This overdependence on celebrities needs to change: Ambi Parameswaran

The ad man on his new book, which chronicles how advertising has evolved to reflect India’s culture, politics and economy

Parameswaran says the Advertising Standards Council of India should be empowered to put down guidelines on what should be allowed as liquor advertising and cigarette advertising, among other things. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Parameswaran says the Advertising Standards Council of India should be empowered to put down guidelines on what should be allowed as liquor advertising and cigarette advertising, among other things. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Mumbai: In his book Nawabs, Nudes, Noodles—India through 50 Years of Advertising (Pan Macmillan India, Rs.599 Hardcover), industry veteran Ambi Parameswaran looks at how advertising has evolved, to reflect India’s culture, politics and economy in the last 50 years. This is his eighth book on analysing advertising, brands and consumer behaviour. From sartorial taste and food habits to marriage and old age, music and language to celebrities and censorship, the book examines over a hundred ads to study how the Indian consumer has changed in the past five decades and how advertising and society have shaped each other. Parameswaran is a brand strategist and founder of, and has spent a large part of his 35-year marketing, sales and advertising career in helping build FCB Ulka into one of India’s biggest ad agencies.

Edited excerpts:

Why did you decide to write this particular book?

Over the past several years that I have been doing books and research to understand the depiction of women and men in Indian advertising, I realized that there is really no book that captured the changing societal landscape through the lens of advertising. There are a lot of books on Bollywood and society, about the angry young man and so on and so forth. But there’s nothing about advertising and how it has changed to reflect the changing society and how advertising has perhaps pushed some of the changes. When I was talking to my literary agent Anish Chandy, he thought we should write a book on the history of Indian advertising. But I didn’t want to attempt that, and go into spaces that I may not know enough about. I mean, I’m not a historian! So I said, what I can do is look at advertising and see how it has portrayed people and products. That’s how the whole idea was born. The book is very anecdotal in nature. Over the 300 pages in the book, I have perhaps described 200 advertisements in great detail and referred to another 200 advertisements in passing. We have also looked at some international ads and tried to draw some analogies.

That advertising has helped Indians discover new products and services seems to be a constant refrain in the book. Tell us about that.

The consumer culture in India has been compressed into 25-30 years while other countries have done that journey in 60-80 years. So, for example, we’ve gone from two car brands to 25 brands in literally 10 years. From waiting for a telephone for five years, we’ve gone to the availability of a phone in everyone’s pocket in a span of five years. So there’s been a dramatic change in the penetration of products. Now, if you go back, starting with Dalda, which introduced hydrogenated vegetable oil as a replacement for ghee, the advertisement was produced in 14 Indian languages. It was conceived 50-60 years ago. When Dalda was introduced in the market, nobody knew what Dalda was. People knew filtered oils like mustard and groundnut. Nobody knew about this product, which looked and felt like ghee but was not as expensive as ghee. The company actually did demonstrations at grocery stores for customer education. Or Maggi, which brought an alien product like noodles to every Indian home, and more recently the growth in mobile telephony which has all been aided by advertising. And, currently, we are seeing e-commerce being pushed in a dramatic way by advertising. So whether it is Dalda, noodles, biscuits, mobile telephony, or e-commerce, advertising has played a significant role in telling people about products.

What is the role of traditional advertising then in the age of social media, where consumers may be fuelling the discovery of new products and services themselves?

Certain categories lend themselves well to social media, some more than others. However, just to put things in perspective, a spot on IPL will get you how many views? Forty million? Compare that to something like two million views on YouTube. Digital media does have a role to play. I think social media is extremely important from the point of view that it allows brands to listen to what consumers are saying. Brands can learn a lot there.

In an interview you maintain that if it is legal to manufacture and sell a product in the country, it should be legal to advertise it.

We are basically talking about alcohol and tobacco products. It is legal to manufacture and sell them, but it is illegal to advertise them. And then you allow surrogate advertising, in the form of beer mugs or soda or music CDs. Maybe it is time to redefine some of these things. If beer and wine are allowed in supermarkets, which children also visit with their parents, put some rules and guidelines in place. Thirty years ago, Doordarshan had a weird rule that sanitary napkins could not be advertised on television before 10pm, but condoms were advertised. This has had far-reaching effects. Today, we have generations of women who think periods are a bad thing, and miss work and school as a result. Which is regrettable. If liquor is bad, then put down some guidelines—that it can only be advertised after a certain time in the night and work around that. This wink- wink, look this way or that way, as companies sell beer mugs, music CDs and soda, just doesn’t make sense. I think an industry body like ASCI (Advertising Standards Council of India) should be empowered to put down guidelines on what should be allowed as liquor advertising, what should be allowed as cigarette advertising, among other things. In our country it is so difficult to police something like that, self-regulation might be a better way to approach it.

Do you feel ASCI needs more power to actually take action against offenders? Critics say that the damage is already done by the time ASCI reacts.

I think they are moving in the right direction by speeding up the process. Earlier they would take close to a month to put out a verdict. Now they are trying to do it within a week. The other big problem in our country is that the courts are choked. If you take something to court, you can rest assured that nothing will happen. Where do you go to complain about a competitor making a fraudulent claim? You take it to court and it could take five years to settle. So I think ASCI and the process of self-regulation are so much simpler to monitor and run.

