Shining shoes, a task that almost all of us have done at some time or the other, is considered important enough today as well, an essential part of being “spic and span”. However, for a long time, a very essential part of this process – shoe polish – was not really given the same importance as the process itself. That would change with Cherry Blossom’s famous ad campaign featuring a Charlie Chaplin look-alike in the mid-eighties.
Shoes need to be shined…but with what did not matter
For many people in India in the early eighties, shining shoes was more about how vigorously you rubbed the shoe, or even the kind of brush or cloth you used. Yes, the polish was important and an integral part of the process but which shoe polish to use did not really matter. For all means and purposes, it could have been any wax or cream-like substance that could clean your shoes and make them look a lot more shiny. Interestingly, while keeping your shoes pristine was very much a part of looking sharp, shining your own shoes was something that was indeed frowned down upon in many sections as something done mainly by domestic helps or cobblers — it was not something people took pride in doing themselves. Yes, shoe shining was a profession (Raj Kapoor had even made a highly acclaimed film on it, Boot Polish), but it was by no means an honourable one.
There were shoe polish brands in the Indian market, with Kiwi and Cherry Blossom being the most notable. And they came with their own advertisements as well. But these were very functional in nature and focused much more on how easy the product was to use and how good it was for your shoes. There was even celebrity involvement, with tennis players endorsing certain shoe whiteners from these brands. But for the most part, shoe polish was a generic product, and not defined by brands. Most people would go to a store and ask for a shoe polish rather than a Cherry Blossom or Kiwi. And would not notice the difference when handed any of them.
It was into this scenario that Cherry Blossom came out with a totally different sort of ad campaign. It featured a lookalike of Charlie Chaplin.
Cherry Blossom gets a cheery touch of Chaplin
The choice of Chaplin was an interesting one, as Hollywood stars generally did not have a massive following in India in those days (not too many theaters screened English films and they were a rarity on television as well). However, Chaplin was different. He was perhaps the only Hollywood legend who struck a chord with Indian masses, mainly because many of his films had been shown on Doordarshan. Even those who had not seen his films, had heard of him, perhaps because many Indian filmmakers (most notably Raj Kapoor), took inspiration from him in their films. He was in a matter of speaking, a cultural icon rather than a superstar.
And Cherry Blossom capitalised on his appeal in its ad campaign. The series of ads featured a Charlie Chaplin doppelgänger, who would be known as Cherry Chaplin, and were shot in exactly the manner of Chaplin’s films. They were mainly in black and white (at a time when colour television was available in India) and had the same jerky camera and speeded up action effects that many of his films did, as well as the slightly jolly, comical music. The ads even featured the trademark narration boards that were an integral part of not just his films, but of the silent film era. Also present were lookalikes of some famous characters from the Chaplin world, the inevitably bearded slightly bullying fat friend, a lady love, and the wide-eyed kid who Chaplin (always the kind tramp) had taken under his wing.
Of course, the ads also used Chaplin’s humorous approach. And of course (again), they also featured Cherry Blossom shoe polish. In one of the ads, for instance, Chaplin is shown stealing his roommates’ shoes and then elaborately shining them with Cherry Blossom.
interestingly, he keeps a picture of his beloved on the inside of the tin of shoe polish and smiles at it during and at the end of the ad, just showing how dear the shoe polish was to him. In another, he stops “the kid” from going out without shining his shoes, and then cleans them for him. The ads ended with the line “The Perfect Gentleman always carries a Cherry smile,” and showed the tin of shoe polish in colour.
A “Cher(ry)ished” brand ambassador
How successful the Cherry Chaplin ads were can be gauged from the fact that they went on for quite a while, a rarity in an industry where change is almost constant. Chaplin’s doppelgänger remains one of the most iconic brand ambassadors in Indian advertising, and has often been brought back by the brand to make an impact when the going has seemed tough.
Why did the campaign strike such a deep chord? Well, mainly because in a day and age in which ads were more about information and hard sell, Cherry Blossom took the path of story-telling and entertainment. The ads, notably, at no stage talked about what made the shoe polish special or its ingredients. They really were about Cherry Chaplin and how Cherry Blossom fit into a part of his everyday life.
