The Times of India: conscience keeper or FMCG?

BY vivek sharma| IN Media Practice | 01/04/2003
What its competitors lost in market share was less costly than what they lost by giving the Times the perceived legitimacy for its actions.

Vivek Sharma


Until now I thought that advertising is about the excellent grasp of the superficial. Now it’s The Times of India. Every morning the Times serves is readers a dose of fairyland fables laced in fizz and now splashed in colour. For a newspaper that started off defining advertising as "news you can use" it has evolved into advertising is news - cover to cover. The fallout is a progressive separation from reality for its readers. Now that the paper has travelled the distance and built a system to meet its objectives - to be in perpetual joy, the Times and its readers can proceed to live in splendid isolation in their branded citadel. If this leads you to think that this is yet another whine thrown in the general direction of the Times - that is the lesser cause for my concern with the Indian media today. 


Pop goes the Times and the weasels will follow. You need only speculate about how soon. Ten years is a decent time frame to begin to assess the effects of a milestone. In 1992, when the TOI dropped its price, it was much ado about everything. Media independence, bottom-line, foreign cultural invasion, stagnating readership, a more demanding audience fed with news formats from satellite channels, a pronounced shift in peoples habits for their primary source of news, desire to achieve city leadership etc. The TOI sat up, assessed and responded to the changing landscape by dropping its price - and with it, all its inhibitions. Picture this:


A person living at India’s official poverty line spends Rs.6.80 per day. What would this buy? On a typical day the poor man will consume:


§          Three scant plates of cooked rice or 8-10 chapattis

§          A half cup of cooked pulses

§          A spoon of edible oil

§          A spoon of dried chilli

§          One medium sized potato or onion

§          One cup of tea

§          A handful of brinjal

§          One half cup of milk

§          One banana three ties each month

§          An egg every five days


After buying food, two additional rupees would be left over for items like medicines, school books, fuel for cooking, clothing, soap, durable goods etc. Notably, one third of India’s rural population cannot even afford this frugal bundle. (World Bank, 1997)




In ten years since invitation pricing (read: partying) the barrier between real issues and fluff is satisfactorily constructed and a typical Times reader would be forgiven to believe that all is fine with the world. 


One would have thought that the market leader strong, resourceful and fighting fit would hold forth the flame. Ironically it went the other way. Rather than ensure that "no one is left outside" a global phenomenon thanks to communications, and one of the core reasons why the media is the fourth estate, the TOI went on systemically to abandon the citizenry and to integrate with the markets.


Why is that bad? Because with unparalleled success comes responsibility. The Times of India is the largest selling English newspaper in the world. It has a job - whether it likes it or not to reflect and respond to the big issues of our times. Instead it is "the super brand on which other brands ride" proclaims its marketing director.



Says Harry Flood, in an essay titled Manufacturing Desire, (the brackets are mine)


"Time was, decadence on this scale was something to fear. If one group of people was gobbling up resources out of all proportion to its needs, consuming at thirty times the rate of other groups of people, at everyone`s expense, well . . . that was bad karma, to say the least. Their society was surely soft, cancerous and doomed.


But somehow, the First World (and the First world within our third world) has managed to give it all a happy spin. We have decided not to avoid decadence but to embrace it. Crave it. Buy it. Sell it. What`s decadent? Ice cream with the density of plutonium, a bubble bath with a barley-flour chaser, that great new Gucci scent called "Envy." Decadence is just the celebration of universal human appetites, fully expressed -- and any premium wiener who`d object to that idea must already be half-dead."


23% of India’s population still lives below the official poverty line. Here is what that means: If there are two Indians beside you, chances are that the person on the left is the fortunate guy living royally on Rs.6.80 per day  and of course we don’t want to see what is on the other guy’s plate. He is one of the 300 million destitute living below the Rs.6.80 earning Indian. Examples of extreme deprivation, hunger and hopelessness are evident everywhere throughout India but the ten editions of the TOI selling over 1.8 million copies everyday usually look right past it. A concerned citizen working with street children called it "democratic genocide."


You therefore have a readership that is, thanks to the demands of the marketplace, engineered to be comfortably numb.  With invitation pricing, circulation did soar and advertising revenue did leap but the paper lost its raison d’etre. Or rather it discovered a new one. Why is it part of the fourth estate? History? Status quo? Clout? The Times is an FMCG (fast moving consumer good) and it must belong there among the beverages and the mosquito repellent coils.


