Deceptive realities

BY sevanti| IN Opinion | 23/03/2006
Advertising today is more than a vehicle for selling products. It shapes popular imagination.



                                           Reprinted from the Hindu, March 26, 2006                                                      



Sevanti Ninan



WHAT does a TV news channel pull out to try and capture what Verghese Kurien did for Amul? Old and new Amul advertisements. And nobody can resist couching the news of his departure in the line coined long ago by his adman: utterly butterly coup, utterly butterly alone, utterly butterly gone. What tells us that Rahul Dravid is now king of cricket? His skyrocketing value to advertisers, as the Great Wall of India. What do you laugh at most on television? Ads. What do you end up watching most on television? Ads. As they get better you are less likely to zap them. What are the most hyped creativity awards given for, nationally and internationally? Advertising. What drowns out quickly the awful realisation that Sachin Tendulkar is being booed? Advertising. New ads debut with major cricket series so this time the dominant one was Aishwariya with her pheeki seeti winner for Coke.

If you were watching the India vs. England test on Sahara One, you got the feeling that match time and ad time were balanced absolutely equally. If you are watching the news you get the story behind the headline only after the ad break. Advertising saturates us as the pre-eminent form of communication in the country today. At one level its jingles burn themselves into our consciousness. Thanda matlab Coca Cola is part of the modern Indian lexicon even as the company remains controversial. At another level, the frenetic one-upmanship in advertising creativity ensures that the medium becomes the message. An entire nation slobbers over the Hutch boy and his dog. 

The Kotak Securities take on infuriatingly endless choices to be made at the coffee counter is a classic example of an ad where you have trouble remembering the advertiser. Humour in advertising is meant to involve and engage the viewer, but it can overwhelm the communication. Does the "kuch cutting-shutting kar raha hai" girl whom we all loved, really sell more cans of Asian Paints? May be she does. Bank of Baroda apparently claims that their Rahul Dravid ad has brought them 12.6 lakh customers since it went on air. Public sector brands are resorting to advertising creativity to re-image themselves. Even if State Bank of India`s papad belna series is as clunky as the bank`s service.

There is more intellectual examination of advertising in India (mostly celebratory) than of journalism which used to be the backbone of the media industry. There are now at least three weekly half hour shows on TV channels on advertising. How many are there devoted to discussing media practice or journalism? None that I know of except one on CNN. There are two websites devoted to advertising and marketing in India, and one to the TV industry as well as advertising and marketing. All in good health. How many websites are there devoted to the practice of news media and journalism? One or two strugglers, and a few media blogs including those on the CNN-IBN website. Internationally there are five major media blogs, but there are 36 categories of advertising and marketing blogs. Good heavens, you want to ask, is there value any more to any other kind of communication? Is there the mind space for it? Music, art and creative writing are mercifully still big in our country, but advertising is far more pervasive.

Admen are no longer invisible. The pony tailed Prahlad Kakkar has become an amiable rent-a-quote guru, Prasoon Joshi of McCann-Erickson who coined "Thanda matlab Coca Cola" became a celebrity long before he wrote the songs for "Rang de Basanti". Whatever happened to the old intellectual disdain for buying and selling? Seems like the business got so clever that disdain has mutated into admiration for the creative art of persuasion. Just as journalism has mutated into soft selling.

To its credit, advertising experiments more than TV programming does. With feminism, eroticism, nostalgia, vulgarity, death, and with notions of nationalism. It shapes popular imagination rather more than a vehicle for selling products should. Movie making is several times bigger, but close behind it is advertising in terms of popular culture. Ads are more willingly consumed than TV serials whose audiences are defecting to reality television. Advertising is also launching faces for the movies, Vidya Balan being the current best known example.

So what do I have against this onslaught? Just the fact that by its relentless orchestration, by transmuting poverty into ethnicity, by being clever and creative, advertising constructs an Indian reality that is deceptive, even as it subserves its own agenda. And the fact that current journalism celebrates advertising so unquestioningly.


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