Sworn AD-Versaries

Man is under attack from advertisements from all sides. Sometimes it’s a visual attack and sometimes aural. Through the TV or in print. And sometimes a gigantic hoarding stares at you from the bus as you stop at a red light.

Advertisements are becoming more and more aggressive and treading directly into enemy territory. From Look at what we have got, the focus has clearly shifted to Look at what they haven’t. The best example in this is the Pepsi-Coke global war—especially the chimpanzee ad. The ad showed two chimps under observation. One drank Coke. The other Pepsi. The ad begins with the Coke-drinking chimp making great progress in educational blocks and the Pepsi chimp running away. The Pepsi chimp is then shown partying around town with a jeep full of girls. Coke took Pepsi to a South American court and lost the case. But two wrongs made a right in the end when a local soft drink manufacturer made an ad with a Pepsi chimp look-alike showing him throw away Pepsi and taking to the local brand.

When Pepsi endorser Michael Jackson got dehydrated on his Asia tour, hoardings with the caption, Dehydrated? Have a Coke came all over. But this campaign had to be aborted. The opposition did not come from the enemies of unethical advertising, but from Jackson’s fans.

So when Pepsi came to India, no one was surprised that it took Thums Up head on. An ad showed a Pepsi van going along a highway and passing three signs. The first was the Thumbs Up sign. The second was the same sign sideways making it a hitchhiking sign. In the third, it appeared upside down to become a thumbs down. Burger King also unleashed its series of digs against McDonalds. These included punchlines like Have it your own way (an attack on McDonalds mass production methods) and the Whopper beats Big Mac. Polo and Minto, Exide and Standard are some of the companies in India who have taken each other head on. The Telegraph came out with an ad showing the difference between it and the Statesman, calling it the generation gap. The counter ad was captioned (what else?) the degeneration gap.

But negative advertising isn’t more pronounced than it is in America, especially the presidential elections. There a candidate wouldn’t be able to speak much about his strengths, but able to produce a thesis on his opponent’s faults. Clinton won his first term on a blatantly anti-Bush campaign and even made an MTV-type jingle titled Read My Lips. He won his second term not on merit, but due to Dole’s inability. In UK, the Tories began their election campaign by showing a photo of Tony Blair on which were superimposed the eyes of the devil. The greatest opposition came only from the Church.

But this whole process is irreversible. Such a form of advertising has spread far and wide and threatens to spill over into the 21st century with a vengeance.

(This article appeared in the Hindustan Times newspaper in 1998)

Watch your back, now!

The ubiquitous ad hawks may just stick their ware up on anything under the sun—coffee vans, car screens, elephants, shaven heads and what not. There is such a mad scramble for space

Look around you and you will find that ads have become a part of everyone’s life without most even realizing it. They are there painted on buses and walls, on T-shirts and shopping bags, of hoardings of all sizes and in all places, on cloth banners and even on the metallic tree guards and railings that partition city roads.

Not satisfied with the ear-marked ad spaces available in newspapers, magazines and TV slots, companies will sponsor, innovate and create, and ensure that their name comes in the most unlikely of places, no matter how hard the consumer tries to void them.

When videocassettes became popular, companies started inserting their ads between the films. And then people started fast-forwarding those ads. Sometimes the cable operators would do it for them. Round one to the viewers. But then came ads superimposed on the film, which came at the bottom of the screen and couldn’t be done away with. Round two to the advertisers. After that, every round seems to have gone to them.

Even on satellite TV, the sponsors’ decided to add their name to programmes to ensure maximum publicity. So we have Videocon Flashback, Lux Kya Scene Hai, Timex Timepass and a whole lot of others. A far cry from the time when the Doordarshan time was sponsored and we’d get captions like 30 Plus time and Booty Mixie time just below the clock that appeared before the news.

Another field is sports, particularly cricket. Not content with appearing on strips around the field, they have spread everywhere. First the company name came on the bat and then sponsors made it to the T-shirts of cricketers as logos. The tournament titles never went without the sponsor’s name, making household names Benson & Hedges, Texaco, Wills etc. Finally came the spectators and they handed out scores of printed 4s and 6s, which had the company name on top. These are wildly waved at every attractive stroke, ensuring that the viewer sees the company name even when the camera focuses on the spectators.

Pepsi and Wills seem to have a pervading presence in the market paces of India thanks to their unique way of sponsoring sleek lighted plastic name boards for shops which sell their products.

Advertisers have also capitalized on Delhi’s Pragati Maidan for one place that was totally free of ads—the blue sky. And so we have balloons of all shapes and sizes displaying products, which swell in number, especially when some trade fair is organized.

And so the race is on to find newer and fresher pastures. Who knows what the future holds and what way companies will find to get the attention (and sometimes irritation) of then average consumer.

(This article appeared in the Hindustan Times in 1998)