Thursday, August 17, 2006

AdS… Liberators or manipulators?

Is advertising the art of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money? 4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri checks out...

In her life altering biography ‘Changing’, iconic Swedish actress Liv Ullman (a key player in the legendary film maker Ingmar Bergman’s repertory of hi-octane talents) narrates her shock, bewilderment & terror at some of the ads that blitzed the TV set in her hotel room during one of her visits to Hollywood. “The ads interrupted programmes every 10 minutes – sometimes even more frequently, and made me furious on behalf of my sex. Women are aggressively urged to change their scent, cream their hands, wash their hair in special herbs, make-up their faces beyond recognition, improve their breasts... all in order to catch or keep a man!”

A professor at the New School of Social Research in New York teaches his students that advertising is a “profoundly subversive force in American life. It is intellectual and moral pollution. It trivialises and vulgarises, and is blatantly insincere. It is undermining our faith in our nation and in ourselves.” Adds humorist Stephen Leacock, “It is the art of arresting human intelligence long enough to get money from it!”

The hi- profile author of the celebrated best seller ‘From the Wonderful folks who gave you Pearl Harbour’, is less charitable & lashes out with all cylinders firing. Spews Della Femina, “Advertising deals in open sores, fear, greed, anger, hostility... you name the dwarfs and we play on them. We play on all the emotions and problems... from not getting ahead in life, to the desire to belong & be one of the crowd. Everyone has a button.” He offers examples of McDonald’s, Pepsi, Coke, Ma Bell, and how they were designed to fill the gap in lonely people’s lives by airing warm, family-oriented commercials that stressed togetherness and bonding to forge human connection and gain popular support at both a conscious & subliminal level.

The art of the psycho sell... the most popular and combustible marketing tactic, which combines the passion of Patton with the cunning of Rommel... the permissible lie... the seductive knack of creating needs & manufacturing wants to meet targets and fatten bottom lines... Is advertising really as evil, poisonous and dangerous as it’s made out to be?

Not according to Mumbai-based adman, Cyrus Hoshider, who sees red at such accusations, “Advertising is probably one of the greatest happenings as a sociological phenomenon. It is a true liberator in as much as it offers you a better quality of life. It exposes you to a wider variety of products & services designed to provide comfort, convenience and a higher level of well-being. Anything that is aspirational and invites you to live better cannot be anything other than a positive influence. To call it manipulative or exploitive is both negative & regressive.”

Kolkata-based journalist, author and filmmaker Jayobroto Chatterjee challenges the premise head-on, “The real world is not about winning accounts or making presentations, but deals with such ‘boring matters’ like truth, integrity, ethics and values in sync with people’s resources, needs and means. What’s the point of flashing glamorous, hi-ticket products to people who can’t afford them? ‘No one’s forcing them to buy’, would be ad makers’ facile argument, but the point is that the mischief has been created. You have subliminally seduced them with the promises of untold reward. That’s devious and dangerous!” Avijit Dutta, COO, Adcon Avertising (Planman Life) is more balanced in his perspective, “Ads are liberators as far as construst is concerned but in a way they require manipulation. If you consider fairness creams, they graze on the mythical fact – fair is beautiful. Companies have been playing on that for quite some time and it’s unfortunate, but they are successful.”

Contemporary thinking does propound that advertising is indeed playing out its role quite effectively, exposing the consumer to a wider array of goods and services enabling him to see, understand, decide and choose. Of course, for consumers who fall for every promise, claim or benefit powered into every ad, “they should stop seeing ads and start seeing a shrink!” says Jayabroto. Journalist Mala Sen provides the grand finale with her views, “Undoubtedly, the positive side of advertising exists loud and clear and it’s really dumb to take a tunnel-view of the issue... (But) where they default is the area of half-truths... it is done with such subtle, manipulative skill that they’ve said everything without saying anything! This is definitely wrong; but moral policing is worse.”

So while advertising is not quite the awesome magical liberating force it’s made out to be by its ardent champions, it’s neither the conniving, slimy, insidious, manipulative, psssst-persuader as suggested by the breed of its fire-spewing critics. Sure, there is a lunatic fringe, but that’s there in every area of life. So, would you dump life as a whole, ignoring moments of joy and fulfilment? In the market-driven new world order (for better, or for worse) advertising is a fact, even necessity, that needs to be applauded or chastised, as the occasion demands. The message for the livid Liv is simple – Dear Liv, Live and Let Live!


