Indian advertising is still maturing as an industry, but it has always been an excellent social reflector. This explains the frequent discussions about changes in Indian advertising, and the deeper social shifts they may represent.
Unfortunately, many of these conversations stop at the most obvious symptoms. For example, a debate that pops up every decade or so is the one about the increasing use of vernacular rather than English language. It’s not much of a debate, because vernacular advertising has always been around—it just hasn’t been as visible or fashionable in the English- speaking world that media-watchers inhabit.
The real point lies deeper. Changes in Indian advertising reflect a rapidly-evolving sense of national identity, and hint at where this evolution is headed.
In the closed economy days, there were very few brands, and only two kinds of advertising:
- Wall-painted, propaganda-style messages that promoted family planning, soap and beedis (through rose-tinted rear-view mirrors, this work was aesthetically much stronger than a lot of the high-resolution, digitally-enhanced mediocrity that we’re subjected to today).
- A more urban, anglicised stream of advertising made by brown sahibs, for brown sahibs. Again, it may be some sad form of nostalgia, but this work had more elegance and craft than much of what we see today.
These messages reflected our world as it was: a small, westernised, urban elite, co-existing with a huge low-income population in small towns and villages.
With the ‘80s and ‘90s came the first stirrings of liberalisation, and Indian advertising began to evolve. The arrival of “Hinglish” and self-confident language advertising signalled a dramatic shift in attitudes.
A western sensibility was no longer a prerequisite for hipness.
Local languages, customs and culture began to be mined for gags, resulting in witty, uniquely Indian work on brands such as Fevicol and Coca-cola.
Ex-agency creatives, working for Channel [V], also created some of the best expressions of urban indian pop culture yet–deftly synthesising India’s fascinating cultural quirks with global production standards. For a brief moment, it seemed like Indian pop culture–and a new youth sensibility–had found its voice through advertising. Alas, though the revolution had been televised, it failed to take off.
Modern Indian advertising is shiny, but mindlessly formulaic. It can be divided into two distinct schools of thought, both equally simplistic:
1. An aggressive or over-sentimental assertion of desi-ness, completely lacking the charm of the early Fevicol and Coke work.
2. What advertisers and marketers call an ‘aspirational’ world, featuring foreign models, props, backdrops and references to the Alps and the Mediterranean.
This dual-approach model is also what reduces the language debate to irrelevance. This is not an evolutionary battle between English and Vernacular advertising. Millions of young people in India’s cities and small towns want to speak English because it is a badge of globalisation and status. But equally, millions of young Indians are fiercely proud of their regional languages and traditions.
The faux-foreign and desi approaches co-exist in advertising, because in India, they are not contradictory.
If we’re lucky, we’ll soon see a new hybrid sensibility that is much more powerful than Hinglish. Imagine content and products that have an Indian soul, but are designed and packaged so perfectly that they have universal appeal.
India is evolving faster than anyone can imagine, and hopefully advertising will manage to keep up. We should all stay tuned for some big shifts. Hopefully, we will soon see a backlash against the revolting exercise in self-loathing that is the skin-lightening industry. We will probably see less faux-foreign imagery, as well as a reduction in aggressive desi-ness as we get more comfortable with who we are.
Best of all, we may witness the emergence of a brand new form of popular culture—one that ingests all of India’s ancient traditions and recent influences, and produces some magical alloy that the world will marvel at.