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.
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 continued…