Liberalisation, consumerism and Indian TV commercials

BY Rohitashya Chattopadhyay| IN Books | 05/07/2014
India today is, thus, a wealthier nation, a more Hindu nation, and a nation that is more confident and proud of its past and present than it was in the nineteen eighties,
argues ROHITASHYA CHATTOPADHYAY in an excerpt from his new book.

Understanding India
Cultural Influences on Indian Television Commercials
Rohitashya Chattopadhyay
SAGE Publications
2014 / 192 pages / Hardback: Rs 695


The liberalization of the Indian economy[i] in the early nineteen nineties, among other effects, has also increased the size of the private sector.[ii] Earlier, the Indian private sector was smaller, so lesser number of products and services were being sold, fewer jobs were being offered, and the Indian consumer base was smaller as well.[iii] A larger private sector not only increases the number of products and services being sold and the number of jobs being offered, but it also sells to more consumers and simultaneously needs to increase the consumer base being sold to. This, latter, need is particularly relevant to the domain of advertising because of the role played by advertising in the socialization of consumers to draw them into the realm of consumerism. Such socialization includes the roles of highlighting consumption needs, associating rituals with consumption, introducing markers of distinction attached to the consumption of certain products, and breaking down existing barriers to consumption.[iv] 

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In the case of India, the task of socialization to consumerism is made difficult by the fact that Indian identity, post- independence from British rule, has been closely linked to practices that are anti-consumerist.[v] Among other possible reasons, this can be attributed to the ideologies of both Mahatma Gandhi[vi] and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru[vii] who played key roles in the shaping of Indian socio-economic policies after independence. Readers are possibly aware that the Mahatma had led an ascetic life for many years prior to Indian independence in 1947, and he had spoken against the lures of materialism. Pandit Nehru was a firm believer in the benefits of planned development that is closely monitored by the government whose regulations guide the functioning of the marketplace and unbridled capitalism is discouraged. 

Being the architects of Indian freedom, their visions of India had been, for many of us growing up in pre-liberalization India, sacred words that were meant to save the Indian poor from the corrupt influences of capitalism, believed to be driven by more powerful foreign nations. There was an effort, in other words, both consciously and unconsciously, to guard India or keep it protected. My childhood memories of New Delhi, for example, are strongly intertwined with this vision of a clean, pure, and protected India where the government rather than private corporations were the supreme authority. 

This was a phase prior to the emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), moreover, so New Delhi seemed to be perpetually under the control of the Congress Party. Such a strong association with the Congress Party, which was Gandhi and Nehru’s, and his daughter Indira Gandhi’s party, heightened the link that the feeling of visiting New Delhi had with the experience of postcolonial independence, as defined by these Congress Party leaders. Many Indians argue that there was more than a dose of hypocrisy in this feeling of purity, however, because conspicuous consumption and greed existed, but it tended to stay under the covers, so to speak, due to the taboo against capitalism.[viii] Remembering that era, Columnist Mukul Kesavan writes: 

But because my childhood happened in an autarkic India, committed to the twin gods of self-sufficiency and high tariff barriers, it was the things that we didn’t have that I remember better than the ones that we did. Orange bars, HMV records, Godrej refrigerators, bond paper, Cadbury Fruit & Nut, Naga shawls, Phantom peppermint cigarettes, and ugly walnut tables from Kashmir were nice but they were available (if your parents had the money to spare) and therefore not nearly as desirable as the things you couldn’t have except from that supermarket in the sky called Foreign.[ix] 

Indian economic liberalization, in nineteen ninety one, coupled with the rise of the BJP[x] as a formidable political force and the vision of technocratic nationalism[xi] introduced earlier by former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi,[xii] created a significant change in Indian socio-economic policy. The most important change was the renewed stance regarding India’s economic relationship with the rest of the world. Foreign companies started doing business in India and gradually Indian companies started going abroad as well instead of being an economy that was protected by government regulations, such as steep import duties. Indians were now dreaming of creating an economy that would be open to foreign investments, but still be one of the most powerful economies in the world.[xiii] 

Another significant change, maybe less in terms of policy implementation and more in terms of overall attitudes to Indianness, was a sudden urge to revisit India’s Hindu past. As is now widely recognized, this was largely influenced by BJP’s model of cultural nationalism that propagates a specifically Hindu version of Indian identity.[xiv] Simultaneously, the rising economic strength of India heightened the confidence of being Indian without worrying about appropriateness: 

Indianization is a reflection of your comforts with your own needs, and your own desires, and who you are, and if I eat this in front of this that is fine, you know; the assertiveness and the self-confidence, which increasingly you will find in consumers, you will find in the political system.[xv] 

India today is, thus, a wealthier nation, a more Hindu nation,[xvi] and a nation that is more confident and proud of its past and present than it was in the nineteen eighties, when I was a student in school. India, however, is also more open to foreign influences that flow in through foreign television stations, for example, which were not allowed in pre- liberalization India.[xvii] In those days, the government operated television station, Doordarshan, was all that we could watch in Kolkata, unless we managed to receive some signals from neighbouring Bangladesh where the government allowed foreign programming, so some of us watched television serials that had been produced in the U.S. 

