I still haven’t received the money from the winnings,” says Sushil Kumar, winner of the Rs 5 crore jackpot on Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) “But I am not in any hurry”. Armed with his easy charm, seen on the game show, this resident of Motihari in east Champaran, Bihar, has been busy with other trappings of instant celebrity status.
One of these is being anointed brand ambassador of the rural job guarantee scheme, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). “There’s been a photo shoot done so far, but I haven’t been told what is next. I think I will have to go motivate people in other NREGA centres across the country,” says Kumar, who is spending time in Motihari with his family after marathon media interviews and photo shoots in Mumbai.
Kumar is not the only small town hero who has earned the tag of brand representative. Anil Kumar, fellow contestant and Rs 1cr winner from Patna, who works with Union Bank, says he will soon become the face of the bank. “The general managing director of the bank met me in Mumbai and said he would take permission from the makers of KBC to use my face for Union Bank. It feels great. Mujhe lagta hai agle season mein KBC aur chhote shehron ke logon ko aage layega (I feel KBC will bring forward other people from small towns in the next season),” says Anil Kumar. Both Sushil and Anil are the latest envoys of small town India on reality TV.
“Television has become more democratised, it reaches millions and the chunk is small town India. These “educated poor” have aspirations to be a part of urban India. Tapping into this semi-urban viewership with stories of self-development and motivation has big potential for TV channels,” says Danish Khan, senior vice president (marketing) Sony Entertainment, which hosts KBC. “In the next 10 years, this segment will be more visible across markets,” he says.
That small town India is boosting television ratings like never before is backed by figures from Television Audience Measurement analysis firm (Tam India). TAM figures say viewership in the General Entertainment Channels (GEC) segment in Hindi-speaking markets with a population of 0.1-1 million rose by 6 million (from 41 million in 2010 to 47 million in 2011) last year.
To cater to small town audiences, channels are tweaking their fiction programming. “The growing demand for cable and DTH in these population strata has led to more consumption of content. During auditions for reality shows the number of participants from smaller India including towns from the North East is rising,” says Nitin Vaidya, business head (Hindi Channels), STAR India. “This is an important market for us and some of our fiction shows are based in smaller towns. For instance, Diya Bati aur Hum, based in Pushkar, is the story of a girl’s aspirations and how a husband supports her in her journey. Similarly, Ek Hazaron Main is a story set in Rishikesh, and Maryaada in Rohtak.”
Keeping small town viewers in mind, advertising agencies, too, have dropped ads laced with activism in favour of taglines and stories culled from the lives of ordinary people from Ambala to Mysore. Hero Motorcorp’s ‘Hum mein hai hero’ campaign, for instance, shows an actual gymnast nervous before her performance. “We focused on real stories and found them in small towns. The thought in the hinterland is no longer about resigning to fate, but finding new confidence,” says Anil S Nair, CEO and managing partner, Law & Kenneth communications (India) Ltd, the agency behind the ad.
Similarly, alcohol brand SabMiller’s Haywards 5000 “anthem ad” rides on small town aspirations. Handled by Ogilvy and Mather, Bangalore, the ad gathered stories of grit and determination from 250 towns across India and inspired Javed Akhtar to pen Hausla hai buland. The ad is a montage of stories where people overcome corruption and elitism. “We sourced these stories from towns like Panipat, Faridkot, Ujjain, Akola in Maharashtra and Pondicherry,” says Joono Simon, executive creative director, O&M, Bangalore “Realism is the key, to sell any product and service today.”
Even Raymonds, a premium textile brand that caters to a high-end segment, is now targeting tier 2 and 3 cities with its new brand called ‘Makers’ that will sell fabric for around R250-390 a metre. TBWA, the agency behind the branding of Makers, says this will be an independent brand that takes fashion to “everyone not just the elite”. To be launched early next year, this campaign celebrates the everyday celebrity says Rahul Sengupta, national creative director of TBWA. “We are using a smart common face, a man dressed in Makers waiting for a train, and how thanks to his appearance, people perceive him well at the station,” says Sengupta.
Featuring the common man connects with everybody, across class affiliations. ICICI Prudential Life Insurance’s latest ad, with Amitabh Bachchan urging a security guard at an airport to get an insurance policy to protect himself and his family, illustrates this. “It was not targeted at a particular segment, we did not keep the small town or lower middle class in mind, however the idea was the commonality of emotions,” says Amer Jaleel, national creative director, Lowe Lintas, the agency behind the ad.
Echoing the aspirations of small towns in advertising and television is not a passing fad, say sociologists. “Documenting these stories and finding new role models is a long-term trend, and it will move to rural India,” says social commentator Santosh Desai. “The underdog is always cheered on. As we get jaded with celebrities and manufactured hyper reality, the really ‘real’ stories will stay.”