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Madhukar Sabnavis: The grey shade of life

Madhukar Sabnavis  |  New Delhi 

Can brands and advertising dare explore this side.
There is something interesting about Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. People are talking about it. Much like the famous Lalithaji advertising campaign of the 80s""people love it or hate it, but no one can just ignore it. There is no doubt that marketing hype has contributed to the debate around the film. But deep down there is something in the characters and the plot of the film that makes it evoke a more thoughtful response from its viewers. We've seen unreal people in an unreal world (commercial cinema), real people in real world (parallel or art cinema) but rarely real people in an unreal world (this is where KANK falls). It's not escapist cinema, yet has all the escapist trappings. The fact that its characters have human frailties and vulnerabilities makes the film touch a chord and gets the mind to accept or reject the theme.
Villains have historically captured the imagination of Indian viewers. Gabbar Singh, Mogambo, and Mr Dang are just a few examples of "evil" who remain more etched in minds than the positive protagonists in the same movies. Indian movies have often "blackened" the negative characters to such an extent to make "good" look better and thus promote good values. This is contrary to a fact that Eastern cultures, India included, are comfortable with greys and accept that there are no absolute rights and wrongs. This could be due to the reasons of either simplifying life to make a point or just Western influence. KANK actually breaks this paradigm too!
What's this got to do with brands and advertising? Well, it gives us something to ponder about. Why do brands, brand personalities, and their advertising in India mostly tend to operate in the unreal, utopist world of perfection, positive energy and hope? Advertising tends to believe to become real you need to cast real people (often meaning "not good-looking" people) in less than perfect surroundings (real environments rather than constructed sets) but the emotions and relationships displayed are always pure. In reality, humans have a darker side and many of us are aware, conscious and accepting of the same.
Classic brand thinking, largely driven by Western culture and thinking, tends to explore positive emotions and positive personalities. In their seminal work The Hero and the Outlaw, the authors Carl Pearson and Margaret Mark identify twelve possible archetypes, all in the realm of positive desirability. The chasers (Innocent, Explorer, Sage), the changers (Hero, Outlaw, Magician), the connectors (Regular guy/gal, Lover and Jester) and the controllers (Caregiver, Creator and Ruler) are the twelve brand personalities with no shades of grey. If they were humans, they would be unreal.
It's worth stepping back and understanding the basic principles for the existence of brands.
First, brands are about fitting products into people's real life. Products are about what they do for consumers and brands are about the role they play in their lives. They operate at aspirational (I wish...) or relatable (I am like that...) levels. And both in reality are not about seeking or being good.
Second, brands exist to fill in human inadequacies. They build on human inabilities and insecurities. When a brand gives a quality guarantee, it's actually "exploiting" the human inability to judge product quality. If she could gauge quality by herself, she wouldn't need the "crutch" of a brand. When a brand promises status enhancement, it appeals to those who don't have it and feel inadequate about it. Those who have it or don't care about status will ignore the brand. Historically, brand creators and custodians have been comfortable looking at the virtuous side of human desires and built brands around it, leading to very virtuous personalities.
Lastly, branding is about giving people a vicarious feeling of superiority. If society as a concept did not exist, the role of brands would be that much lesser. Embedded within the feeling of superiority is a deeper human need for domination over others, which has shades of darkness. While belonging is often seen as a value for branding, what actually works for a brand is that there exists a group that doesn't belong. I wonder whether first class would be as good if there wasn't a second class!
So in a brand world of "real life", "human inadequacies" and "superiority" and an Eastern, Indian culture of comfort of living with greys, why do brands consider playing in shades? Advertising has always been uncomfortable with this concept. Even when used with lightheartedness, it has raised discomfort among professionals as being in bad taste. And this is often viewed to be not right for brand building.
Internationally liquor and youth brands have explored this territory. Smirnoff vodka advertising was built on the darker yet real world seen through the eyes of a bottle. Levis in a few executions has also bravely explored this. So have brands like Diesel and Absolut but my guess is they have attempted to tap the fringes of culture to build attitude rather than consciously appeal to the darker instincts of man.
In India, the only powerful example that comes to mind is Onida and the devil in the late 80s""the guy actually smashing a TV screen out of jealousy. Since his re-introduction a couple of years ago, he has lost his fangs and become more endearing""going back to the standard stereotype in advertising.
As the Indian market gets crowded both in terms of brands (so less differentiation) and in media channels (so more advertising clutter), there is an opportunity to tap "negative" feelings and get more real. Hinduism sees five sins""kaam (lust), krodh (anger), lobh (greed), moh (love) and ahankaar (arrogance). Christianity has seven cardinal sins""pride, lechery, envy, anger, covetousness, gluttony and sloth. And this gives branding a new perspective. A "money" brand can own "greed"; a "beauty" brand could celebrate "lust" and a food brand could propagate "gluttony" without fear. I believe India is culturally and through the experience of KANK ready for it.
Indian mythology has a "Maryada Purushottam" in Rama, who is ideal and desirable""the area brands have mostly tended to operate in. But there exists the other icon, Krishna, who has shades to him that make him more real and more connecting. It's worthwhile to explore the more "baser" traits of human beings. All that is needed is more daring marketers.
Something worth thinking about.
The author is Country Head- Discovery and Planning, Ogilvy and Mather, India.

First Published: Fri, September 01 2006. 00:00 IST