Advertisements may be bold and brassy today, but stereotypes still hold sway
Hot and wicked women gyrating on TVS Wego scooters are right now capturing the imagination of many an Indian television viewer. Even the most straight-laced among us would admire the cleverness of it all: the bindaas girls against the backdrop of classical Noor Nahan-like voice singing “Preetam pyaare…”, the refrain in Tamil and the old couple in the vintage car behind. How long have we travelled from the '80s when television commercials, much like the products themselves, were fewer and far more… well, innocent or lacking in innovation.
The “Vicco Turmeric, nahin cosmetic…” and “Sabki pasand Nirma…” advertisements that went with the weekly staple of Chitrahar on DD belong to an age when both models and budget for television commercials were on a far more modest scale. Forget the no-nonsense Lifebuoy, even the self-proclaimed “luxury” soap Lux had a rather unassuming ad. Barring the sensational Liril girl in green bikini under the cascading water, it is difficult to recollect any ad from the pre-liberalisation era that was made on anything but a shoe-string budget.
Among the earliest advertisements to move away from the direct cause-effect equation (on the lines of “buy this product, look more beautiful”) were perhaps Vimal suitings and Garden saris ads. They had an arty and dream-like feel, and were clearly mounted lavishly. The real pioneer of the eighties was, arguably, the Onida series. The devil with green horns broke the mould and put the days of goody-goody commercials firmly behind. Considering how catty and naughty advertisements are now the norm, this ad in retrospect seems like a clear trendsetter.
With hundreds of commercials attempting to grab eyeballs across an equal number of channels, brand managers and ad makers are sparing no expense or trick in the book. Sophistication in Indian advertising seems to be on a par with world standards. Indeed, many ads are shot abroad, sometimes at the cost of making them absurdly unreal, like an African elephant playing with an Indian boy in the backyard.
The current flavour in advertising seems to be humour, never mind if some of them fall flat or seem to be in bad taste. Advertisers are also experimenting with other genres.
There are several that tell mini stories, sometimes as syrupy and regressive as TV soaps, a classic example being the Fair and Lovely commercial. While celebrity ads continue to be in plenty, there are also those which use a motif or a character in a series. Vodafone's ZooZoos and the pug are instances of this. Pepsi's “Change the game” series specially made for the cricket season combine many of these elements: they are funny, have a running theme and are packed with celebrities.
On the whole, much water has flowed under the bridge since the eighties, making the devil with green horns seem like an angel.
But, are there also clearly defined limits to the “radicality” of TV commercials? A closer look at the ads reveals that some stereotypes are ever strong, and in fact, are their sustenance. You wouldn't, for instance, spot a single baby product ad that does not endlessly gush over motherhood. Ads for health drinks, cereals, toilet cleaners and dish washing liquids have impossibly good mothers and wives with saintly smiles on their facesInsurance companies cannot make ads without scaring you stiff about the prospect of dropping dead the next moment, just as face creams commercials cannot help but talk about the colour of skin being a matter of life or death.
It is only commercials for some products — chocolates, fried snacks, soft drinks, bikes, mobile phones — that allow stepping beyond traditionally drawn limits. These are products that are stereotypically associated with light-hearted fun.
If advertisements are a study in changing social trends and value systems, ads clearly talk of where bold experimentation is allowed and where holy cows still hold sway. This is perhaps why one is attracted to Perk's “Glucose chadao” ad that dares show a heartless mom. But again, there is no missing the fact that even this transgression is only allowed in a chocolate ad!