You are here: Home » Opinion » Columns
Business Standard

Madhukar Sabnavis: Nudging boundaries, seeding thoughts

Advertisements don't need to shake up viewers to drive change

Madhukar Sabnavis 

Madhukar Sabnavis

Three Hindi movies have struck a chord with multiplex audiences in the first quarter of this year - Hasee Toh Phasee, Shaadi Ke Side Effects and Queen. Although the movies tackle different stages in life - but are all at least vaguely related to marriage - what's common to them is the balance of vulnerability and confidence that is manifested in each of the main characters. They are real and yet have an aspirational quality in them (except, perhaps, Vijay in Queen) without being lofty and preachy. While the female characters are strong in each of the stories, the men are also interesting in their own ways. Moreover, the role of the family in Hasee Toh Phasee and Queen is indicative of changing times.

All three films have an interesting take on strong women - Queen is the most powerful since it touches upon the self-discovery of the most ordinary of women, as Rani is supposedly the least independent of the girl protagonists. They make their points without necessarily being revolutionary in either statements or tone. The transformation of Rani in Queen, the settling of Meeta within her family mores in Hasee Toh Phasee and the equilibrium in the relationship of Trisha and Siddharth in Shaadi Ke Side Effects were portrayed seamlessly - without dramatisation or hyperbole.

Is this a sign of how messaging can change as Indian society evolves? To be expressive and stimulating without necessarily shaking up people? To seed thoughts that get the viewer to nod?

While suggesting a larger human purpose is a direction that some marketing pundits see as the next frontier for brands, telling stories that seed rituals of change quietly is influential in its own way. Let me give a few recent examples to illustrate this. Nestle's "adoption" advertisement captures the turmoil of adoption, even as it tells the story of the inherent goodness of its products. The advertisement, subliminally, seeds the thought of adoption - similar to what Star Plus did in one of its "Nayi Soch" relaunch advertisements in 2009 in which a husband thanks his wife for convincing his family to adopt a kid. That advertisement wasn't aired widely, unlike the recent Nestle one; with it, society has the opportunity to understand and get comfortable with the thought of adoption. Tanishq's "second marriage" advertisement, which was aired in the latter part of 2013, also seeds new codes, including the idea of a mother having a second chance for marriage - whatever the viewer's backstory about her first marriage is. In my informal survey, older people saw it as a widow's remarriage, while younger people saw it as remarriage after divorce. Whatever the case, the social statement is nudging boundaries to be opened up.

A BharatMatrimony advertisement aired recently, titled "Happy Marriage", shows a son telling his parents that his wife, Sudha, doesn't work for family income but because of the joy of working. It again seeds the thought that married women should be encouraged to work. In another advertisement of the same brand, a husband says he would have been more unhappy if his wife did not go out of town for an assignment important to her than from the sadness arising from not having her with him. These advertisements seed progressive thoughts without being overtly prescriptive. The BharatMatrimony advertisements urge husbands to be supportive of their wives' desires (which is relatively rare in Indian middle-class society), even as they present the man as being open-minded and liberal and, through aspiration, strike a chord with both genders of a progressive society. These are relatively explicit rituals that are at the core of the brand stories.

However, one notices there are more oblique yet powerful rituals planted in stories that could quietly influence social behaviour. The Tata Tea "Power of 49" commercial in which a beautician talks about "kala tika" subliminally goads us to not look down upon anyone. The wisdom of the village bumpkin against the intellectual arrogance of the city dweller has been used in the past in advertising. (Fevikwik's fish commercial is a great example.) However, getting it into everyday life and contrasting the simplicity of the traditional with the alleged progressiveness of the elite has a different impact on viewers and their perceptions of social classes.

Bournvita's "Boxer" commercial draws inspiration from Mary Kom and takes the idea of girls doing non-traditional things to the wider masses. It's not about promoting boxing among girls; it's about signalling to parents that girls can do whatever boys can and should, therefore, be seen as equals. Max Life Insurance, in its recent "Sacha Advisor" advertisement, shows a female agent. Although it is a little difficult to accept, for me at least, that there is a "devil" side to the woman, the fact that the brand showed a woman in a field stereotyped as being the domain of men is again a nudge in the right direction. Just like the Bournvita commercial, the life insurance commercial helps society become comfortable with new gender equations and associations.

Finally, even light-hearted executions can play a role in helping society see the world with fresh eyes. In a recent Idea campaign, a commercial, interestingly, shows older women using the Internet to let the guide know that he can't get away with saying anything. It could have been just serendipity, or a conscious decision, to show older people to trigger new segments into becoming users - either way, it is a quiet way of leading society.

One doesn't necessarily believe that such stories can actively change society. However, by seeding them with progressive thoughts, both the brand and society benefit. Most changes take place over a period of time and often by making people comfortable with new ideas, thoughts or rituals. The power of advertising goes beyond the products it sells. The stories have the ability to get consumers to see life differently. It could be one small stimulus for change, but the effect could, cumulatively, be impactful, since viewers are bombarded with thousands of such advertisements day in and day out.

There are fantasy advertisements - those that sell dreams or just entertain through a good laugh. But there are others - and quite a significant number - that try to fit brands into the lives of consumers by using a slice of life. There is an opportunity here of seeding change with behaviours that are not widely prevalent - but could be prevalent, and definitely should be prevalent! Just as advertising has the power to drive product purchase behaviour, it can also bring perspective change. This could give a brand a perceptual edge, get the stories to stand out and do social good. Something worth thinking about.

The writer is vice-chairman of Ogilvy and Mather India. These views are his own

Dear Reader,

Business Standard has always strived hard to provide up-to-date information and commentary on developments that are of interest to you and have wider political and economic implications for the country and the world. Your encouragement and constant feedback on how to improve our offering have only made our resolve and commitment to these ideals stronger. Even during these difficult times arising out of Covid-19, we continue to remain committed to keeping you informed and updated with credible news, authoritative views and incisive commentary on topical issues of relevance.
We, however, have a request.

As we battle the economic impact of the pandemic, we need your support even more, so that we can continue to offer you more quality content. Our subscription model has seen an encouraging response from many of you, who have subscribed to our online content. More subscription to our online content can only help us achieve the goals of offering you even better and more relevant content. We believe in free, fair and credible journalism. Your support through more subscriptions can help us practise the journalism to which we are committed.

Support quality journalism and subscribe to Business Standard.

Digital Editor

First Published: Thu, April 03 2014. 21:50 IST