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)