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I wish CMOs were more involved in the final decision-making on ads: Ambi

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I wish CMOs were more involved in the final decision-making on ads: Ambi

MG ‘Ambi’ Parameswaran talks about his book ‘Nawabs, Nudes, Noodles’, that is being released today in Mumbai. It has dramatically changing storylines and traces the history of Indian advertising over 50 years, and analyses the marketer’s role in the context of advertising through the years

Indian advertising over the last 50 years – it is a huge panorama of ads and anecdotes that you have attempted to chronicle. What are some of your key insights about the advertising industry garnered while writing Nawabs, Nudes, Noodles?

Advertising borrows from popular culture and tries to create new narratives. Those campaigns that stand the test of time are really those that have resonated with the mood of the nation and also tried to push, in a small way may be, for some change. After studying over a few hundred ads, my conclusion is that nowhere in the world would you be able to see such a dramatic change in the advertising storylines. That, in fact, made the writing of this so much fun and so educational. In the book, I have referred to Indian sociologists, media gurus as well as international studies to bring this alive. Hope the readers too find these subtexts of value.

Tell us about some interesting things that happened in the course of your research... some anecdotes from ‘the-making-of-Nawabs, Nudes, Noodles...’

In the process of doing the research for the book, I got to speak with a number of ad veterans and many are quoted in the book. There is one particular story that Ashok Kurien mentioned about the long running Tuff court case that you can find in the book. Unfortunately the nudes appear only in the last chapter, that is a spoiler alert.

You have dedicated the book to clients, whom you call the ‘unsung heroes’ of all great advertising... how has the client’s role evolved over 50 years in the context of advertising?

Decision-making, at least the advertising decision-making, has been delegated to lower levels of organizations. This has its positives and negatives. I wish CMOs were more involved at least in the final call. And I wish agencies were ready to take a stand and ask for a final meeting with the CEO - CMO before agreeing to rework. Check out the story behind how Surf’s Lalitaji was almost given a pass.

You have quoted Harish Bhat of the Tata Group as saying, ‘Just as good writers capture the fringes of society very well and bring them to life, does advertising have the courage to do that? Or will advertising stay in the middle of the road?’... What is your own answer to that?

I totally agree with Harish Bhat on that. Some brands do this well, others try and give up too early. It is not the responsibility of brands to espouse causes but when they can do it well, it pays off handsomely.

Looking back, what would you like to add/delete/alter in the book?

The book was in the making for 40 years though the final research and writing tool 18 months. I am sure if I sit down, I can pen a few more chapters or add a few more stories. But then the book would have become a 'tome' which was not the plan. I wanted the book to demystify advertising for the untrained and to make it a fun journey for those in it. From what I have heard both from the young and old, there seems to be something for all readers. I am relieved.

What next? What will you set your sights on after writing your eighth book?

Nothing, for now. The formal book launch is on June 9 at Godrej India Culture Lab. We will take it from there!

Here is an extract from the book ‘Nawabs, Nudes, Noodles’:

‘You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing’

In the early ’80s, Boots Company was rated as one of the top ten pharmaceutical companies in India. In addition to making several fast-selling pharmaceutical brands such as Digene, Brufen, Cremmafin, Entamizole, the company also had a very successful OTC range consisting of Strepsils throat lozenges and Coldarin cold tablets. It was around 1984, as a Group Product Manager at Boots, when I was tasked to see if the company could revive any of the other brands in its archives.

The attention soon focused on Sweetex, an artificial sweetener brand the company had launched in the ’70s but had withdrawn due to negative press about its key ingredient, saccharine. But this was the ’80s, saccharine no longer had such a bad halo and calorie control was in the news. The company was keen that Sweetex becomes its fourth brand – in addition to Strepsils, Coldarin and Burnol – in the fledgling OTC division. An inter-departmental committee was formed to ensure that the packaging was in attractive plastic, leakage of the liquid pack was near-zero and supplies were certain. It then took up the job of creating demand.

Boots decided to hire the ad agency that was making waves in the mid-1980s, Trikaya, to handle this launch. Television was expected to be the key medium, and so the agency was briefed to create a television advertisement which would position Sweetex as the perfect complement to a healthy, low-calorie diet. The film made by Prahlad Kakkar showed a svelte young girl getting into skin-tight jeans and cavorting as the jingle went: ‘No squeeze, no wheeze, no sugar in my coffee, please. Sweetex, Sweetex, a sweeter life without calories’.

