Advertising India: How companies pitched themselves to citizens of independent nation

A look at the art of luring customers with words and images from the archives of Hindustan Times on August 15,1947.

IndependenceDay2017 Updated: Aug 14, 2017 12:06 IST
Zehra Kazmi and Sujoy Das
Zehra Kazmi and Sujoy Das
Hindustan Times
Independence Day,Independence Day celebrations,India at 70
Still in the market: An advertisement for Horlicks in the August 15, 1947 edition of Hindustan Times.(HT archives)

On the day India was freed from British rule, life changed for its citizens, but some things remained business as usual. Indians were still buying and selling, from items of daily use such as toothpaste or shaving blades to luxury items such as cars and movie tickets.

Advertisements have existed almost as long as newspapers have – even in 1947, newspaper front pages carried ads. Digging through the Hindustan Times’ archives from 1947, one glimpses cultural history of a different kind – what was being advertised and how? What were the products you were most likely to find in Indian middle-class homes? What movies were in theatres; which film stars were the faces of popular creams? What ideas and values were advertisers peddling back in the day?

What you can see is a little bit of India in brands that are familiar names. Advertising copy, however, has come a long way – from being flowery and formal, today’s ads usually employ a more conversational tone. Many advertisements mention addresses and offices in the cities of Delhi, Karachi, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Lahore and London, the big financial hubs.

Inside India’s cupboards in 1947

Some of the products ubiquitous in India’s cupboards were already crowd favourites at the time. Dettol antiseptic, Colgate toothpaste, Eno fruit salt, Glycodin cough syrup, Cipla remedies, Johnson’s baby powder, Hamdard’s Safi, Kelloggs’ cornflakes, Lipton tea were household names.

Apart from these, what were the lotions and potions that catered to the vanity of India’s middle and upper classes? You will spot some familiar names here, and familiar advertising tropes: Brylcreem was advertising its greasy charms, Gillette was selling smooth shaves; Lifebuoy was telling consumers it would make them popular and land them jobs, while Palmolive was selling its ‘exciting shampoo’ that would make hair “sparkling, silky smooth and easy to curl”. ‘Lovely women’ everywhere used Ponds, and Lux had already roped in a film star as its face.

New technologies

The other thing that jumps out is the breathless air with which new technologies and features were being advertised. Kodak is marketing its ‘lumenized lenses’, a technology it pioneered during the World War II. Eveready’s long-lasting batteries could provide ‘unfailing, bright and powerful’ light, while Phillips’ low-cost battery-operated radios promised “finest radio reception”. And Reynolds, the humble makers of our favourite blue-and-white pen, were announcing the Reynolds’ Rocket Ball Pen, which could go 15 years without a refill!

For the movers and shakers

Then there were items that spelled luxury. In the August of India’s independence, an Air India ticket from Delhi to Bombay cost Rs 140, a substantial sum. The return flight made a stopover at Ahmedabad for refuelling.

You could buy a shiny, smooth new Buick Sedan for Rs 12,700. What seems like a pittance now was a princely sum back then. A Parker pen or a Chevrolet is still a luxury in today’s India, but in the year of India’s independence, very few Indians could afford these at all.

For those who could, going out to the matinee was one of these treats. So what was playing in theatres in 1947? Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious starring American heartthrobs Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman was playing in Plaza Cinema in January, while Regal cinema was showing Henry Fonda-starrer ‘The Return of Frank James’. In Indian cinema, it seems historicals were the flavour of the season -- Ritz Cinema at Lothian Road was playing Veerangana while Jagat Cinema was playing Surendra and Suraiya’s “1857”, a retelling of the first war of Indian independence.

In some respects, nothing seems to have changed. The latest films still play at Plaza, and Cook and Kelvey continue to sell Rolex watches at Scindia House.

The winds of change

While commerce continues, these vintage advertisements are not untouched by the events of 1947. Biscuit manufacturer Parle-Gluco wishes consumers prosperity in ‘this new year of freedom’ in an advertisement.

India’s homegrown industrialists such as DCM textiles and Modi industries had gained a solid foothold in the market. The Imperial Bank of India would soon be renamed the State bank of India in 1955, post Independence.

This 1947 advertisement for the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun was striking. The IMA was looking for young officers of ‘quality, character, vigour, grit; lovers of rough outdoors and adventurous life need apply’. But you had to be a “British subject of Indian domicile or descent”. How this would change four months later, when India gained freedom from colonial rule.

