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Case Analysis: Without Bias

Foreign models used carefully could be meaningful and add value to the brand. But blind usage could end in alienating consumers, writes Madhukar Sabnavis

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By Madhukar Sabnavis

Advertising is not brain surgery; yet the way consumers consume and decode ads is more complicated than we think. Hence all the points raised by the Trolley & Cart team are relevant and worth thinking about.

Fairness and foreign models in advertisements are two different things, though there is an overlap between them. Let’s deal with them separately.

First, fairness. As Zara says, the obsession with fairness is culturally ingrained in Indian society. It is a ‘sad’ truth, fair is equal to beautiful. It perhaps comes with our genes. Just like physical features, this emotional thinking also comes resident in our brains when we are born. And it then gets reinforced through nurture. If we trace its origins, it can be found in our cultural mythology; in the stories we have read or heard from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The good are fair and the bad are dark. Shakuntala is always fair while Surpanakha is dark and this visual imagery gets imprinted on the young mind as she hears the stories from her grandparents or reads about it in comic books. It gets reinforced by visual imagery in popular culture — both written and audio visual. Films and serials use ‘fair skin’ role models as leads and ‘dark’ heroines are referred to as ‘dusky’ beauties. This pre-disposition is more for the ‘fairer’ sex (pun intended; I am an Indian), though subliminally it’s true for males too. Rama, Krishna and Arjuna were supposed to be dark — but have always been shown as ‘blue’.

Now, to the issue of using foreign models in ads and how they work. It is more complicated than just an obsession for fairness. To understand its use, one needs to appreciate how consumers decode ads. At one level, consumers connect with the messaging, story and emotions. At another level, they build associations through visual imagery. The brain, according to Gerald Zaltman, stores much of its memory in pictures. The story and images work together to create relatability or aspiration but could also create alienation. This combination needs to be understood to determine effectiveness of a piece of communication.

In story-based ads, where the attempt is being made to create product relevance in consumers’ lives, foreign models could alienate. ‘This is not my life’ could be the consumer response created. On the other hand, in categories where brands are trying to build associations with beautiful people, foreign ‘fair’ models could help to create a world that people want to aspire for and thus add value. ‘This is what I would like to be’ is the response such communication is aiming for. Interestingly, there are no dark or brown mannequins in any fashion retail store!

Placing brands in foreign contexts has to be done carefully. If an Indian brand wants to say it is accepted globally, just showing it consumed by foreigners doesn’t get the consumer to make real connections. In today’s world of surround media and knowledge dissemination, it will look and come out as ‘phony’ and consumers will see through it. Similarly, I am not too sure how much ‘extra’ a brand benefits from showing an Indian with a foreign accent testifying to the effectiveness of a toothpaste. If it’s done to get creative cut through — it’s a gimmick and could get irritating to many normal viewers. However, if it is a global brand, consumed in the West, and you want to strengthen aspirational value (as perhaps Ballantine’s intends to do), stories placed in foreign worlds could work. For the average Indian consumer, as Kerson and Sanat say, West is seen as more advanced, sophisticated and a desirable lifestyle. This is true for both types of moneyed Indians. The Coconuts — who are brown outside but white inside due to western education (the protagonists in the case seem to be that) often live that lifestyle. And the ‘cappuccinos’ — the moneyed business class who have a skimming of white on top but are all brown inside — want Western trappings to announce their arrival in society. And such ads play to this desire.

Hence, at a macro level, one has to agree with Kerson when he says foreign models often mean ‘fair’ models. However, it is less about ‘fair skin’ and more about the ‘Western lifestyle’ they represent. Unfortunately, the popular discourse around the Middle and Eastern worlds (the dark and brown skins) don’t have such associations except for Japan. So, over the last two decades, brands have used Japanese and Korean models as brand ambassadors when they wanted to build on consumer’s perception of ‘Japanese means good technology’. The famous Suzuki ‘No Problem Bike’ campaign immediately comes to mind. Interestingly, there are many global brands — Chevrolet, Sony, Samsung, Apple, to name a few — who have used or are using Indian iconography to create greater affinity with the Indian ‘cappuccinos’. There is some ‘reverse’ learning here — creating relatability, for an otherwise aspirational brand, by using Indians.

So, foreign models used carefully could be meaningful and add value to the brand through both messaging and associations. Disregarding their value could limit our ammunition for creativity towards brand building. But blind usage could end in either alienating consumers or sailing like a ship in the dark. Marketers who use global creative with foreign models without questioning their validity are perhaps being ‘penny wise, but pound foolish’. The implications need to be thought through.

There is merit in what GG says: that research cannot give the answers. However, getting some sensitive feedback from real recipients of communication could be a useful input. And then, marketers should overlay personal judgement on what consumers could take out from such advertisement before deciding. Prima facia, for this case one tends to agree with Kerson. Doing it for T&C, at worst, could be a ‘stupid thing to do’.

That is, however, not the case when such a decision needs to be taken for kindergarten and pre-schools like Bubbly Blossoms that Kerson, Estelle and Sanat were discussing. The issue of ethics, as raised by Kerson, is very relevant.

Communication is also about what it doesn’t explicitly state and creators need to be sensitive to this. We need to make both the ‘literal messaging’ and ‘association built through visual imagery’ accountable to an ethical code. It is not that consumers in B- or C-class towns are ‘dumber’ or ‘more literal’ than their metro counterparts. Education is a sensitive category and anxious parents could easily misconstrue the visual associations. For most climbing Indians, the US, UK and Australia are aspirational destinations for higher education. English and the English world is a sign of progress and advancement. Using foreign models in such a category could (and I think would) communicate to people that the education is of international standards and will open up opportunities in the ‘English speaking’ world to children educated in such schools. Subliminally, such advertising is sending a ‘wrong message’ if the school is just a local institution with no global connections. But one must recognise that here too the school marketer is leveraging less of the ‘fairness’ obsession and more of the ‘Western association’ with good education. And trying to make most out of it.

In sum, the Indian fairness obsession is real — however, there are often other reasons for using foreign models. And those are diverse. For most categories, unless there is a specific rational yet credible reason for using ‘foreign people’ there is a danger of alienation. Indians connect better with Indians (dubbed English movies in local languages don’t look real). As a default, one is better off using local talent. In fact, as the Indian market is evolving, marketers are beginning to see value in going regional in communication.

The North and South are distinct subcultures and within South there could be four subcultures. Some national brands already do separate ads for these two regions with relevant talent for deeper mass connect. So, for a retail brand like T&C, there is an opportunity to tailor communication based on local subcultural insights and using subcultural talent to connect deeper with the Indian mass consumer. Retail POP often caters to and is exposed to a specific subculture within a geographic spread. Given that GG is running a modern trade retail chain, foreign models may not harm, but they wouldn’t add any great incremental value. If his team goes ahead with what they have planned, it could be a case of missed opportunity. Something worth thinking about.

The writer is Vice Chairman, Ogilvy & Mather, India. Views expressed are personal

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 14-12-2015)

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