I would argue, moreover, that in India’s case economic liberalization has been successful because it occurred alongside resurgence in Indian, and more Hindu, identity. In other words, since economic liberalization has also increased global influences within Indian society, the enhancement of local identity was important to create a balance and reduce the anxiety of cultural colonization. Advertisements have contributed to the strengthening of Indianness, through their task of socializing Indians to consumerism, because post-liberalization India has witnessed a rise in Hindi language advertisements and an increase in the use of local idioms within Indian advertisements.[xviii] These changes have also been accompanied by the trend of being more experimental and spontaneous while filming television commercials, instead of using an established filmmaking style handed down from Europe or the U.S., as many television commercial directors explained to me. 

During these conversations, furthermore, I realized that these individuals were not simply following the dictates of a client while creating a television commercial. Rather, this was a dialectal process where the viewpoints of numerous parties were shared, tossed and turned, blended, filtered, and finally poured out as the commercial that someone would be seeing on their television screen.[xix] The larger goal of socialization to consumerism, moreover, could have been an underlying driving force for a campaign, like it was for the campaign to be discussed in this chapter, but that does not necessarily lead to a direct association of the product or service with Indian culture. 

SBI Mutual Fund: Creating the Small Town Investor

This campaign can be seen as a good example of “the imagery of liberalization”[xx] that has been a dominant feature of post- liberalization Indian visual culture. This imagery is both explicitly and implicitly involved in socializing consumers, through techniques such as the association of existing rituals with consumerism and the creation of new consumption rituals, establishment of markers of distinction that are attached to the consumption of certain products and services, weaving of Indian identity with the act of consumption, and the easing of apprehensions regarding consumption. This imagery is also geared towards marketing India as a globally renowned destination, a country with a long history, and a community of citizens who are simultaneously global and Indian.[xxi] 

[i] The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in India expanded 7.7 per cent in the second quarter of 2011 over the previous quarter. Historically, from 2000 until 2011, India’s average quarterly GDP Growth was 7.45 per cent reaching an historical high of 11.80 per cent in December of 2003 and a record low of 1.60 per cent in December of 2002. India’s diverse economy encompasses traditional village farming, modern agriculture, handicrafts, a wide range of modern industries, and a multitude of services. Services are the major source of economic growth, accounting for more than half of India’s output with less than one third of its labor force. The economy has posted an average growth rate of more than 7 per cent in the decade since 1997, reducing poverty by about 10 percentage points. 

As reported on the website, Trading Economics. Accessed 14 November 2011,

[ii] The private sector’s share in the overall economic growth of India is much higher than that of the public sector. In 2006, for example, among all developing nations India was most successful in attracting private sector investment, according to a World Bank estimate. As reported in

Gridlines, March 2008. Accessed 14 November 2011,

[iii] For some interesting insights, from an advertising professional, regarding the changes that private sector growth has brought about in India, see Dheeraj Sinha, Consumer India: Inside the Indian Mind and Wallet (New Delhi: Wiley, 2011).

[iv] Readers interested in a broad overview regarding how consumers behave can see Marieke de Mooij, Consumer Behaviour and Culture: Consequences for Global Marketing and Advertising (London: SAGE, 2010) or one of the numerous text books on consumer behaviour; for a theoretical discussion regarding consumer culture, see Don Slater, Consumer Culture and Modernity (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 1997).

[v] See Sinha, Consumer India for a similar argument.

[vi] For an overview of Mahatma Gandhi’s life and philosophy, see Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi, Gandhi an Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth trans. Mahadev H. Desai (New York, NY: Beacon Press, 1993) and Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas ed. Louis Fischer

(New York, NY: Vintage, 2002/1962).

[vii] For an overview of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s life and philosophy, see Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (New Delhi: Penguin, 2004/1946) and Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography (New Delhi: Penguin, 2004/1936).

[viii] There is a joke among Indians that “more bottles of Johnny Walker Black Label were sold in India than were distilled in Scotland,” when foreign liquor companies were not allowed to sell in India, thus implying that illegal production thrived due to excess demand, Shashi Tharoor, The

Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cellphone: Reflections on India in the Twenty-first Century (New Delhi: Penguin, 2007), 8.

