The beautiful girl is anxiously staring off camera, the camera cuts to a batsman swing his bat for a six, the girl’s face breaks into an ecstatic smile, the crowd roars in the background, the girl dodges stern officials and policemen, dances onto the cricket field, runs up to the batsman, gives him a hug and a bite of Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate.. And the stereotype of the demure Indian girlfriend is banished forever.
A pony tailed moppet in a polka dot dress and matching hair ribbon starts out in 1966 on Bombay bus panels and for the next half century amuses us with its puns on current affairs. During a racing season it is “Thorough Bread”, during the Enron Electricity Board scandal it is a blacked out billboard with “Enr On? Or Off?” The sign off: Utterly Butterly Amul.
These and dozens of other ads fill the 330 colourful pages of Ad Katha,a sumptuous book just published through the energetic efforts of Bal Mundkur and Gerson Dacunha and written and produced by Anand Halve and Anita Sarkar. Leafing through this book is not just a trip through the golden age of Indian advertising but also an enquiry into how many of the cultural symbols that we now see as “Indian” came about. Bal Mundkur was the swashbuckling founder of Ulka Advertising, arguably the first financial and creatively successful Indian ad agency. Gerson Dacunha was the moving spirit for many years behind Lintas, the ad agency for Lever, that great training school for Indian marketing professionals.
The ads showcased in Ad Katha are markers of not just of an increasingly confident and creative advertising industry but of Indian society itself. The Cadbury Milk Chocolate TV ad marked the end of the sati-savitri portrayal of Indian women, the Amul billboards and bus panels a sign of the arrival of an irreverent Indian media where no issue or person is beyond a playful dig.
The 1970’s was a period when the dream of Nehruvian State-led industrial progress was starting to fade and dynamic Indian entrepreneurs were taking the stage. People like Kersey Katrak, Bal Mundkur, Sylvie Dacunha, Gerson Dacunha, and Frank Simoes were helping these entrepreneurs establish distinctive Indian voices for their clients. “A woman expresses herself in many languages, Vimal is one of them”, heralded the nascent Dhirubhai Ambani empire. “Livva little hot…sippa Gold Spot” established a soft drink mega franchise.
remember sitting in the Placement Office at IIM Calcutta in 1971 feeling miserable at the choices before me: a life in the steel industry in Jamshedpur and one supervising labour in a cigarette factory in Calcutta. Trusting my twenty-one-year-old’s instinct I looked away from these options, took a plane to Bombay and, in what was considered a revolutionary choice for an IIM grad in those days, chose to work in a Bombay advertising agency.
Ad Katha traces the origin of Indian media’s free spirit to Hicky’s Bengal Gazette of 1780. The eccentric James Hickey, says the book, made this pioneering newspaper, “the channel of personal invective” and no individual, including the Governor General’s wife was spared.
Among the many other gems in the book is this early 20th century ad for the Ford Motor car, which asks, “Why wait until after the Monsoon to buy a car” and assures us that “ Ford closed cars are built to withstand all kinds of weather conditions…the bodies are all-steel…in a few seconds the spacious windows can be quickly closed to keep out the rain…”
Advertising in India today, says Gerson Dacunha in an essay in Ad Katha, is a Rs 30,000 crore (US$ 6bn) industry which makes it three times the size of its sibling, Bollywood. It is this revenue that finances India’s newspapers, magazines, TV channels and internet sites and allows our noisy, quarrelsome and democratic system to function in defiance of powerful governments and even more powerful private vested interests.
The mysteries of Indian consumer behaviour are well captured in this story in the book ( I think this one comes from the autobiography of Prakash Tandon, the legendary head of Lever) of an early market researcher who, questionnaire in hand, asks an Indian housewife who no doubt had her head covered demurely by her sari,
“Madam, who does the shopping in your house?”
“Husband buys”, say the housewife barely meeting the market researcher’s eye.
“Even personal items for yourself?” asks the sceptical market researcher
“Husband buys”, murmurs the woman again. She then waits for a few moments and murmurs, “But I tell him what to buy?”