Thursday, August 03, 2006


4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri investigates the method and the madness behind the collective chalo-Cannes-mania!

 It all started as an innocent, even innocuous, discussion at a dinner hosted by a celebrity film critic who bemoaned the unfortunate, sad and bewildering fate of a slew of films that were hugely lauded, celebrated, even awarded at international film festivals, but failed to get a decent release at home, thus, totally cutting off the domestic audience to see and share the experience. “Much like the stuff we see at hi-profile Ad Fests like Cannes huh?” quipped a guest known for his wise-cracks. On cue, I leaped into the fray to defend my tribe. Did he know that he was referring to the most hymned and celebrated ad-event on earth, a much-awaited and coveted annual happening that attracted internationally revered super-stars from across the globe to showcase and celebrate creative excellence? Was he aware of the unprecedented 12 Lions in 5 categories for 6 agencies that we picked up in Cannes in our recent outing in June 2006?

The smart guy didn’t bat an eyelid and rose to the bait. “Sure, but hey, what do these tamashas and awards do for ground realities related to the everyday Indian adscape? Will this 7-star sho-shaa help in producing better, more quality-driven creatives that guarantee clients sweeter success at the cash counter? Will Cannes inspire our huge contingent to return empowered and take creativity to another paradigm? Will the sublime week of wine and rosesmean breaking new ground in fostering a whole new climate of creative excellence that will work as a benchmark for agencies to follow?”

Oooops, I had to confess that beyond being mad, I was stumped because, frankly, I had never really looked upon awards, especially at hi-ticket festivals, in such a cut and dry, “What’s-in-it-for-the-world” mode! I felt it killed the fun, focus, magic and mystique of it all… but the guy’s broadside certainly got me provoked-and thinking. Were these hi-flying events really all that self-congratulatory, self-absorbed and incestuous, or was the wise-guy just taking panga and shooting his mouth for effect? What better way to get some answers than a dipstick among movers and shakers of our community, right? So Operation Check out it was… and this is how it went…

“Scandalous and volte-face as it may sound; Mr. Kill-Joy has a point!” That was Gulu Sen, Dentsu’s hot-shot Creative Chief. According to him, the prime significance of Cannes revolves around the creative community’s obsession for international recognition, the desire to get out of the well and make a splash in the global seas, the longing to be perceived and accepted as a card-carrying member of an elite club that is engaged in celebrating creative excellence. Has this anything to do with the price of onions? “Not really, but that was never the objective. It’s an opportunity to hit marquee-territory, where several ad gurus converge, exhibit their-work (a lot of which is very sophisticated but totally bewildering due to its country and culture-specific tone and style) generally, be dazzled and have a blast!”

Mohammed Khan, the distinguished hi-profile creative boss of Bates-Enterprise begs to differ. He strongly believes that awards and festivals of this nature carry their own special relevance and significance. They focus primarily on high-end excellence with the definitive Big ‘O’ coming from recognition and appreciation of global peers. “I’d like to explode the idiotic myth perpetuated by some silly, ignorant and myopic sods about award-winning ads not working in the market place. Bullcrap! Research has thrown up innumerable examples where excellence has charmed both Jury members and customers.” Khan however appears disturbed about a dangerous phenomenon gaining momentum – SCAM ads. “This nonsense has to stop before it ruins, dilutes or tarnishes the image of this magnificent festival where the best of the best converge in the French Riviera to celebrate the alpha and omega of creative excellence. If it doesn’t, then before long, it could well be caricatured as the (in)famous SCAM FEST!” Before signing off, Ad-world’s King Khan has strong words for people who show disrespect for awards or festivals. “If it’s envy, then they need to go back to the drawing board and raise the bar. Otherwise, they will be well advised to immediately quit the business and try other vocations like law, medicine, accountancy, banking, retail et al!”

Sushil Pandit, CEO of THE HIVE chooses to take the analytical route. He believes that awards (by their very nature) have very little to do with brands or consumers” unless there is an award introduced where “consumers decide which ad they liked best and why.” That too, he reckons, would not be a fair vote because truly effective advertising is supposed to work insidiously and invisibly without drawing too much attention to itself. They are, after all, meant to work as hidden persuaders. “On that logic, awards seem to serve only one real purpose – place a halo around a creative person’s head and declare him God! The greatest irony is that while this phenomenon is completely divorced from the brand the person is working for, it works magically for the brand the creative person (post-award) has become! These brands exist in various hyped and hoopla-ed ad agencies as revered trophies and fashionable shops frequently with vie each other to own them. Whether the clients share this enthusiasm or the customers have a clue about these strange goings-on is debatable, but that’s the way it is. “Cannes is only a glamorous version of all this and more.” Pandit is convinced that this whole awards and festival shindig works outstandingly for the net-working community, comprising a tight, charmed circle whose back-slapping bonhomie assures them a gala time – and on a good day, may be an award or two, too!