Harry says


 "maybe decadence goes deeper than a behaviour, as deep as the emotion that hatched it. The Motion Picture Association of America fixes an R rating on films that include profanity, nudity, sex, violence or "decadent situations." So understanding decadence may simply involve renting a few saucy blockbuster action pictures and monitoring the responses they provoke. As the beloved stars appear on the screen, predictable thoughts materialize in the primitive hindbrain of the viewer: I want your hair. I want your money. I want to see you naked on the Internet.


Not every American (and Times reader) lives a decadent life, of course. But decadence, as the marketers say, has great penetration. Those who aren`t themselves trashing hotel rooms or being photographed in their swimming pools for InStyle magazine, end up thinking a lot about those who are -- because the culture of celebrity (or the culture of "ornament," as Susan Faludi calls it) is the water we`re all swimming in. Refracted through the glass of the tank, the contours of the world outside tend to distort.


To borrow journalist Robert Kaplan`s metaphor, the First World is driving a Cadillac through Harlem. The passengers are hermetically protected. The air-conditioner is on, Wynton Marsalis is issuing from the stereo, beers chill in the minibar. It`s hard to make much out through the tinted windows, but no matter. Nothing that`s happening outside has any bearing on what`s happening inside. At least, that`s our willful illusion. It`s an illusion that seems indefinitely sustainable, though it isn`t.


We have more than our share of divisiveness. The regional, the language, the caste, the gender, the class, the religious and many others each potent enough to implode and take us one step closer to the crater’s edge. Nothing compares to the isolationism in the mental realm - the celebration of the rich ghetto neo-liberal type that is the Times’ new ideology. When the English press clones it in varying degrees, which is pretty soon and the vernacular press (think Daink Bhaskar, the second largest selling paper in the world in any language) models itself on this "admirably successful" template, the picture is complete.


Decadence is self-delusion on a massive scale. Like the motto of the new gadget-packed magalog Sony Style -- "things that are not essential, yet hard to live without" -- it`s about convincing ourselves of the value of this lifestyle, (every morning because it is the advertiser induced management mantra) because to question it would force choices we`re not prepared to make.


Decadence is what happens when the energy of a whole society gets channeled into the trivial or the mercenary. In the age of the supercharged Dow, everything reduces to an "opportunity," (or photo op) at an incalculable (though unacknowledged) cost.


 The eternal argument about financial independence being a prerequisite to editorial independence is turned on its head. The metamorphosing of the Times in the last ten years proves one thing unequivocally. The amount of commercials you see/hear while viewing/listening to your news, is inversely proportional to the degree to which you can trust that news. The more that media depends on corporate money, the less they are obliged to present the broader picture, the more they are obligated to present a picture that makes their principle client - the advertiser seem  great so that people feel like buying things. Want further proof? Look out for the health capsules in Aaj Tak and the Good Life Show on CNBC. The healthcare segment is the fastest growing sector within the advertising industry and they are innovatively pushing the boundaries with a very receptive media.


The Times is of course beyond apologising for its celebration of perpetual joy. Their response to such "hypocrisy" as any thing against it is broadly termed, is usually to turn up the volume and drown the doubt out. How often have we heard them project the collective aspiration of a section of its readership and say (read: delude us) that Marine Drive is Manhattan and Janpath is Boulevard.


What about the other papers?  While the Times dropped its price the rest dropped their confidence. Simply because it knew what it wanted, the Times defined the new playing field. The rest? They followed too, but more in defence than with any clarity. What they lost in market share was less costly to what they lost by giving the Times the perceived legitimacy for its actions.


Before the others follow the Times yet again, it will be worthy to consider the contrarian’s view. In a Murdoch-ed marketplace there is no reason to be a price warrior. An Indian Express raising its cover price to a reasonable level - maybe thru an "Independence Pricing" is likely to take it further than the Hindustan Times approach to be a -Times-clone strategy.  Show me the alternative. I’m not too sure but it’s worth mapping the decadal story of The Economic Times and Business Standard to see if such a proposition is plausible.


It is time to get the advertiser to be a less of a determinant in the making and selling of news. A well conceptualized and brilliantly communicated Independence Pricing policy by the other papers will not only add value to a paper’s current readership but, it will snap a section of the numb readership of the Times out of its stupor. Such a scenario in the marketplace is more likely to catch the attention of the Times, not a wail mail like this one.


 Ah! The mysterious ways of the market.



Vivek Sharma works with Development Alternatives.  Contact:


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