It showed the humble shoe polish as…a very humble shoe polish. There were no airs to it – the campaign did not attach wings to it and make it fly or make women fall in love with the person who was wearing super shiny shoes polished by Cherry Blossom. It showed the existence of shoe polish just as it is in our lives. You wake up, get dressed, shine your shoes and then get on with life.
Chaplin made the perfect brand ambassador. The man was a Hollywood legend and very popular, but he did not have a “superstar” vibe to him. He was almost always the “tramp with a heart of gold” with normalcy being the most heroic thing about him. Just like the product his lookalike was trying to sell. That said, he was very much a massive cultural icon. And his association with shoe polish gave the much stigmatised act of shoe shining seem a perfectly normal thing to do, and not something one left to one’s servants, or to a poor shoeshiner on the pavement. Hey, if Chaplin could shine his own shoes, so could you!
The ad campaign was very different from anything else on television at that time. It was rather muted in terms of style (literally) and not laden with visual stunts and adjectives like most ads in those times. And they were incredibly easy and simple to understand, cutting cross cultural and language barriers. Also, at a time when colour televisions were becoming a craze in India (they had been launched in 1982 to coincide with the Asian Games in Delhi), it was very brave of the brand and its agency to go with an ad that was almost totally in black and white. Not only that, the ad did not have any spoken words, which was again a rarity in those days (and still is).
And as a result, it has a sort of timeless quality to it.
Chaplin and Cherry, both still shine!
Most ads from the eighties would need some sort of tweaking to be relevant today. However, the Cherry Chaplin ad was so ahead of not just the competition but its time that you can just pick it up and drop it on any TV channel today and it would still make perfect sense. And deliver the same message. It would not even need a brushing up (pun intended) of production values, because hey, it was designed to look from another era. It was hardly surprising that the brand used the same concept time and again for decades, even though the shoe market itself changed dramatically, with people switching from leather to shoes of different materials.
Interestingly, Cherry Blossom did not try to make itself a super-premium or aspirational brand through the ads, but it made a very strong identity for itself. Yes, it was already present in the market (had been there for years) and it was a big enough name. It did not need to acquire a much greater audience. It needed people to remember it. In an age of hard sell, it tried to tell a story, without even once trying to say how great its product was.
When everyone was very focused on transmitting information, Cherry Blossom was telling a story. You might see better executed stories, but they brought entertainment to a product as “boring” and “routine” as a shoe polish. We mean, there was only so much you could say about a shoe shining product – you could use it to shine shoes, and then what? But the Cherry Chaplin’s campaign’s motive was not just to sell the product, but to entertain and in the process, make shoe shining synonymous with Cherry Blossom. We think they actually achieved it. It is a challenge to make something as routine and humdrum as shoe polish seem important, leave alone entertaining, and Cherry Blossom succeeded in doing both.
And succeeded to the extent that many people who did not know the original Chaplin (as media and channels expanded, his memory has faded), knew Cherry Chaplin, and associated that simple, slapstick, black and white humour with Cherry Blossom, rather than the original.
Now, THAT’s shining!
Ad-vantages: Key Takeaways
There’s no harm in copying a great concept
Some say the ad was not really creative – it used a Chaplin lookalike, and it totally mimicked his film-marking style. Well, it certainly helped build a better connect with the audience.
You don’t need words
There is not one word spoken in the entire ad. And yet the meaning shines through.
People love to see a story
The ad did not exalt Cherry Blossom or keep mentioning it and yet it succeeded because people love to be entertained. And there’s nothing like a good story to do so. The product might have been routine, the story was not!
Use a celebrity in his best-known role
The ad did have a celebrity element, even though it was in the form of a lookalike. But importantly, it used Chaplin in his best-known role, the tramp. It did not try to use him as a Hollywood star, but as the main character he played.
Next week: Hamara Bajaj: how a scooter became a national icon!
Akriti Rana and Nimish Dubey write on technology and communication, and have worked in both fields. They have been associated with a regular section on advertising at TechPP.com.