Thursday, March 27, 2008

Has the English language been marg inalised, in today’s “Bindaas” ad-scape?

4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri examines this fascinating “inverted snobbery” on a relentless over-drive, in today’s Ad-space

My friend (let’s call him Nandu), a respected Creative Director with an established Mumbai-based ad agency, had a wonderful story to narrate. When he entered the business in the early seventies – in one of Kolkata’s top-flight agencies – he was one day summoned by his boss. Trembling, the young copy-trainee (expecting the worst) entered his cabin. He was heartily congratulated by the supremo on something he had turned out. “Great stuff, son! Now run along and hand over this copy to that Kurta-Pyjama bozo, sitting next to the despatch department, probably chewing paan-masala or whatever. Tell him we need the Hindi translation asap, okay? These vernac types have to be kept on a tight-leash, got it?”

My friend, fresh out of college, with a heavy-duty hangover of ignorance and ideology, suggested he be included into the copy pool since he was also a writer. The boss man was shocked! “Are you nuts, kiddo? He doesn’t know English and wouldn’t be able to recognise it, even if it bit him on his face!”

Cut to year 2008. In animated conversation with a 30-something creative luminary – known for his brilliant command and outstanding work relating to hinglish/hindi communication – my friend’s rapturous praise about a hot-shot Creative Director was nipped in the bud with, “All that is fine bhaisaab, but all that was yesterday? Zamana badal gaya mere dost aur advertising ka delivery mode bhi badal gaya. TV aa gaya aur sab jagah aur insaan ko products aur services ke saath connect kar diya. In logo ka problem kya hai, pata hai? Hindi nahi aati… and that today is an unimaginable kami, rukawat, dhakka…” So amazingly and ironically, the wheel has come full circle! The empire strikes back, huh?

Sumanto Chat (Ogilvy’s resident “Adonais” and creative hottie) fires the first, provocative, salvo. Describing himself as an “Anglophille Bengali,” he frankly admits that this “national language” thing has never got him all charged up (as it has others), but he realises that numbers, groundswell and popularity vis-à-vis the lowest common denominator do matter… and so be it. Hence he has made it his business, “to make a special effort to learn and appreciate it to the extent that I can produce the necessary communication capsules in an effective and meaningful manner.”

Kolkata-based Management Consultant Partho Dutta believes that the answer to the headline question is a categorical “Yes.” He has zilch problems of English being used, or remixed with Hindi “as long as the lingua is franca!” Tongue firmly in cheek, he adds that since ads have a commercial agenda and are not exactly created for the Booker, it’s fine! However, he warns that “insights” must be kept in mind. “It is dumb to use bindaas lingo to sell aspirational brands, as there is a basic disconnect. A native speaker of the Mumbai street lingo could very likely own and ride a Merc… but would you use that same idiom to sell to the C-class?”
Delhi-based Creative Director, Titus brings his own perspective. “The days when copywriters waxed eloquent with words like ‘nevertheless’, ‘most certainly’ and ‘all the same’, (making them sound like understated conversations made with a cigar dangling by the side of the mouth) is over. Visual solutions did them in. Cannes and One Shows confirmed that, as did India finding her own cultural voice and context. So whether it was Hum Ko Binnies Mangta or Chal Meri Luna of the eighties or Taste ko Waste mat karna, darling (KFC) and Seedhi Baat, No Bakwas (Sprite) more recently… this is the new language. Emotional and loud maybe, but its ours, boss!”

McCann’s boss-man Prasoon Joshi – who along with Piyush Pandey – can be said to be a trail-blazer in this area offers his evolved point-of-view. “Advertising is communication at a deep, basic and primal level with people you don’t know, have not seen and related to at an emotional level. The first thing to do is make ads that don’t look too obviously addy. The second is to read vernacular literature… (Prem Chand, Sarat Chandra), people who symbolise true India.” Joshi believes that English is the drawing room language of India – not the language of relationships, bonding and proximity. Hindi seems to be that, which is why it appears to resonate even beyond the traditional Hindi-speaking areas.”

Everything considered, the real shift started in the mid-90’s when music channels MTV & Channel V hit the country with the agenda to completely westernise “the new, resurgent India.” English pop music presented by foreign born Indian VJ’s (Kamal Sidhu, Sophia Haque, Rubby Bhatia) blitzed the box … but alas, except the metros, they were a dismal flop! That’s when real Indianisation started and happened – spoofs, jokes, skits, events, anchors (Cyrus Brocha, Sajid Khan and Javed Jaffrey) all embracing the mad-cap, zany Indian identity.