[ix] Mukul Kesavan, “Remembrance of Things Past: Capitalism in a Time of High Tariff Barriers,” in The Telegraph Online, 6 May 2012, accessed 25 May 2012, from

[x] For more on the Hindu Right Wing movement, see Brosius, Empowering Visions; Koenraad Elst, Decolonizing the Hindu Mind: Ideological Development of Hindu Revivalism (New Delhi: Rupa, 2005); Thomas Blom Hansen, The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in

Modern India (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); Madhu Kishwar, Religion at the Service of Nationalism and Other Essays (New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1998); Chetan Bhatt, Hindu Nationalism: Origins, Ideologies, and Modern Myths (New York, NY: Berg, 2001).

[xi] Technocratic nationalism currently thrives in India and critiques of this ideology are not the most vocal in the public sphere. However, Indian historians have been extremely vocal in their criticism of what they see as the British using Science and Technology to strengthen their dominance on the people whom they colonized. See Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton,

NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993); and Gyan Prakash, Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).

[xii] Some readers might be unaware that Rajiv Gandhi was the son of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and, thus, the grandson of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Rajiv Gandhi was a trained pilot and flew commercial aircrafts operated by India’s government-owned domestic carrier, Indian Airlines. Rajiv Gandhi was elected Prime Minister of India after his mother was assassinated, in 1984, and the country was suddenly left without a leader who had ruled for over a decade. However, Rajiv Gandhi was sadly assassinated in 1991 and he did not live long enough to fully implement the policies that he had envisioned for India. For more on Rajiv Gandhi, see Bhabani Sengupta, Rajiv Gandhi: A Political Study (New Delhi: Konark Publishers, 1989).

[xiii] For more on the contemporary transformation of India, see Rama Bijapurkar, We are Like that Only: Understanding the Transformation of Contemporary India (New Delhi, Penguin, 2009); Mira Kamdar, Planet India: How the Fastest Growing Democracy is Transforming the World (New York, NY: Scribner, 2007); Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India (London: Abacus, 2006); Anand Giridharadas, India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking (Noida: HarperCollins, 2011); and Tharoor, The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cellphone (New Delhi: Penguin, 2007).

[xiv] There are numerous similarities between this Hindu Right Wing Movement and the Islamic Revolution in Iran. A recent ethnography of contemporary Iran discusses how Iran was converted into an Islamic country. See Roxanne Varzi, Warring Souls: Youth, Media, and

Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).

[xv] Interview with Santosh Desai.

[xvi] As a researcher, my inference about India’s Hindu-ness is corroborated by the experience of seeing my son grow up in Mumbai and New Delhi over the last four years. He is familiar with a wide range of Hindu mythological characters, due to television viewing and discussions at school. Yet, he is completely unaware of characters or narratives belonging to any other religious tradition. Santa Claus is, perhaps, the only exception because Christmas has been so successfully commercialized into a family occasion throughout India.

[xvii] For an understanding of how economic liberalization has connected Indian visual culture to the global landscape, see Melissa Butcher, Transnational Television, Cultural Identity, and Change: When STAR came to India (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2003); Vamsee Juluri, Becoming

a Global Audience: Longing and Belonging in Indian Music Television (New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2003); Rachel Dwyer and Divia Patel, Cinema India: The Visual Culture of Hindi Film (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002); Vijay Mishra, Bollywood Cinema: Temples of

Desire (London: Routledge, 2002).

[xviii] Two good examples of this trend are campaigns for Coca-Cola and Fevicol, which each comprise a series of television commercials that were produced before my fieldwork had started. These campaigns were supervised by two contemporary stalwarts of Indian advertising, Prasoon Joshi and Prasoon Pandey, respectively, who are known for the Indianness of their creative ideas. Many readers might be aware that Prasoon Joshi is also a well-known lyricist in the Hindi film industry and that the Coca-Cola television commercials featured the Hindi film superstar, Aamir Khan.

[xix] William Mazzarella, Shoveling Smoke, 153, writes that “what emerges is a view of the dialectical dynamic of the production of commodity images, a process of commodity production that takes the form of a series of interactions and negotiations both within the agency and between the agency and client.” For a similar discussion on the negotiations that occur during advertising production in India, see Julien Cayla, “A Passage to India: An Ethnographic Study of the Advertising Agency’s Role in Mediating the Cultural Learning and Adaptation of Multinational

Corporations,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Colorado 2003, ProQuest Digital Dissertations, 64 (04). (UMI No. 3087527).

[xx] Interview with Bhaskar Mani.

[xxi] For more on this genre of imagery, see Mazzarella, Shoveling Smoke; Brosius, India’s Middle Class; Christiane Brosius and Melissa Butcher, eds., Image Journeys: Audio-visual Media and Cultural Change in India (New Delhi: SAGE, 1999); Sumathy Ramaswamy, ed., Beyond Appearances? Visual Practice and Ideologies in Modern India (New Delhi: SAGE, 2003).

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