Those were the days of Doordarshan. Before an ad is made at great cost, the agency always gets a ‘storyboard’, which is a pictorial depiction of the ad, approved by the Doordarshan authorities.

The agency had done its job, the film was made and all of us loved the film and its energy. The next step was to get the final film approved by Doordarshan. The agency did not see any problem since the storyboard was already approved.

Then came the bombshell. Doordarshan rejected the film on the grounds of obscenity. We were shocked and angered. The film did not violate any norms laid down by the authorities, unless there were any that we did not know of. So I was told by the company to go to Delhi, to the Doordarshan Head Office at Mandi House, plead the case and not come back without a ‘yes’!

The agency team accompanied me to Doordarshan and we met the person who had rejected the ad. When we started discussing the film, we were told that the film showed the ‘navel’ of the model in a close-up shot right at the beginning of the film. And that was seen as obscene.

The film-maker had shown the model dressed in a halter top and jeans, so her midriff was exposed and when the words ‘No squeeze’ was said in the audio track, the model measures her midriff with a tape. I tried explaining how it was a dress style and we had not tried to show a navel for the sake of cheap titillation.

I then had the temerity to tell the Doordarshan official how I did not consider the display of a navel as ‘obscene’; I even mentioned that the previous day on the popular film-song programme Chayageet on Doordarshan I counted not less than five different navels of film stars on show, with one such midriff serving the purpose of a table in the hands of a handsome hero.

I even tried the argument of how our temples and places of worship show gods and goddesses with their midriffs exposed. Soon I was told to stop and was given a lecture on how all such exposure will be abolished and Doordarshan will not show anything that is even remotely obscene. We were told to change the visual and reapply for permission. Case dismissed!

I came back to Mumbai pretty upset since the film would have to be reshot at considerable expense, but fortunately the film-maker figured out a way of doing a low-cost shoot of only one visual. The film went on air a fortnight later. Unfortunately, the brand did not perform to the expectations of the company, it was a little too ahead of its time, and television advertising stopped after the first year. So I was spared any more encounters with the DD authorities and their obsession against bare navels.

If we were to dial back to the days before commercial advertising on government-owned television, the primary mode of audio-visual advertising was through cinema halls. Brands made shorts of roughly 100 feet length (30.4 metres). These films which ran for one minute, had to be shown to the censor authorities and a censor certificate had to be obtained. Till date, this practice continues, as you would have noticed if you have been in any movie hall.

I believe censor authorities were probably a lot clearer about what they wanted to stop and their process was a lot less arbitrary than the ‘navel-hating’ Doordarshan of that time. The censor authorities had approved a bikini-clad girl cavorting under a waterfall for Liril soap in the mid-’70s and, if we were to believe Alyque Padamsee, the model had ingested good quantities of rum to face the cold waters in winter.

Doordarshan had its own set of rules and these kept changing. It was not just Sweetex that had to tread the treacherous slopes of the Mandi House office. Hindustan Lever, which was launching its fairness cream, was prevented from using the Hindi word for ‘fair’ or gori. They found a way around it by using the word nikhri and over time managed to get it established as an equivalent word for ‘fair’. Though nikhri in Hindi literally means ‘improved’. Even sanitary napkins were not permitted to be advertised on prime time.

Indian advertising legend, the late Bal Mundkur, founder of Ulka Advertising, has an interesting story to narrate about fairness obsession from his early days in advertising in the 1950s: ‘I once said to John Thurman, Country Head BOAC (airline), a client I serviced, “John, why do we not replace European stewardesses with Indian models in saris?” He replied, “Rubbish. Spray them a bit dark and put a tikka on their foreheads”’.

Sometimes the most innocent of lines provoke violent reactions. ‘Does she … or doesn’t she? Hair colour so natural only her hair dresser knows for sure’ was the line written by Shirley Polykoff of Foote Cone & Belding [FCB] in 1955 when the Clairol account moved to FCB. This seemingly non-acceptable phrase turned a non-acceptable commodity into the highly respected industry that hair colouring is today.

But when Life magazine saw the ad, it did not want to run it. Finally research amongst their female staff, as suggested by Shirley Polykoff2, showed that none of them saw any double meaning in it. Many years later, the ad for Calvin Klein jeans featuring the teenage-sensation Brooke Shields with the line, ‘You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing’. Either because of her age or the skin-baring commercials, the ad came under a lot of fire. But the jeans were a huge hit.

(Excerpted with permission from Pan Macmillan India)


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