In the last couple of years, a spate of television commercials has prodded urban Indians to reconsider accepted notions about themselves. An advertisement that depicts an ostensibly modern marriage — with the wife as the husband’s boss at work — is only the most recent one to have created a hullabaloo. Themes of remarriage, sexuality, public activism, gender equality, communal harmony and modern identity have been all the rage in Indian advertising of late. Why are advertisers falling over each other to challenge the status quo on socio-cultural matters that, at best, have tenuous links with their products and services?
In his delightfully subversive book Must-Have, Geoffrey Miller articulates the postmodern insight: “At its heart consumerist capitalism is not materialistic but semiotic. It concerns mainly the psychological world of signs, symbols, images, and brands, not the physical world of tangible commodities.” Products today often matter less than the narratives that surround them. Advertisers are deliberately provoking audiences with cutting-edge renditions of cultural change that speak to a young society’s incipient desires. Increasingly, this is the new normal for advertising content in a world where technology is changing the rules of engagement between manufacturers and consumers.
The world of advertising, as depicted on shows like Mad Men, where manufacturers run tightly controlled, one-way, mass-media campaigns to disseminate messages about product attributes to captive audiences trapped in an information-poor environment, is a relic of the last century. Over the last decade, the internet and information technology have rapidly transformed the way in which manufacturers engage with consumers.
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Today, more than ever before, marketing is a two-way dialogue where, increasingly, consumers are co-owners in determining the narratives surrounding a brand. As trends such as media fragmentation, device proliferation, digitised content, social media, low-cost imitation products, and e-commerce continue to snowball, it gets easier and easier for consumers to ignore advertising and bypass brand messages.
Control over the narrative is increasingly being ceded by manufacturers to predominantly young, social media savvy, smartphone toting audiences. Superior product benefits and design are, in most cases, no longer differentiators. They are a minimum entry requirement. Brands are therefore constantly in search of new ways to stay relevant in the lives of consumers.
Tom Fishburne, an American marketer-turned-cartoonist, taps into his years of experience inside multinational behemoths to lampoon industry shenanigans and provide valuable insight into the evolving manufacturer-consumer dynamic. He describes successful modern-day marketing as the creation of “stories that are inherently worth sharing”.
By aligning themselves along cultural faultlines and pre-empting emergent value systems, brands today are attempting to serve as chroniclers of our times with stories worth sharing. In a demographically young India that is seeing growing individualism and aspiration in the context of a historically collectivist, conformist culture, publicly visible disruptions of received wisdom and forward-leaning stands on socio-cultural matters tend to have a disproportionate impact.
Successful political campaigns in the internet era have embraced the idea of two-way narratives. Winning candidates, from Barack Obama to Narendra Modi, understand that most events, in and of themselves, are less consequential than the opinions that chase them. By reinforcing their heroic narratives in bite-sized, hash-tagged servings, mining social media and managing their online avatars, politicians have found traction with younger voters.
Global brands look for cultural and life-stage inflections that translate easily across borders. A video called “Like a Girl”, produced by one of the world’s leading feminine care brands, recently went viral. It illustrates, in a hard-hitting, understated manner, how girls lose confidence during puberty by asking them to perform basic athletic actions. The stark contrast in the reactions of post-pubescent girls, who have been socialised to embody ditsy stereotypes of what it means to run or throw “like a girl”, versus those of pre-pubescent girls, who have no such baggage (and therefore run and throw in a fierce, focused, gender-neutral manner) is a wake-up call. By referring not to a product function but to an insidious form of gender stereotyping, the brand appropriated a resonant tension, without sounding corny or insincere.
We live in an excessively self-conscious era, where the world’s most celebrated companies create value by allowing consumers to control the signals they receive about themselves, in other words, to posture online. The ability to curate and broadcast fleeting stories — our own and borrowed — that serve as proxies for our lives and beliefs is the latest form of social currency in a world where semiotics matter as much as consumption. Expect more advertisements to explore socio-cultural faultlines in search of stories worth sharing.
The writer is a consumer researcher and part of the Junoon Theatre team