Overview
Necessary Māyā

By: Prathap Suthan             Dated: November 01, 2013

We have reached a certain place from where we can almost sense an inevitable future. Both for consumers and advertisers. Sooner or later, everything is going to change. With technology driving change faster than we like it, all of us will soon be free citizens of a digital ocean. We will all be floating little boats on an ocean that begins nowhere and ends everywhere. But it will be an ocean of delight, joy and excitement…

Will advertising ever be truthful?

With that headline, we are already establishing that we aren’t truthful. Thank goodness for that. Advertising people aren’t certainly catching the direct flight to heaven. Though we will eventually land there, after a small detour into a hot place. Personally, truth and advertising are like gasoline and water. Never the twain shall inflammably meet. But then, we aren’t entirely corrupt or morally bankrupt as some of our other famous and infamous societal leaderships.

However, the first thought that hit me was the recent Coke confession.

I suppose you remember the film that went around the world a while ago. Where Coke went on record to underline just how unhealthy their products were. That’s truthful, bold, mature advertising. I’d even think that was insane. It could have only been done by a brand that has the global heritage, depth, and acceptance as Coke. For everyone else, that would have been suicide. Now no one can haul them with saying that they hid the truth about chemicals, obesity, calories, and everything else that’s wrong with sodas. It was also possibly done because the brand has reached its highest peak, and maybe in many markets, the slide is more than apparent.

The other reason obviously is the growing shift from artificial to natural beverages. And I kind of remember that Coke showed its growing range of natural, juice based beverages in that film. I would like to suspect that this is and was an exception. And I hope this trend doesn’t continue.

Because if you look at it, everything is dangerous in the world.

Drink too much of water, and you will burst. Eat too many fruits and you could suffer some exotic vitamin overdose. Buy too many T-shirts, and you’d have to sell your house. And oh, and buy a book, and there’s a possibility that your unattended baby could nibble it, choke on it, and cop it. Sure, it is a foolish way of looking at it. But if you really were to peel off the glossy layer of varnish from advertising and speak the truth and truth only, we might as well stop this business.

We already have the regular journalism to give us the breathless pros and the sexy cons of products. The naked emancipating truth so to say. So why don’t all of us in agencies, just occupy the chairs in media offices and write the most boring drivel about products and more products.

I mean there won’t be any brands then, would there?

Why give them great sounding names too? Let’s call Amul as makhan, Raymond as kapda, and Jaguar and gaadi or gaddi depending on how north we travel. Minus the good old warmth of advertising, as a spinoff, we will also put photographers, directors, models, editors, etc all out business. If truth is what we seek in advertising, then why shoot in a house that looks like a dream, food that’s drool worthy, models with square jaws and silicone riches?

Let’s take a normal camera, and shoot in an normal house, with paan stains on the stairs, fat obese men and women, expletive drenched mother tongues, and ugly décor. The average Indian middle class home, isn’t exactly an artistic aesthetic benchmark. A tribute to crass mediocrity would be a truthful admission.

Truth isn’t something that people are really aching to see. At least not in advertising.

Whichever way you look at it, advertising amplifies things. And therefore it will always be an exaggeration. In brand terms, it will be always be driven and propelled by an innate truth that springs from within. Or rather, the bandied about benefit can eventually be retrofitted back to the brand. But the rest of the fluff that we create around the communication will always be an illusion. Including the smiles and the pretence...

As a great influencer, and as a channel of credibility, I believe there are two ways to look at the power of advertising. When it comes to building an argument for a product or service or initiative that makes life better, or the context of living better, then I would call advertising as a perfumed take on reality. On the other hand, when it’s used to garner empathy, solidify resolve, or provoke a certain action against injustice, crime, ill health, or medical and social maladies, then advertising becomes an excruciating exposure of painful reality. But whichever way you look at it, advertising amplifies things. And therefore it will always be an exaggeration. In brand terms, it will be always be driven and propelled by an innate truth that springs from within. Or rather, the bandied about benefit can eventually be retrofitted back to the brand. But the rest of the fluff that we create around the communication will always be an illusion. Including the smiles and the pretence.

However, this is necessary māyā.

