Jingle Bells: Inside Lalitaji’s linen cupboard

In all her dealings, Lalitaji has the upper hand, and it’s a confident hand too.

In all her dealings, Lalitaji has the upper hand, and it’s a confident hand too.

Who’d have thought that the confident housewife Lalita ji, arguing heartily with the vegetable vendor and hectoring her viewers in her firm, no-nonsense voice, with her bright white sari and her imp of a son, was actually fighting the ultimate ad-war with that sweet, twirling girl from another detergent powder? An unlikely face-off, but surprisingly, it worked.

It was a different world from the one we live in today, with our crowded grocery store aisles that boast of too many choices and our televisions that sing too many jingles. Hindustan Lever’s Surf had, till Nirma appeared, dominated the washing powder mass market in the country, edging out the only other player, Swastik’s DET. Nirma entered the market in the 1970s, challenging Surf’s dominance and offering an alternative at one third of the cost.

It wouldn’t do to try and compete with the already popular Nirma on the price front, and so, Surf decided to unabashedly embrace the stark difference in their prices. Lintas’s Alyque Padamsee and his team created Lalitaji, and put her in a campaign that went on to become one of Surf’s most memorable ones.

I’m told by B.R Sharan, who was both the writer and the creative director in the later years for the Lalitaji campaigns, that the ads, directed by Kailash Surendranath, stayed on air only for a maximum of 6 to 8 weeks in a year. “She was such a presence that people believed it ran for the entire year.”

She certainly was a presence, and Kavita Chaudhary, who played the iconic figure, was almost immediately offered the main role in Udaan , a television series that focussed on the struggles of a strong minded woman IPS officer.

Keeping in mind that she appeared on screen in the 1970s and ’80s, Lalitaji was quite ahead of her times. In fact, market research results were quite dismal. “Lintas spared no cost when it came to market research. When the results for Lalitaji came back, the overall response showed that almost everyone hated her. They felt she was irritating, loud, over-the-top.”

There is, certainly, an almost infuriating quality to Lalitaji. She lectures, she pronounces statements and judgments, and all in all, treats that faceless questioning voice coming from somewhere off the screen like a bit of a clueless schoolchild. In all her dealings, Lalitaji has the upper hand, and it’s a confident hand too. She is no simpering woman looking for approval. Even when she shows us the shining white pair of shorts she has just altered, she isn’t actually asking if it’s as good as new— she’s telling us that it is. Honestly, she isn’t any different from the hectoring figures in other ads, even today. The difference is, especially back then, the country wasn’t quite ready to receive its instructions from a housewife.

Despite the research results, Hindustan Lever ran with the campaign, and it’s a good thing that they did, because it worked. “In advertising, you can either go by the practical numbers, or you follow your instinct. In the case of the Lalitaji campaign, three people had believed in it. One was Shunu Sen, an absolute gem of a person and a genius Marketing Director from Hindustan Lever. The other two were from Lintas — Alyque Padamsee and Usha Bhandarkar,” says Sharan.

Bhandarkar, Sharan says, believed that Lalitaji showed how women were coming of age, and becoming more confident. “She responded to the hard headedness in Lalitaji, and how she’d not settle for anything less than the best.”

It was this hard headedness that perhaps convinced scores of housewives across the country too, who heard Lalitaji wax eloquent about Surf’s merits, and decided that like her, they didn’t mind spending a little more to make sure their family got the best. After all, like Lalitaji said, ‘Surf ki kharidari mein hi samajhdari hai’.

It helped that Lalitaji’s character was a middle class housewife who wasn’t wasteful. Just before or after she reached the topic of Surf, she’d be occupied with some thrifty task — haggling for a rupee with the vegetable vendor, altering clothes to make them last longer, and more. Lalitaji was looking at value for money, and with Surf, she got it.

“We introduced scientific, solid facts to back up her claims. How half kg of Surf is equal to one kg of ordinary powder, and while 1 kg ordinary powder will wash 60 shirts, that much Surf will wash 180 shirts,” says Sharan, adding that these helped round up the Lalitaji campaign, teaching us the difference between “sasti cheez aur acchi cheez” (a cheap product and a good product).

Lalitaji was an aspirational figure, her house-proud demeanour coupled with her economically sound decisions appealing to women across the country, and once again placed Surf as the front-runner in the detergent wars. Of course, she’d soon find herself facing a formidable opponent in Deepikaji, but that’s another story, for another day.

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Printable version | May 22, 2022 10:35:12 pm |