The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- It is more difficult to persuade consumers today

Advertising was regarded as wasteful expenditure, driving up prices, till the early Eighties criticized it as encouraging 'consumerism', for its influence in persuading people to buy things they did not really need and doing this to children as well.

T.T. Krishnamachari and H.M. Patel as finance ministers proposed to tax advertising but withdrew when newspapers protested against the revenue loss. These actions were part of the austerity and anti-consumption culture of that command-and-control era.

My learning about marketing and advertising was through selling soaps and food products in Indian towns and villages, and working on brands in England. The ideas that impressed me were in Peter Drucker's The Practice of Management. He said famously: 'There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.' He also said: 'Marketing is the distinguishing, the unique function of the business...It encompasses the entire business. It is the whole business seen from the point of view of its final result, that is, from the customer's point of view.'

Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders introduced the many overt and covert (subliminal) ways in which advertising is used to influence the customer to choose between alternative purchases. In The Status Seekers he argued that people are continually straining to surround themselves with visible evidence of their superior rank in relation to others. Inequality is what drives people to hard work. Rosser Reeves in his Reality in Advertising, David Ogilvy in his books Confessions of an Advertising Man and others, and Martin Mayer in Madison Avenue described advertising creation and how it works.

Advertising must define and target the consumer group it is aiming to persuade. This must be as close as can be. It must develop a unique selling proposition to attract him and articulate its proposition in as clear and explicit terms as possible. The chauvinistic advice to advertising people was, 'The consumer is not a moron; she is your wife,' that is, don't talk down to consumers but reach out rationally, emotionally, humorously and in every other way that might attract his attention. These and other such rules are as valid today in designing advertising that works.

Advertising till the Seventies mostly made well-reasoned arguments to the consumer, stating a problem that most consumers faced and showing why the product advertised was the best answer. When we launched chewing gum, a new habit then, I decided to target children. There was no television. No specialist medium existed to reach children directly en masse. Instead of using rational claims, we tried to develop the idea that it was 'fun' to chew gum. We used a circus clown as a symbol of 'fun' for children. It worked well.

When introducing a new throat lozenge to compete with 'Vicks', we used the thought that adults love candies but are embarrassed to buy for themselves (which is why they eat up what they buy for their children). Also, a throat lozenge has a boy-girl connotation because of the effect on cleaning the breath and the sucking action. The idea was executed into press and film but the product did not sell much. Soon the idea was changed to a rational one: the product offered, 'vapour action' to clear nasal passages.

In the 21st century, I wonder at some advertising messages. Attracting attention is one thing, making people pause to see and understand the message, and then making them go to buy the product, are more difficult. Unusual methods are used to attract the consumer. But many advertisements today are unclear as to the target consumer and the message. Humour is many times forced and difficult to understand. The models are unlike the majority of consumers. Since advertising now costs a fortune and failure could ruin the company, the irrelevance of these advertisements seems suicidal.

There have been great advertisements in the last few years on Indian TV, for example, the light-hearted and very effective ones for Fevicol. The brilliant advertisements for Coca-Cola with Aamir Khan in different roles must have sold a lot more Coke. Here, the models were either 'like one of us' prospective buyers or recognized as such because of the brilliance of the actor.

But how does one explain the long and inexplicable advertisements for Pepsi as a 'bubbly' drink with the expensive Shah Rukh Khan, a celebrity model who acts as himself' Despite its length the product promise is indecipherable. The lengthy, frequently repeated and hence hugely expensive advertising for a jewellery store in Delhi named 'PP Jewellers'is unclear on message and the target consumers. The bunch of girls dancing and singing a jingle has no connection with 'real' people. On the other hand, 'Chiragh Din' has built a reputation for being an exclusive, upmarket men's clothing shop in Mumbai. It makes a virtue out of not having branches anywhere else. Advertising has helped to give its clothing a cachet and the Bombay label.

Of course, many advertisements today replicate the presence of the bland upper class models that act in Indian TV 'soaps' with similar stories, one cast looking and behaving no differently from another, and with equally expressionless acting. The stories are uniformly set in wealthy urban households. The makeup, dress, articulation of the models are familiar to better-off households in cities. But do other income groups relate to them at all'

Advertising ignores people that in the consumption pyramid I developed to illustrate the NCAER consumption surveys are at the bottom, poor but interested in consuming manufactured goods provided they are presented in a way that is affordable for them. Our TV models have nothing in common with them ' not the homes, furniture, clothing, articulation or anything else. In the West, advertisers are beginning to feature people who are not all young and svelte, but more like 'us'. Indian advertisers must rethink the models they feature in their advertising if they are to target lower levels of the 'consumption pyramid'.

This is important because the Indian consumer today is savvier. In the early Nineties, NCAER surveys found the consumer believing in advertising claims and buying products as a result. He was thus also very brand conscious, in rural as in urban India. But over the decade of an open economy, the consumer seems to have crossed the threshold and now understands that almost all products perform their functions equally. The consumer now looks at the price and buys the product that offers its functions at a lower price.

The task of advertising to persuade the consumer has become more difficult, because of the 'noise' of so much other advertising, its high costs that make failure very expensive, and because the consumer is less easy to persuade to pay extra for a 'premium' product. That might explain the decline in recent years of Hindustan Lever in the foods business including famous brands like Lipton, Brooke Bond, Bru, Kissan, Kwality and Modern Bread, as also some high margin personal care products.

Naomi Klein in her book, No Logo, looked at the globalization of brands and advertising and the subordination of the brand to the product. She criticized the globalization of production as American marketers moved production to low cost countries using sweated labour.

But India is showing that Indian products can stand up against foreign ones. Nirma, Dabur, Himalaya, Balsara, Anchor, Videocon, Voltas air conditioners and others, have done so. Advertising is essential but the medium has changed. So must the models that give the message. Even more important is the identification of targets and message that must be clear and unambiguous.

Email This Page