Advertising by default is a compelling escape that a consumer looks forward to. Much like other fun and entertainment options available across the media platforms that people visit. In fact, after a day out in the reality of India – which is at best a thorn bush of struggle, stench and stink, people sort of look at advertising as release. Good natured, 30-second doses of perfect living, or perfect laughter. The quality of standard issue serials is so appalling at times, that they wait for well made advertising to entertain themselves. Most Indian advertising is better constructed, acted, and put together entertainingly than most of the glycerine led melodrama and sobbing on TV.

Besides, the average viewer isn’t a moron.

They have their own brand of judgment and sense. Don’t you think, by sheer default, across the years of depressing tube shows, they’d have climbed into a higher mental plane? They know that advertising is a world of made up unreality, and they know how to remove the chaff and dig out the product/service benefit aka truth. The fact is that they willfully allow for the magnificence of exaggeration and imagination. They like their advertising tickles and the jingles.

Besides, their exposure to everything else around them - social media, pictures, shows, movies etc. have all pushed up their acceptance of levels.

I’d think that advertising is a necessary safety valve.

It keeps people sane, sensible, and replenishes a collective sense of humour. Advertising being a positive mocker of society and stereotypes. It also helps people window shop. Because advertising is fantasy. It’s a free trip into all sorts of places, to see and to do all sorts of things. It’s a vicarious ride into life. To try out all kinds of things. It satisfies wanderlust, and a certain window-shopping lust. People wait to surf those imaginary waves of glam, gloss, and glory. Life otherwise doesn’t come with stories.

For almost 99.99% of the world, the only escape into perfection and the riches of the mind is through the windows of creative ideas that brands bring alive.

I personally think advertising is at take-off point.

With technology poised to catapult advertising into newer and further orbits. Who knows what tomorrow will connive to bring us? Experiences. Perfumes. Tastes. Downloadable organs. Who knows what is impossible? I really cannot put it past brands to try some huge ideas. What stops a gigantic brand from sponsoring the next monsoon? Or the next Republic Day – all the fabrics, all the petrol and diesel, all the washing, or even the drinking water? What about creating a whole new television series, or a full-blown movie complete with every product that P&G makes? Or officially branding the next year? Instead of 2014, why don’t we call the next year as – 20 Levis AD. If Indigo can call IST as their standard time, why not a day, or a century? Or why not rename a country? The PR on that audacity itself would be infinite.

Money does buy legitimate public acceptance. Buying mastheads being passé.

All of which comes to asking – are we ethical?

Is advertising bowdlerising its bulwark of goodness, and conspiring with moneybags to push brands at any cost? Well, this is the classic one. Haven’t we come too far ahead to ask what we should have asked long back? There’s no denying that we have evolved and reached so far with the help of advertising. News, entertainment, sports, lifestyles etc.

Today the media industry is sponsored, grown, and nourished by advertising and the consumers who respond to advertising. Without that revenue, no media platform will survive – including Google, and barring religious radio networks, no one will run media services for charity. From another angle, I would actually think, brands and advertising don’t do the kind of damage and fanaticism that religions do. Because no one physically pushes you to prefer one brand to another. Or no one flogs you to use one kind of toothpaste. It will continue to be an emotional decision, where you make the eventual choice. You will decide whether you want to be moved by one specific brand. It will always be your call.

So finally, where are we headed?

Will everything be advertising? Isn’t everything already advertising? Haven’t we commercialised almost anything that can be commercialised or branded? Including stumps. And pretty thighs of women in Japan? Advertising is already segueing into a larger communication envelope. One that comes alive the moment you switch on your device. Look around. We have reached a certain place from where we can almost sense an inevitable future. Both for consumers and advertisers. The western world is already at that fault line, and India is headed that way. Sooner or later, everything is going to change. With technology driving change faster than we like it, all of us will soon be free citizens of a digital ocean. We will all be floating little boats on an ocean that begins nowhere and ends everywhere. But it will be an ocean of delight, joy and excitement. With the power to switch off right in your hands.

Get ready for a new adventure, Sinbad.

Prathap Suthan is Managing Partner and Chief Creative Officer at Bang in the Middle.

CB

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