The language was street speak, chalu and mostly Hindi… it was a resounding hit… and boy, did the hawk-eyed adbiz leap onto the bandwagon… They haven’t let go!


Thursday, March 13, 2008

What an idea, sirjee

Social messaging in advertising…

"4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri examines this new and exciting genre that’s grabbing eyeballs and attention and challenging the old order that defined advertising solely as a one dimensional, sell-sell-sell game!"

Advertising is the public face of marketing with an uncomplicated, one-point-agenda-to make products disappear from the shelves to the right hands and homes, with consistency and speed. Over time, areas like patriotism and social service have deployed advertising, but, at best, they were cute to watch tickling the feel-good glands… at worst, boring and preachy. Predictably these efforts came from the government quarters. Typically the issues tackled were ‘safe’ ones, never remotely touching sensitive themes like caste, religion or politics. As far as they were considered, these subjects were taboo and totally off-limits.

Much water has flown under the bridge since those politically correct and sanctimonious times with ‘Social Messaging’ coming centre-stage as a powerful, persuasive and significant agent of social change. Ravi Naware (chief executive, food division, ITC) lays it on the line when he says that way beyond the much touted CSR, “consumers today seem to be interested in more than just a great ad or quality product. They are interested in products that echo their own values.” Adds Ajit Varghese (MD, Max India, an ageny that works closely with Britannia), “We are witnessing a strong trend where brands are utilising issues that surrounds the consumer’s immediate environment and addressing them through mainstream ads.” Advertising, from time immemorial, has been consistently bad-mouthed by a section of society labeling them as shameless promoters of excess and useless mass consumerism. This has been fiercely defended by the ad fraternity citing examples where advertising has indeed attempted to be an agent of social change. As this issue goes into print, at least three ads of this ‘genre’ are presently occupying center-stage and inviting both attention and admiration.

The first - an Airtel ad - shows kids on either side of a barbed wire fence, jump the barrier to indulge in a game of football in no-man’s land. In an extraordinarily simple but powerful way, it works as a magnificent metaphor for communication as a solution to end all conflicts, wars and battles. Says Arvind Mohan ( Chief Strategist Officer, Rediff DY&R), “ We wanted to create branding that went way beyond the purchase intent and made people proud to be associated with the brand.” Adds Amatesh Rao (National business head, Rediff DY&R), “Admittedly commercials with social messages don’t immediately bring about change, but they reflect strongly the change that is happening in society… a change that may not be perceptible or articulated but definitely taking shape in collective fashion, in the sensibilities of new age youth in a resurgent India.” The Tata Tea ad comes next. The communication thought is truly clutter-busting, attempting to migrate tea from being a physical and emotional vitaliser to becoming a catalyst for social awakening. Percy Siganporia (MD, Tata Tea Ltd) quite categorically emphasises that the focus is to emotively connect the product with issues that drives the heart, mind and soul of India’s emerging social consciousness. Executive Creative Director Amer Jaleel of Lowe (the agency behind this ad) sensed the restlessness among today’s youth and extended the concept of “waking up with tea” in a stunning communication package that embraced social awakening, giving a whole new dimension to the term ‘Jago re’.

Lowe struck target again (group creative director Nikhil Rao, take a bow) with yet another brilliant, breakthrough concept that redefined the very meaning of Idea. Executive Chairman Balki was clear about the focus – how to position the brand as a better ‘Idea’ than anyone else and elevate it from transactional issues like price and value. Targeting politics as a platform and humorously – yet pointedly- dramatizing the social inadequacies that plague the nation, with a mobile number (not a name) as an identity tag, the Idea Cellular communication truly deserves the fulsome ‘What an Idea, Sirjee’, salute!

Amidst the accolade and approval that has greeted these ads, there have been dissenting voices too. Is this brand of advertising relevant to the basic job it’s meant to do? The popular consensus seems to be a resounding, yes. In today’s environment, marketing and branding are increasingly becoming real, rooted and relatable. Hence they have a legitimate and deserved space. Besides, these ads reflect that magical, seamless embrace with reality. Do today’s ‘I-Me-Myself’ generation really connect with the Jago Re or the Idea Cellular communication-without-barrier stuff, absorbed as they seem to be in living life, king-size?

Of course, they are! It’s a total myth that today’s youth only believes in celebrating life and are totally blind, uncaring and insensitive to the social inadequacies, causes and concerns. Never before has there been such passionate and dramatic demonstrations of rooting for justice (Jessica Lal case) or such immense acceptance for movies like Rang De Basanti. Sure, today’s youth enjoy life, but their hearts continue to be in the right place, solidly re-affirming the validity and relevance of social messaging in advertising! Truly a great idea, sirjee!