds.

Many of them were envious of the ad’s ability to evoke such strong reactions. “In the UK, if an ad is banned it is phenomenal, we would give an arm and leg for that,” said one very excitedly. I remembered this when I saw the new Airtel TV commercial.

Who’s cooking? The boss!

In case you haven’t seen the recent Airtel commercial, it features a modern working couple with a slight twist, if you can call it that, as the wife is the boss. (We are not talking of the home here.) She is having a tough internal meeting where she tells her colleagues the project has to be completed overnight despite her subordinate’s (her husband’s) protests, and leaves.

She then calls her husband to ask what he wants for dinner, gets home and starts to work in the kitchen, making one appetising dish after another. She sends images of the cooked dishes to her husband and asks him to come home soon and he, tongue-in-cheek, asks her to speak to his boss as it would take long otherwise.

The commercial ends with Airtel being touted as the special service for smartphones with the ability to make video calls.

As a long-term Airtel subscriber, I certainly cannot agree that it is a smart choice but then most mobile service advertising in India is independent of the quality (?) of the network and most moderately unhappy people like me do not want to go from the frying pan to the fire as the other service provider may be much worse! The advertising for mobile services is particularly good whilst the service universally sucks. But I am digressing.

How would I rate the commercial? It is certainly charming and smartly features the advantages that are being claimed strongly about Airtel’s suitability for smartphones.

But if one were to compare this commercial with, say, the Airtel commercial featuring youngsters, missed calls and friends of all sizes and shapes, it is not in the same league. Of course, it is my problem, because I am searching for a consumer insight in the current commercial.

Is the ad sexist?

There has been a right royal Twitter battle as well with hashtags like ‘my boss cooks for me’, to ‘my boss Hitler’ with people arguing for and against the depiction of the role models. To my mind it is a needless controversy and probably an engineered one.

Why do I say this? I strongly believe in the communication principle “Either love me or hate me but for God’s sake don’t ignore me.” Today, with a smart social media strategy it is possible to ensure that an ad is not ignored. You can certainly pick up certain elements in the communication and create a controversy around it.

How can the wife be the boss? Why should she rush home to cook? Why are bosses like Hitler? We can certainly pick up enough angles and create a storm around a TV commercial, making even those who have not seen it go to YouTube to check it out.

Market reality

Sadly, we have to remind ourselves that advertising ultimately has to work in the marketplace. We get so obsessed with our own cleverness and the appreciation of our peers that we forget the bigger picture, which is to retain existing users, correct perceptions about it and bring in new users.

Will this ad do this? I wonder. Did the much touted “Friends” campaign that Airtel ran previously deliver on that count? I am equally unsure.

This leads to my pet peeve as a consumer. I only wish brands would spend more time enhancing the customer experience than agonising about husbands and wives and who is the boss. I do realise that all mobile companies are taking the easy way out and focusing on what is, to them, the most visible part – which is the advertising. And yet, I wonder how critical advertising is in brand choice.

If calls keep dropping every second minute and you have to rush from the living room to the garden simply because connectivity happens only in one particular part of your garden, you are entitled to crib and say, like I am doing on this occasion, “Who gives a darn for your advertising? Just fix my network.”

Mobile ads set the tone

Having said all that, I still need to give credit where it is due. When I first entered advertising it was so long ago that I can’t even remember when cola advertising was the ‘hot’ category. Creative types yearned to work on Coke or Pepsi.

Today, mobile services are the colas of yesterday. Brands like Airtel, Vodafone and Tata Docomo keep us entertained with their charming, witty and, on occasion, controversial commercials. I am not complaining as often these commercials are a lot more interesting to watch than the programmes in which they are featured. But shouldn’t these companies that spend millions on advertising worry about their basic offering? Or is that asking for too much?

(Ramanujam Sridhar is the Founder CEO of brand-comm. He teaches at various management schools and offers an online brand management course.)

Published on August 21, 2014
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