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The same time last year, cricketers were the toast of the nation. Now, after a series of disastrous overseas tours, they are the nation's favourite whipping boys. Advertising, a business that makes its money by reflecting the mood of the nation through its work, would not be left behind, either in pulling its punches, or in delivering its punch lines. Is the Pepsi soccer ad an expression of angst?
Deepika Warrier, executive director, marketing, PepsiCo Beverages, India, says: "Pepsi has always taken the lead in celebrating emerging youth platforms; from cricket to movies to music. Football is gaining popularity in India and being a true youth soulmate, Pepsi is proud to be associated with the sport."
Senior advertising executives are of the opinion that it's the timing of the advertisement that makes it look like Pepsi at its irreverent best. However, they are all for taking a lighter view of cricket, if the brand personality permits. "Cricket may be religion in this country. But this is one religion you are allowed to make fun of," says Piyush Pandey, executive chairman, Ogilvy, South Asia, who has himself been a former state-level cricketer.
And advertising history has several instances of cricket and cricketers being mocked. In the late-1970s, the Birla Group-owned advertising agency ASP (short for Advertising and Sales Promotion) made a series of print ads for its client EC TV that took a tongue-in-cheek view of the India-England series in those days. When star batsman Gundappa Vishwanath dropped catches at slip or when Graham Gooch scored a triple century, the next day's papers would carry caricatures making light of what transpired on the cricket field.
Even individual cricketers including Sachin Tendulkar were not spared by ad men. Of course, it was the 1990s and Tendulkar was in the early days of his international career then. So there was a commercial for Onida televisions that mocked Tendulkar's voice, and another television commercial for The Times of India mocked the string of endorsements that Tendulkar had signed up for. "Of course, no brand would dare to do that today with Tendulkar, given his cult status," says veteran ad man K.V. Sridhar, head of creative function at Leo Burnett. There have been occasions when brands tried to get cheeky with cricketers in their prime of their careers and got the wrong end of the stick. Ad men point to the cola wars of the 1990s when Coca-Cola used its acquired cola brand ThumsUp to poke fun at Pepsi. The campaign "Don't be a bundar (monkey), taste the thunder," for ThumsUp did not go well with consumers, as it was seen as targeting an ace cricketer who was then endorsing Pepsi.
Given that context how did Virgin Mobile pull it off, when it ran a series of cheeky ads coinciding with the IPL season through a campaign titled ‘Indian Panga League'. These commercials that ran exclusively on the Internet named individual cricketers in some ads and occasionally bordered on the offensive. "Virgin, because of its personality, could have carried it off. For any other mobile services brand, such an ad would have been a disaster," says Sridhar. Another advantage was that because it used the medium of the Internet, the ad was appealing largely to the youth, who would have taken it in their stride. "Then, it was not about patriotism, but the inter-city rivalry of the IPL which came into play in these ads, so it would have been taken in the right spirit," he reasons. Again, Amul butter has poked gentle fun at cricketers time and again and got away with it.
But there have been cases when cricketers were clearly not amused, watching themselves being mocked in advertisements. A couple of years ago, Indian spin bowler Harbhajan Singh reportedly shot off a legal notice to the UB group when one of their ads for McDowells Soda, incidentally starring Indian skipper M.S. Dhoni, mocked Harbhajan's endorsement for a rival brand, Seagram's Royal Stag.
Occasionally, brands have used on-field rivalry to their advantage. During the recent England tour, English cricketer Michael Vaughan tweeted that it could have been Vaseline applied on his bat that saved Indian batsman V.V.S. Laxman from being declared out in the Trent Bridge Test in July 2007. Hindustan Unilever, the marketers of Vaseline, saw this as an opportunity to rally angry Indian fans against Michael Vaughan through a series of campaigns in newspapers asking Indian fans to show their protest to Vaughan through the social media. Vaughan later tweeted that he liked the brand's sense of humour and even asked through Twitter if someone could mail him a copy of the ad.
What does this latest campaign mean for Pepsi? To be sure, Pepsi is clearly nowhere near abandoning cricket. "With an exciting line-up of cricketing events including IPL, ICC World Twenty20 and a host of thrilling football initiatives, Pepsi promises an action-filled, fun year ahead," says Warrier.
For a brand that created memorable campaigns like "Nothing official about it" during the World Cup cricket held in India-Sri Lanka-Pakistan in 1996, or through its ‘Change The Game' campaign showing a unique way of executing Dhoni's helicopter shot or Harbhajan's doosra during the Cricket World Cup of April 2011, the brand's association with football in India could be a game changer. For starters, one can only hope it changes the game for football as well on Indian soil.
(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 16-04-2012)