On the surface, it looks like a very routine ad. There’s a group of very young children playing outdoors. One of them feels hungry, runs to her mother, and says, “Mummy, I am hungry.” The mother holds up two fingers and says, “Two minutes,” and goes ahead and makes the whole group some delicious food. The excited kids eat their fill, even stealing from each other, slurping down the last bit. It all happens in slightly over half a minute.
As we said, sounds routine, right? Well, it is an ad that added a whole new element to many Indian kitchens, one which persists to this day. An element so essential that when it was taken away for a while, all kinds of foodie hell broke loose.
We are talking of the legendary “Mummy, I am hungry” ad of Maggi Noodles of the mid-eighties.
Bringing instant noodles to a home foods generation
To figure out why this relatively straightforward advertisement made such a deep impact on our lives, let us just take a step back into the mid-eighties. This was a time when India had perhaps sensed the first hints of liberalisation under then-Finance Minister V P Singh’s first budget. But the country was still very largely “traditional” in its thinking. Mothers were supposed to be homemakers and responsible for the well-being and eating habits of their children. The mother, actually, was a very powerful symbol in Indian culture (remember Shashi Kapoor saying “mere paas ma hai” in Deewar?) – the centre of the household.
Eating at home was then a very strong part of Indian culture. It might not have the greatest presentation and sometimes even taste, but “Ghar ka Khana” (food made at home) was supposed to be infinitely superior to anything that was cooked outside. The same food cooked at home was considered better and more healthy than when served in a restaurant. Junk food had not really started making inroads in Indian food habits – the most unhealthy thing a child could eat was perhaps some salty mixture or groundnuts or maybe even some chips. Burgers and pizza were still something that one saw in Archie comics. Even home delivery of food was rare. And noodles were supposed to be foreign and exotic – something you found in the odd Chinese restaurant.
It was, in short, a time when foodgrains cooked at home ruled the roost in India. Imagine trying to convince people to eat instant noodles at a time like this?
Maggi goes to mummy
Maggi had been around for a while in India but the brand had not really taken off. The noodles had been marketed as a quick and tasty snack initially, with ads showing their preparation in detail. The “fast to cook, good to eat” was already in place, and the imagery of a mother serving noodles to kids was there too, but Maggi was largely seen as a snack.
Many feel that the “Mummy, I am hungry” ad changed all that.
And that was because the focus shifted to the mother. Unlike in previous ads, where the mother was just shown serving food, here the child actually asks for food, “Mummy, I am hungry.” And the mothers, a typical Indian housewife with a bindi and wearing a saree, then goes to the kitchen, and cooks food, adding vegetables to it, even as excited children watch. They then eat the food happily.
The ad just put Maggi in the kitchen. As we said earlier, Indian households were very foodgrain driven – you had ingredients at home and you cooked food with them. In a way, Maggi fit right in – it was at home and you cooked it. And of course, the addition of vegetables to boiling water added that element of “cooking”. This was something that was made at home. What’s more, it was made by mummy, who would not serve her children just anything. She would serve something that was delicious and nutritious.
The catchy jingle helped, as did the super cute and happy kids, and the noodle-slurping sound at the end would become iconic. But there was minimal background narration and no celebrity element at all (a rarity in those days). In essence, the ad took a very basic scene out of Indian family life, so relatable that anyone could think that this was their own family. Yes, it was a slightly posh household, with a pedigree dog and plenty of space and its own garden, but even that helped – surely people in such a social strata would not eat anything that was less than good, adding a high-quality aspect to the food equation.
It was simple, but the ad had so many nuanced messages right under that surface. No one found it spectacularly entertaining, but it got the message across – moms trust Maggi for their kids. So it had to be good! What’s more, the word “snack” was removed from the ad. Maggi was a part of your kitchen. It was proper food. Mama knows best, right?
Making an ‘Instant’ impact…even after 30 years
More than three decades after it was first aired, “Mummy, I am hungry” still strikes the right chords with its audience. Although a lot has changed, the very concept that a mother would feed her kids something unhealthy remains sacrilegious, notwithstanding numerous controversies about how healthy the noodles actually are (they even got banned in the middle). And while gender barriers are slowly coming down, a mother is still thought of as the caretaker, the food provider, the person who keeps kids healthy and interested in food. It is not surprising that Maggi has used the same mother and kids bond for ages, with each making Maggi for the other at different times. The brand has built the relationship pretty thoroughly and while fathers have made odd appearances, the focus has been the mom and her kids.
The target audience has moved up from kids and young mother to young adults and a slightly older (maybe even working) mother, but the core messaging remains the same: fast to cook, good to eat. And mom trusts it.
And it has worked. People have been eating Maggi for quite a while – some have been eating it all their lives (one of the authors certainly has). From being something exotic and external, it is an integral part of many Indian kitchens and is indeed, something that you are surrounded by. Yes, even though some would call it fast or junk food, it is something that you are often introduced to by your own family. They might frown at your eating outside, but Maggi has something homely about it, perhaps because you make it at home – yes, it comes in a packet, but you add your own water, and your own vegetables and so on, making it almost a staple diet! So much so that almost every household has its own typical Maggi recipe.
Improve the production values, and the ad will still make sense if shown today. Some might think of maybe adding a working mother to the mix, and make the kids a little older, but it still works.
Small wonder it put Maggi in so many kitchens all over India. For many, it is “ghar ka khana.” Hey, mom said – or at least thoroughly implied – so!
Ad-vantages: Key Takeaways
Keep it short and simple – 30 seconds was enough
Leverage cultural values – just because your product is very different, you do not have to always rebel, fitting into a system works just as well
Leverage stereotypes – you may hate them, but folks believe in them, so whenever possible, leverage them. Try to do no evil, though.
Messaging can be subtle – the ad might have been a simple one, but its implied messages were what mattered. The mother did not scream “I give my kids Maggi, only Maggi” but the noodles’ presence in the kitchen and showing the cooking process did the trick.
Agency: Hindustan Thompson Associates (now JWT)
Next Week: How Charlie Chaplin made Cherry Blossom Shine!
(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.)