Mumbai: The iconic Amul girl, a lovable little moppet that sells butter with a dollop of satire on the side, turned 50 this October. Rahul daCunha, creative head of daCunha Communications Pvt. Ltd, the Mumbai-based advertising agency that has handled the Amul account since 1966, talks about the origins of the Amul girl, inheriting the legacy from his father, noted ad-man Sylvester daCunha, why the agency tends to steer clear of religion and godmen, and the need to have their ear to the ground at all times. Edited excerpts from an interview:
The little girl in a polka dot dress has managed to sell butter with a dollop of satire. How did the idea originate?
My father, Sylvester daCunha and his art director Eustace DeSousa in 1966 wanted an idea that would appeal to children and mothers. Nothing like the little cartoon moppet and a tagline like “utterly butterly delicious Amul” to catch the public imagination! The campaign was launched in 1966 on outdoor media because there was no television advertising to speak of in the 60s and print advertising was frightfully expensive.
It started off with butter messaging, but after a point, there’s only that much you can say about butter on a hand-painted outdoor hoarding. So my father decided to run some zingy messaging which touched upon current affairs and topical events which included everything from the weather to festivals and events such as the Derby, giving people food for thought. It was only in the ’80s and ’90s that we saw the birth of politicians, actors and cricketers as caricatures that people talked about. That was the birth of the celebrity-hood and of popular culture as we know it. It was also when the Amul ads started taking a more edgy, satirical turn.
What to your mind, were the critical factors that made the character and these ads so popular?
There were several factors that contributed to it. To begin with, our client Amul was helmed at that time by the great Verghese Kurien, a bold, fearless man. He gave my father the freedom to create these ads. It helps immensely when you have the client’s trust. Also there’s no question that the use of the outdoor medium helped us in keeping the messages tight and taut. A person encountering a billboard has only a few seconds to see your message. One can never emphasize enough on the need for a big idea. A big idea can take the form of a fantastic line, or a mascot—the Air India Maharaja for instance. In this case, the Amul girl was the desire to embody the brand in a character. So therefore, when you had a little girl like this, it became easier to get the message through. Satire is both easier to create and digest when it comes from a child.
Are these pressing times for political cartoonists? Surely, the constant lampooning of people in power and governments must ruffle a lot of feathers?
One of the reasons why we haven’t gotten into trouble or controversy over the years is because our messages come from a little baby cartoon. It’s disarming. It raises a chuckle rather than “hey what are you saying”. I honestly think India is a superb democracy. We do have freedom of speech. Not sure we could have had the Amul campaign in any other country.
Is the tone of these ads more subdued now?
I don’t think the ads are more subdued today. In the ’90s we didn’t have Hindu fundamentalists, we were talking about gentle politicians, Bollywood, and celebrities. We will never shy away from commenting on something that is concerning India. However, there are certain areas we steer clear from… religion and godmen are two of them. I don’t want to do religion today, it’s so entwined with politics and fundamentalism. My job is to entertain and make people laugh. I would rather pick issues people get joy from. At the moment we live in a dark India, where a man can’t release a film because thugs are after him. That was never the case ten years ago, we didn’t live in that India.
Having said that, I honestly think India is a superb democracy. Most politicians enjoy the Amul ads. On (Prime Minister) Modi’s birthday Amul send him a tweet wishing him. And he replied, thanking Amul for the humour. The hoarding has gone into areas that no one has gone into. We made fun of Smriti Irani, and she sent us a tweet, wishing the Amul girl on her 50th birthday.
How does the brand and its lovable mascot stay relevant in a changing media environment?
Five years ago, we’d pick one topic out of five, today we do all five. One of my tasks is to navigate the campaign—read the market, see how a topic is developing, has it changed perceptions, how are people feeling about it. India is going through a change. There is no two ways about it. It’s important for us to have an ear to the ground at all times, to be aware of how a trend can shift. When Uri happened, we chose not to respond immediately, we waited. We did the hoarding only eight days later, it was probably the best decision. As immediately there was sheer anger and war mongering, but after the initial shock people were asking the government to do something. And when the surgical strikes happened we knew the time was right. One of my jobs is really to know when to create the hoarding. We are at an emotional, sensitive time in our history. And so how we treat that in our topical hoardings is all about timing. Sometimes, it has to be immediate. Sometimes you catch the issue when it’s rising, or catch it when it’s petering off.
What does a typical work day look like for the team?
So every Monday morning the team comprising me and the writer Manish Jhaveri brainstorm on the topics for the week. Usually we get our dose of topics from the media but it is social media that gives us the trend. Over the last few years, social media has definitely created many more topics. We pick on those that are trending. Also attention spans have diminished—an issue has almost zero shelf life today beyond a day or two.