There is talk of holding celebrities accountable for the products they endorse. What are your thoughts?

I find it funny. Why should a celebrity be held responsible for product performance? The product quality is the responsibility of the product manager. Today you say that a celebrity is at fault, tomorrow you will say that the medium is at fault. That Mint is culpable because the vitamin tonic advertised in the paper didn’t give me the strength it promised. I think it’s ridiculous. Where do you draw the line? However, there is a larger issue here which I don’t think people are talking about. If you are a celebrity, a well-beloved film star or cricketer, and young people are looking up to you, what are the values you are propagating? Should you be promoting a certain product? So, I have a more sociological rather than a commercial question, and unfortunately, I think there is no answer to it. Abroad, celebrities who endorse products without discretion are likely to see some erosion of their brand values. In India, we’ve seen a strange phenomenon, probably because we hold our celebrities in such high regard. So Amitabh Bachchan can endorse any product and remain untouched (by any erosion of their brand equity).

But what about brands? Shouldn’t they be held accountable for exploiting a consumer’s insecurities?

I think if there is a consumer need, and I tailor a product to satisfy that particular need, I don’t think I am doing anything wrong. Having said that, if in the process of doing that I appeal to the baser instinct, if I cause anguish or insecurity, I am doing something wrong. So a product like a fairness cream, moisturizer, or deodorant are all playing to different shades of grey. There is a movement to say why should anyone feel the need to use cosmetics that objectify women. But I’ve been in research and consumers say they use cosmetics to feel good about themselves. Lakme had a slogan that said Looking good, feeling great, which captured that. In today’s world, you cannot get away with saying things like that (fairness creams preying on consumer insecurities to sell a product). You will get trolled on social media. And brands are waking up to that reality and are adjusting what they should say. But where do you draw the line on that? You say fairness creams are bad? What about anti-wrinkle creams, talcs, deodorants? All of these prey on human frailties.

If there is one thing the advertising industry needs to address right away, what will it be?

The one thing that the advertising industry and clients need to change is this overdependence on celebrities. It’s become a millstone around everyone’s neck. Before you have even started working on your brand campaign, the discussion is about which celebrity is available to do the ad. It has reached absurd levels and both agencies and clients need to pull back. Even if you are using a celebrity, how are you using him? As a model? As a character in the story? So, are you thinking it through?

Any advertising that you thought was path-breaking, so much so that it redefined the category?

Just look at Airtel and their decision to introduce prepaid. They made it like a retail product and did a barrage of advertising which communicated how simple it is. They set the tone and everyone followed. I still remember the advertisement, which shows someone standing at a paan-beedi shop and a mobile phone rings, the owner picks up and says it’s not my phone. Customer picks up phone and says it’s not his, customer’s wife picks up phone and realizes it’s not hers either. And then you realize that under the paan-beedi shop there’s the youngster sitting and cutting betel nut leaves. It’s his. It is communicated beautifully that not just the shop owner or customer, but also a shop worker can afford a mobile phone as they can recharge them for Rs.10 a day! That advertising opened up the category. Then there was Maggi (noodles), what they did was amazing. They took a product which was not native to this country, was really alien, and made it a part of our staple diet. How did they do it? They priced it attractively, they formulated it in a way that it could be made easily and added certain features where a woman could add some things to it and feel in control, where she felt like she was actually cooking something. They positioned it as an evening snack for children. And that, in a sense, changed the whole process of adoption for that category.

Any similarities you see between the television series ‘Mad Men’ and the real mad men of Indian advertising?

In the early 1970s, we had our own Casanovas in the industry. But one thing true is that if you went back to the 1960s and 1970s, it was a gentleman’s club. So, clients never called for a pitch. And changing an agency was a decision that was often taken by the company CEO. And the CEO would take that decision by talking to other CEOs he knew. The decision to pick an agency was basically you calling the agency and offering them the account. The homework had been done, you knew the kind of work they did, the people they had on board. Today, unfortunately, a lot of times, the agency selection process ends up being piloted by someone who has not had experience of working with an agency for five to 10 years. So, they get dazzled by the pitch process and later, when the marriage starts, that’s when the problems start. I wonder if the CEO of a large company knows the CEO of his agency and insists that they meet once in two months to discuss business. That was the practice 20 years ago. It was a good practice and I hope it comes back.

In your book, you talk about the evolution of Indian women as consumers. How have they changed?

If you look at the portrayal of men, old people and children, all of it has changed. If you had to pick one particular group that showed the maximum change, it would have to be women. If you take the last 30-40 years, Indian women have changed the most. They have become more literate, educated and more vocal. They are going out a lot more. And if you go back, one of my friends pointed it out, the first time an advertisement showed a woman and that too an upper class woman, in a market alone, dealing with the situation and talking directly into the camera was the Lalitaji campaign. Before that most ads showed a woman accompanied by a man. Unfortunately, working women are not that large in number in socioeconomic classes A and B. It’s as low as 13% but it’s changing. In fact, a larger percentage of women work in the lower socioeconomic classes because they need the money. But the big change that every mother today wants is for her daughter to be independent and stand on her own two feet. From a time when the woman was nothing but a homemaker, who never left the house without her husband, to not just running the home but also interacting with governmental authorities, banking, among other things, there has been a dramatic change.

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