This rather bold ad pitches Colgate as the perfect toothpaste to fight bad breath so you can kiss your beau. Toothpaste wasn’t a necessity back then, many Indian households still relied on the traditional meswak method to keep their teeth clean.
Newer generations may know Eno from its ‘Eno on, acidity gone’ tagline, but as this rather grandiose 1947 advertisement for the fruit salt shows, the brand has been around for a long time. "Eno knows no race, no flag, no boundaries – it extends to all peoples, so great is its fame as a healthgiver," the ad announces. Also worthy of note: The ad bears the mark of JWT, one of the world’s oldest advertising agencies, which was founded by former US marine James Walter Thompson in 1896.
We have all gargled with Listrine mouthwash, but in 1947, the company was peddling its toothpaste where a mother tells her about-to-be-wed daughter to brush with Listrine so "you can hold your pretty smile…and the admiration of your husband." The sexism here should feel antiquated, but is very much a part of advertising even in 2017.
Here’s the Czech shoe company -- which many Indians think of as homegrown because of how ubiquitous it has been – wishing its patrons on Durga Puja. Bata entered the Indian market in 1931, and was incorporated at Calcutta.
7’o clock was eventually bought out by Gillette and retails under its brand now. In 1947, Gillette’s blue blades retailed for Rs 14 for a pack of 5, while Indian brand 7 o’clock was a cheaper alternative with a pack of 10 slotted blades at Rs 12.
What’s he got that we haven’t, asks this ad? The answer, of course, is Brylcreem. Actor-singer Kishore Kumar and cricketer Farokh Engineer were some of the big names to endorse Brylcreem in its early days.
American company Pond’s foray into India started with advertising an entire beauty routine – cold cream, vanishing cream and powders.
The soap brand’s long tradition of getting film actors to market its products stretches back to 1947-- actress Ratnamala who had played the lead in 1945’s Vikramaditya was Lux’s face.
It wouldn’t become Parle-G till the 1980s but India’s ‘premier biscuit manufacturer’ already ruled the roost.
General Motors, Buick’s promoter in India, started business in the country in 1928, assembling Chevrolet cars, buses and trucks.
Parker was already a leading name in pens by then. The Parker ‘51’ with a gold cap retailed for Rs 63 – and has now acquired a collectible status.
The white-and-blue Reynolds ball pen is advertising something revolutionary in 1947: a pen where you won’t need to change the refill for 15 years!
A measure of how drastically cigarette advertising has changed over the years – in 1947, Will’s could openly advertise, "To assess the quality of a cigarette, all you need to look for is the name". Current laws prescribe that cigarette and tobacco packaging needs to carry health warnings.
India’s first airline stated that it was there "to serve the nation, to serve you". In 1947, a Bombay to Delhi flight had a stopover in Ahmedabad for refuelling. The Tata-owned Air India had a touchingly nationalist tagline, "In India, it pays to fly Air India". An October advertisement notifies an increase in the fare price.
The ‘longest established travel company’ in the world was founded in 1758 with the purpose of aiding the regiments posted to India. It was founded by Richard Cox under the command of Lord Ligonier. It started off with shipping clothing and other personal effects of soldiers and requisitioning of weapons or supplies, but later turned into a travel company. When the British packed up and left, Cox & Kings stayed behind and thrived in the subcontinent.
An advertisement for the Bollywood movie ‘1857’, based on the first war of Indian independence, starring singer-actor Surendra and Suraiya. The film had several songs, with music by Sajjad Hassan. Though Jagat Cinema had downed shutters, Chandni Chowk is still home to the Gramophone Company.
Mobile phones may have become our default torches, but Eveready is still synonymous with batteries in India. The National Carbon Company started operations in India in 1905 with batteries imported from the USA, but set up its own battery and flashlight plant over the years. In 1951, the name was changed to Union Carbide Company, which was involved in the tragic Bhopal gas disaster in 1984.
This 1947 advertisement for the Indian Military Academy is looking for young officers of ‘quality, character, vigour, grit; lovers of rough outdoors and adventurous life need apply’. But you have to be a "British subject of Indian domicile or descent", which was to change four months later when India gained independence.
On January 27, 1921, the three Presidency banks of Bengal, Bombay and Madras were amalgamated to form a single entity, the Imperial Bank of India. In 1955, the IBI was transformed into the State Bank of India.
Connaught Place’s glittery Plaza Cinema is playing American blockbusters ‘Notorious’ and ‘Abie’s Irish Rose’. But the Sunday morning show is Ashok Kumar’s Hindi movie, Kismet.

First Published: Aug 14, 2017 11:02 IST