It’s peak hour traffic at Dadar East, a central suburb in Mumbai, and two persons—HT and BT—are having a bad day. A two-piece band is drumming up a storm as they try to exchange news. The thunderous noise makes the harried fellows slightly deaf and completely insane.

That’s when “Doctor Bhimsen Joshi" (named after the famous Indian classical vocalist) arrives on the scene and offers to cure them with small doses of good Radio City 91.1 FM. The farce ends on a high note with the entire group, two-piece band and all, advising the crowd that has in the meanwhile gathered to tune into Radio City, and distributing branded merchandise such as pens, key chains and pamphlets.

Attention grabber: College students take to the streets in Mumbai with Baaki shor machaayein, Radio City music sunaaye campaign, which was conceptualized by creative agency Bates 141 India for the FM channel.

“There is a certain empathy created with the audience when you do it like this (as a street play)," says Praveen Vadhera, country head for Wall Street, the out-of-home service division for Bates 141 India, which conceptualized the campaign for Radio City.

“Unless you experience more melodious music, you won’t know the difference," he says, pointing out that it would have been difficult to drive this point home through a static medium such as a billboard.

The agency recruited college students passionate about drama and trained them for a week before sending them out to perform at different locations across the city.

Brand theatre

Street theatre is increasingly emerging as a cost-effective medium for brand promotions; it creates a buzz around brands by getting people to talk about them.

To promote a new range of munchies, Pepsi Foods India Pvt. Ltd hired actors who would burst into flames in the middle of a crowded street when they ate the snack. The campaign won a Gold Lion at Cannes.

Consumer products company Hindustan Unilever Ltd used a modified version of the Shakespearean classic, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to promote a new skin care range.

In Radio City’s case, while some were entertained and others flabbergasted that someone would pull a stunt like that in the middle of the day, it served the basic purpose the brand was out to achieve: It pulled in the crowds.

And that is exactly what marketers want, say experts, who say once the audience is reeled in, the challenge is to ensure that the message is not only engaging enough for them to remember but also entertaining enough for them to tell their friends about it.

“It is a part of popular culture, a medium that is liked and looked forward to in this country," says Ramesh Thomas, president and chief knowledge officer, Equitor Management Consulting Pvt. Ltd.

Focused targeting

Street plays are traditionally associated with agitational propaganda and social messages. It is now being tweaked to serve as a tool for brands looking to create maximum impact among small but focused target groups, not just at street corners but also in malls, restaurants and elsewhere.

“Street plays are certainly very innovative and clutter-breaking. They can be tactically deployed across locations and certainly generate tremendous word-of-mouth (publicity," says Rana Barua, national head of programming and marketing at Radio City. “The take-away to such an exercise has got a long shelf life as far as impact is concerned."

Marketers are raising the curtains on street theatre to grab the attention of consumers bored or sceptical of traditional ad messages. Last year Ogilvy and Mather Pvt. Ltd won several local and international awards, including a Bronze Lion at Cannes, for its campaign for the Hutch Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival.

The idea was to get more people to watch theatre, so O&M’s team put together skits that had dramatic scenes from real life, such as a young couple having a public spat in front of other diners at a popular restaurant, or a man proposing marriage to an unwilling girl in the middle of a busy market.

Just when fellow diners or pedestrians thought the situation would get worse, the act would end with a message saying, “For more drama, come to Ranga Shankara." At this point, flyers containing relevant information such as play synopses and timings were distributed.

Internationally, marketers have used street theatre extensively to create a buzz around a brand or campaign. Early this year, Sony BMG Music Entertainment hired professional dancers in London to do street acts in different locations as a unique way to promote the 25th anniversary of the Thriller album by Michael Jackson, which had a zombie dance routine.

In one instance, a group of dancers, dressed like regular commuters on the London underground, would get up and randomly burst into the zombie dance routine, popularized by the original music video in 1983.

The group would then stop as abruptly as they had started, and melt away into the crowd without saying a word. The idea was to bring Thriller back into public consciousness without the hardsell.

Brands have also used other forms of theatre, which include an interactive version where the actors are trained to change the script based on audience interaction and participation.

Back-up medium

However, experts say that despite its effectiveness as a medium, advertisers tend to use street theatre as an afterthought, a back-up medium to mass media campaigns, mainly on cost considerations.

“The cost per contact is substantially higher compared with a mass medium such as television. Unfortunately, that is the benchmark brands use without understanding the empathy or retention this medium could create," saysVadhera.

According to industry estimates, a brand would have to spend some Rs15,000 a day to send out a troupe of six actors across the city to perform street plays.

In some cases, it works a little too well for a brand. An actor who worked on the street play for Radio City narrated an instance when an overzealous mother with her young daughter trailing behind her asked the actors to ensure that her daughter landed a job as a radio jockey.

“Even after explaining that we could not help her, she just wouldn’t let us go," says Vishal Vijay More, who played the part of a ghost, Doctor Bhimsen Joshi’s dead father.

“That’s when you turn around and run."