Chiaroscuro: Reading patterns of social lights

The rapidly changing Indian society too presents a 'Chiaroscuroeque' picture, of changes, dark and light, in our beliefs, attitudes and behaviour. What was taboo yesterday is common behaviour today

At Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, there was once a campus magazine called Chiaroscuro (it got many of us reach out to the dictionary when it first came out). The word traces its origin to an Italian word that describes a form of art that uses contrasts between dark and light. The Oxford dictionary says chiaroscuro is the use of light and shades in drawing.

The rapidly changing Indian society too presents a ‘Chiaroscuroeque’ picture, of changes, dark and light, in our beliefs, attitudes and behaviour. What was taboo yesterday is common behaviour today. And this social Chiaroscuro offers a rich field for consumer insights. Rapid urbanization, small city-to-big city migration, growing adult literacy and the increasing voice of women, both in urban and rural India, are setting in motion several major changes in the societal dynamics and roles people play at work, home and in the consumption process. Not only are women changing the roles they play at home and in society, they are also exercising a greater influence on their girl children. The old are no longer behaving as they should—goli khaake jeeta hoon (I live on pills)! While there is a growing anxiety about old age care, they are also enjoying increasing affluence, as can be seen at airports around the world. The change in the roles of men, women and children has also changed the way products and services are bought and used. No longer is it rare to see children deciding on the choice of a car or television.

Are marketers reading all these patterns of dark and light well? And should they do more to study the subtle shades better?

For over 50 years, smart marketers have figured out the need to match their own advertising messages with the societal dynamics.

The famous Surf Lalitaji ad appeared in 1984, and probably for the first time an upper middle-class Indian woman was ready to face, and question the marketplace dialogue. In, fact, Indian women were becoming more visible and vocal. No wonder this got picked up in the TV serial Rajani, which followed Lalitaji a full year later.

Or take Bajaj Auto Ltd’s magnum opus, the ‘Hamara Bajaj’ film, which set in motion a whole new trend of ‘Mera Brand Mahaan’ films. This film came out in 1989, well after ‘Mile sur mera tumhara’ was aired a year earlier, as a part of the Indian government’s national integration campaign.

Liril girl in a bikini was a bold move for its time. In fact, the film did not show her having a bath with the soap at all. But for 1976 it was a revolution in advertising. Were women in bikinis common then? Not really, Sharmila Tagore did appear in a bikini in the movie An Evening in Paris as far back as in 1967. A newspaper article did say that there were many others who sported a bikini: Mumtaz in Apradh (1972), Dimple Kapadia in Bobby (1973), Zeenat Aman in Qurbani (1980) et al.

To create great advertising that resonates with a changing society, brand marketers need to not just look at the ads of their major competitors or what the global template is for the brand, but also indulge in serious social listening. Not just Facebook posts but also what is seen in pop culture, movies, books, television serials, drama and radio. And even here it is wise to not just look at what is getting the biggest air time but also what is in the fringes.

For instance, I spent a couple of hours last week watching a Malayalam movie that came out a couple of years ago called How Old Are You. This got remade into a Tamil movie (36 Vyathiniley; 36 Years), a come-back vehicle for Jyothika, a former star and currently actor Surya’s better half. Getting back to the Malayalam movie, I was able to decode several societal dynamics the writer and director had explored. A wife in a dead-end job. An unappreciative husband and daughter. An old school friend who fires up our heroine’s imagination. A business idea for an organic garden. The final decision to stay back in India and not run after her husband and his pot of gold in Ireland. Finally no less than a dinner with the President of India.

After seeing that movie I realized that any brand marketer who had invested two hours watching the movie is bound to come out with some new thoughts on how to engage with his or her consumer.

Instead of indulging in large unfocussed quantitative studies and focus groups (they do have their role, when done with a clear objective in mind, I should add), brand marketers would be well advised to spend more time in exploring popular culture for new thoughts and ideas to engage better with their consumers.

Erving Goffman, in his book Gender Advertisements, wrote about how most advertisers tend to resort to ‘Hyper Ritualization’, showing gender stereotypes playing, well, stereotypical roles. This has played out well and, as they say, this may have lost its mojo. The time is now ripe to explore ‘Neo-Visualization’—examine new ways to engage with consumers by tapping into the fringes, not just the ritualized roles.

Advertising plays an important role in shaping and reshaping roles in society, sometimes reflecting change, sometime pushing for change.

As Marshall McLuhan has observed, “Historians and archeologists will one day discover that the ads of our time are the richest and most faithful daily reflections any society ever made of its whole range of activities".

Time we started reading those light patterns better. Social Chiaroscuro to the rescue.

Ambi M.G. Parameswaran is author, brand strategist and founder, Brand-Building.com; formerly CEO/ED and later adviser at FCB Ulka Advertising. He is also the president of the Advertising Agencies Association of India. His latest book Nawabs, Nudes, Noodles looks at India through 50 years of advertising.

He will take stock of consumers, brands and advertising every month. The views expressed here are personal.

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