Freddy Birdy (Creative Director and joint CEO of THE SHOP) wonders whether these detractors are in the same business as he is! The celebrated thirteen-time winner of the ‘Best Copywriter of the year’ awardee passionately believes that awards are really where it’s at. “They are the ultimate symbols of recognition and appreciation of creative excellence and Cannes is the undisputed Olympics and Oscars of adworld. It’s a very, very big deal and anyone who thinks otherwise should see their friendly neighbourhood shrink! “Regarding the connect with the client, its largely about pride and enhanced-status to be associated with an award-winning agency /creative person who (beyond Delhi Ad Club) has competed and won against the best in the world. “It assures them that they are in safe hands and whatever these gifted people produce will spell class. Oh, for the award winner boy, he is going to be preached like mad!

Hype, believes the Exec. CD of Rediff DYR, Rahul Jauhari. He is really the critical driver for our Adbiz where Cannes is concerned. “The more visible we are there, the more winners we plonk at the winners podium, the less we are likely to drool and obsess about it. As of now, these are still early days; we are still a trifle starry-eyed and so Cannes does remain an incomparable platform to celebrate great work, share exciting ideas and open up to newer possibilities of radical thinking and smarter execution.” Prahlad Kakkar, the unputdownable maverick (of course!) has his very own irreverent spin. Deadpans the bearded iconoclast, “I remain thunderstruck at the astonishing levels of inventiveness, creativity and ingenuity that marks the Cannes tamasha every year. For me, it’s like a whole new Discovery Channel, Boss! Have you ever heard of an ad travelling straight from Jhumri Talaiya to Cannes? Happens all the time, or else, how come we hardly ever see those precious, celebrated prize-winners at home, yaar!” While K. V. Sridhar, Creative Boss of Leo Burnett is categorical about awards at Cannes being sensational morale boosters – for the Adfrat and country – he believes it also sends out a clear signal of “our ability to constantly raise the bar to match global standards of excellence.”

So at the end of the day, what is the take-out? Is the Band-Baaja just another 7-day wonder (like our Film Fest’s) – a heavenly, cultural and intellectual diversion from the usual khichir-phichir and rona-dhona of everyday work before returning to terra firma with a thud… or is it a truly exciting and inspirational platform showcasing outstanding creative excellence that needs to be recognised, saluted and considered reference point and yard-stick to measure ones work against? As always, Mccann’s Santosh Desai sums it up in fine style, “Cannes’ usefulness cannot be denied in terms of providing us a snapshot of what the world is thinking… It’s not really wide-eyed learning, but an interesting exposure.” Dehai also believes that Cannes works wonderfully as a motivational junket for kids, a paid holiday to an exotic celebrity event designed to dazzle and charge their batteries. However, he doesn’t attach too much importance to the fabled “networking” factor because, as he puts it, “unless you are a gifted 24*7 networking junkie, whom and how many stars can you possibly buttonhole for life-transforming dialogue and discussion? Besides, with the overwhelming festive ambience, after six drinks, everyone looks the same... and they certainly sound the same!” Apart from an embarrassingly dis-proportionate high contingent India sent – 12 from the Press and 100 from the frat, compared to 1 and 50 respectively from Thailand, who incidentally picked up many more awards than us – what worries Desai about Cannes is the way we approach it. “with material created and crafted more for awards than consumers.” But, he appreciates that in the process, there is a definite honing of craft, “we are still light years away from a Thailand or a Brazil, countries who have evolved a way of seeing the world their way. We are still pre-occupied in seeing the world in ways that win awards and that can be both dangerous and self-cancelling. Why? Because it means that this annual pilgrimage to Cannes, in some fashion, dents and blunts our confidence in doing it our own way and instead prompt us to be somebody else… cater and pander to the white man’s approval, which emerges from the White man’s understanding of advertising or creative excellence…”'

Touche… The plot thickens…