June 22, 2012
Read between the lines
During my formative advertising years I had the pleasure of reading two classics — ‘Confessions of an Advertising Man’ by the genius David Ogilvy and the ‘Hidden Persuaders’ by the celebrated Vance Packard. While both propounded contrasting views on the influence of advertising, they both agreed on one thing — advertising influences societal behaviour.
Thus like any powerful tool, advertising design (many think it’s an oxymoron) too needs to be wielded with a sense of responsibility. Just like steroids, advertising, the so-called miracle drug for all marketing ailments, too has humungous side effects which if unheeded and unattended can lead to undesirable behavioural manifestations.
Many well-meaning spin doctors of the industry seem to be oblivious of these side effects or are choosing to turn a blind eye. Some of the commercials, currently on air, are really driving me round the bend and up the wall. Take the ‘Tata Nano — Road to Lal Tippa’ commercial where a guy gets a new car and for the customary ‘party’ takes his friends on a 150 km spin to ‘lal tippa’ (inspired by Lal Tibba of Mussoorie) for tea. On route the air conditioning is turning one of the friends to ‘ice cream’ and many other features of the car are seamlessly woven into the narrative. At face value, it’s a warm, fuzzy slice-of-life commercial with little to fault.
But introspect deeper. Put it through the sieve of systems thinking. What are the subliminal cues? Is it okay to drive 300kms (to and fro) for a cup of tea? Will this depiction proliferate similar behaviour? Is this the only way to communicate enhanced mileage? Contrast this with the PCRA ads that are persuading car owners to turn off the engine at traffic signals.
An equally disturbing scene in the commercial is that of the Nano overtaking a truck from the left. In fact it is shown zigging between two trucks. I find this depiction more dangerous than those bike stunts which are used to hawk sugared water. At least you have the statutory 6 pt blink-and-you-miss-it warning on those ads, whereas this ad gives overtaking from the left an implied societal sanction.
Is it really cool to crank-up the AC when you are driving up on a hill station? It is ironic that this ad is from Tata Motors, a corporate who is acknowledged as a pioneer of sustainability reporting in India and an early mover in the battle against climate change. Jaago re.
This commercial is not an isolated instance; it has many others for company. Take the Sonear Veneer TVC that is currently on air. It starts off with ‘Nat Geo’ style shots of birds flying across breathtakingly beautiful forests. Just as you soak in the beauty and are lulled in to expecting a line that would put forward their commitment to protecting this pristine god-gifted environment, you experience a rude awakening as the VO proclaims with pride — (Sonear Veneers are) sourced from the most exotic forests around the world.The key consumer insight is supposed to be ‘exotic’, no thought to the fact that you are implying ripping off these exotic beautiful forests for a pedestrian table in an urban drawing room.
This special apathy is not reserved only for the environment, our social fabric too is being meted the same treatment. Take the new yatra.com commercial which advocates the use of blackmail to avail hefty discounts on flight tickets. To enhance the impact it features none other than the mass idol ‘Dabaang’ Khan. Now don’t get me wrong, not for a minute am I saying that people will not get the humour and will blindly emulate Salman and start blackmailing their travel agent. What worries me is the implicit cue, the unsaid communication. Instead of blackmail being depicted as a serious crime and punishable with a two year jail term under the Indian Penal Code section 503, it is shown as an acceptable mechanism to get what one wants. A law that the citizens don’t respect tends to be violated most frequently, case in point — Gujarat and prohibition.
It is time that clients and agencies think beyond ‘Sell or else…’ (sorry D.O. ..time to move on). Advertising thinking needs to be replaced with design thinking,wherein the focus shifts from a narrow consumerist marketplace to the much wider social space of systems and society.
Enhancing our environmental and social bottom-lines along with the economic is a responsibility that can only be fulfilled if shared and acted upon by each section of society. As influencers of popular culture and shapers of behaviour, we need to inject layers in our work that trigger positive change and nudge society in the right direction. We need to pay the same attention to messages embedded between the lines as we pay to the lines.
Harsh is a sustainability strategist and performs at the intersection of sustainability, marketing communication, design, technology, and profits. He often plays interlocutor between capitalists and activists.
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