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As excitement and fervour build up around the 75th anniversary of our Independence, it is a good moment to explore the relationship between advertising and India’s freedom movement. Indeed, it can be argued that the impetus for formal advertising in India was inextricably linked to the freedom struggle.

Advertising in pre-colonial times was informal. The economy was largely agrarian and village-based, and direct relations between producers and consumers at the time eliminated the need for advertising as we know it. Of course, the tradition of street vendors advertising their wares is probably as old as commerce itself.

Given low levels of literacy, early formal advertising began by targeting Britons in India, princely families and upper-income groups. Such advertisements were for hotels, four-wheelers, tea, gramophones, cotton goods, tailoring shops, apparel and other types of daily-use items. These were largely published in English newspapers.

As our quest for freedom began to take shape, one of its underlying movements had a direct impact on advertising. This was the Swadeshi Movement. It started as a response to the decision to partition Bengal in 1905. It sought to create space for Indian goods and curb foreign goods. Kolkata was the capital of British India at the time and also a major centre for commerce, and early Indian advertising took root there.

Indian brands borrowed from and in turn reinforced the Swadeshi message. Many brands started using the tag of ‘Swadeshi’ to pitch their indigenously produced wares, and to provide an alternative to imported goods. The Tata Oil Mills Company’s Hamam soap, for example, proclaimed that not only was it a bigger cake of soap, but also Swadeshi. Similarly, a Cipla ad for medicines exhorted its audience to adopt the idea with this line: “India’s freedom demands that every Indian citizen be Indian minded, give up inferiority complex and have confidence in himself, support Indian industries and have Cipla medicines." Nationalist messages of the era favouring Indian products were loud and clear. Broadly, they urged Indian consumers to buy products that Indians had produced and boycott foreign goods if they cared for the nation.

Rabindranath Tagore became an important influencer in the advertising of Swadeshi goods, both as a model and as a writer of copy and lyrics for ads. One brand he provided a testimonial for was Kuntaline Hair Oil, endorsing it for its ability to grow hair and its long-lasting fragrance. A clever activation idea deployed by the brand was the announcement of a literary award, whereby stories submitted had to mention ‘Kuntaline Hair Oil’ or ‘Delkhosh Perfume’ in the story. H. Bose, the brand’s owner, however, insisted on a strict Swadeshi yardstick, disqualifying stories that emulated European literature.

Tagore contributed his copywriting skills to strengthen the India story. For Kajol Kali, he wrote that this “ink is not inferior to any European ink", he praised Dwarkin & Son’s flute as “more suitable for Indian music than foreign flutes" and complimented sculptor Kartik Pal’s work on his statue as superior to the work of Europeans and Americans who “wore him out with long hours of posing". A clear ‘us-versus-them’ narrative was established, uniting the Indian audience against a common enemy. Brands featuring Tagore and other nationalist icons such as Surendranath Banerjea and Lala Lajpat Rai did not shy away from calling out users of foreign products as “lacking self-respect".

Godrej Soaps too used several national figures of the freedom movement, such as Annie Besant and C. Rajagoplachari, to endorse a 100% vegetable-based soap. The ads carried testimonials from these leaders, comparing Godrej soap to European soaps, and declaring Godrej soaps to be much better. Ads for tobacco, tailoring classes and teas all spoke of the “Made in India" story.

15 August 1947 was possibly India’s first tryst not only with freedom, but also with moment marketing. Brands sought to celebrate India’s independence through ads. The Indian Tricolour was showcased with pride. Dalmia Cement asked Indians to build a “house of Independence", Eastman and Co. paid rich tributes to freedom fighters, and Free India General Insurance offered a special “Free India policy".

Present-day advertising both celebrates and leverages our Independence Day. Zomato proudly declared, “Sorry, we aren’t accepting orders anymore", referring to British Raj directives. We’re well acquainted with all the advertising for Independence Day discounts by big traditional and online retailers. In all the excitement and noise, some ads strike a different note and make us question if our quest for freedom is a thing of the past. The Bajaj Avenger campaign asks, “What does freedom mean to you?" and goes on to speak of a sustainable planet.

1947 was indeed a momentous milestone, but perhaps the freedom movement is a continuing journey. While India has witnessed undeniable progress, the dream of a freedom that can be experienced by every citizen remains elusive. Advertising, with its ability to provoke, nudge, inspire and inform us, is an extremely powerful mechanism to keep pushing us towards a more meaningful and deeper idea of freedom—and to make our quest for true freedom as worthy a cause today as it was 75 years ago.

These are the author’s personal views.

Manisha Kapoor is chief executive officer and secretary general, Advertising Standards Council of India

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