Through the last 50 years of Indian advertisement, author, adman Ambi Parameswaran looks at ways in which we’ve changed (and ways in which we’ve not)
Today’s young women might be affronted if they were told that the symbol of true marital love is a pressure cooker. But that’s what advertising in the ’80s portrayed. Prestige had a much-loved ad that ran for years espousing the cause of “pressure free” marital life. No wonder then, the pressure cooker is one of the most ubiquitous items in an Indian kitchen. So much so that millions of NRIs take it with them when they leave our shores. ‘True love’, it seems, continues abroad as well.
As for the young man, getting a job was the ultimate life goal. So, one detergent brand saw a husband berating his wife for his failure at an interview. Why? Because of his dull, yellow shirt. Famously, a lime-powered detergent comes to their rescue, and, voila, he lands a job.
Later, the not-so-feminist ad industry stopped slotting women into domestic roles and showed her in the workspace, but did not stop stereotyping. A fairness cream, which was once presented as a passport for marriage, created a big stir when it switched to a story of a young woman getting rejected for a job because of her dark skin; only to land it after the magical transformation. In a sense, the brand was reflecting the aspirations of young women of India: that marriage is not the only choice. As for the fairer skin promise, that continues even today, with the slew of ‘skin-whitening’ products available in the market today.
But jobs and offices continued to be a priority. When that met the digital world, a memorable and humorous ad was born. A job portal showed a subordinate spelling out his boss’s name: “H for Hitler. A for arrogant. R for rascal…I for Idiot.”A country determined to land just any white-collar job now wanted work satisfaction.
But ads didn’t just attempt to reflect people’s thoughts, they also sought to educate them. Hindustan Lever taught Indians that using Dalda (it became to vanaspati what Xerox had to the photocopy) made food taste as good as cooked in ‘asli ghee’. Biscuits became a part of the staple diet, thanks to astute marketing by Parle G. To take them on, arch-rival Britannia looked to one the most famous Bollywood villains: Gabbar Singh. Together they made biscuits a common food item. Nestle did something more: They brought an alien food, noodles, and made it the instant, daily snack harassed mothers served to their kids who ran home saying “Bhookh lagi hai, Mummy.” She answered “Do minute”, and the rest is history. Few packaged, branded food items have had the success of instant noodles and biscuits.
But what are ads without aspirations? In the days before mass television, ads were published via print and were aimed at affluent, suit-wearing audiences. And with the textile mills still running full-steam, suitings were once the most highly advertised category in India. Well into the ‘90s, nawabs, cricketers and actors modelled for them. It’s a small segment now, what with the advent of international designer and high-street brands, and now, online retail. The sari, similarly, once a staple for ads, is now a pale shadow, having been reduced to occasional or festive wear. But with more and more designers trying to revive the sari, and traditional textiles, maybe there is hope for it.
One thing that did not go out of fashion, despite the digital clocks on our cell phones, is the wrist watch. And Titan, the brand that’s stayed synonymous with watches in India, has retained a signature jingle for years. So much so, that if you hear the original, you’d say “Titan” instead of “Mozart’s 25th Symphony”.
There was also reggae, used to sell milk; Baul to sell adhesives; Tabla to sell tea; and Hindustani classical music to sell “Hamara Bajaj” scooters. Make in India? We’ve been selling the sentiment for years.
Parameswaran is an author, brand strategist, and the founder of Brand-Building.com. His book, Nawabs Nudes Noodles is an “advertising view of India” over the last 50 years.
Nawabs Nudes Noodles by Ambi Parmeswaran was launched at the Godrej India Culture Lab, Vikhroli, on June 9, and is available at book stores and online
Publisher: Pan Macmillan India
Price: Rs 599