• News
  • Columns
  • Interviews
  • BW Communities
  • Events
  • BW TV
  • Subscribe to Print
  • Editorial Calendar 19-20
BW Businessworld

There Is A Gora In My Ad

Be Yourself. Everyone else is taken — Oscar Wilde A look at Indians' affinity for foreign brands and gloabal branding.

Photo Credit :

Kerson Naik breezed into Zara Abbas’s office to show her some pictures of shelf designs which he had shot during his vacation in Dubai. Zara, an advertising designer, consulted for Trolley & Cart, the newest successful chain of retail supermarkets. She was reclining in her chair and watching a video of an ad, when Kerson joined her.

Kerson watched intently, not sure what the ad was for. There was a young man, chic and elegant and, sadly, did all the right things. He covered a beggar with his expensive shawl and walked away with a spring in his gait, then read to his lady love standing in a crowded metro, and played karaoke with his mother… he was the world’s perfect man.

Kerson: Doesn’t look Indian… Is he a foreigner? Why, lekin? Looks like an Indian product... who is this guy? Is this Turkey? Lebanon? ...what is going on here?
Zara: You tell me what thoughts come to mind. I want to hear all your impressions.

Kerson (now donning his ‘expert opinion’ hat): Too much premiumness, the build-up is definitely pointing at a deliberate non-Indianness — in looks, in attitudes, in mindsets too. That ‘draping a street dweller with my pashmina’, that skateboarding, those cobbled stone paths…. Not Indian. He does not look like a conventional Indian. That jaw line, the cheek bones.... His entire demeanour is international in quality and appeal. His habits and behaviours are all non-Indian, ...Spanish? See, his mother is in a dress…

Zara: We don’t know she is his mother. She could be his childhood nanny.

Kerson: What is the product? Why is he on a sailing boat?

Trolley & Cart was a brand of brick and mortar supermarket fast gaining favour in Delhi and Chandigarh. This Diwali, plans were afoot to launch a few outlets in Mumbai too. Zara was under pressure from the owner of Trolley to use foreigners in their point of sale material and in the advertising. She did not like the idea, but had decided to test out responses from her colleagues and family members — two sets of respondents that came free, for Trolley’s owner and chairman Gambhir Gupta, better referred to by employees as ‘GG’ did not wish to spend on research. For GG was of the view that retail was yet in a nascent stage in India and research will reveal nothing dependable. Zara knew how to get around all this.

Kerson, on the other hand, was a nuts-and-bolts sales person. He managed the aisles, the shelves, the vendors, the inventory… even though he was called Head of Sales. He headed almost everything because he felt all these were interconnected. To be distanced from inventory worried him because sales depended on stock levels and he never could trust the chap who managed inventory — a family member with an MBA which did not help Kerson’s cause.

Kerson now watched the ad play out again and asked her, “Why are you replaying? Abhi tak product ka pata nahi chala…! O-re baba! Don’t tell me you are going to use foreigners in our advertising? Nothing will be more absurd.”

Zara: I may or may not, but why should that be absurd, don’t you have a number of Japanese, American, British nationals shopping at Trolley?
Kerson: How many? How many? Out of the daily footfall, how many are foreign nationals? Now you are being absurd …

The use of foreigners in advertising and POP was now increasing. Zara pulled out a POP that was expected to go up on the outer walls of the Trolley stores that showed a cheerful foreigner mother with an overflowing trolley and two extremely well-mannered children, looking very happy. Kerson looked at Zara and said, “Are you mad?”

Zara laughed. “The boss has asked for this,” she said.

Kerson: Shutterstock or you shot this?

Zara: Nooo, we shot it. Don’t you see our MG Road outlet? I agree, this is a bit over the top and I don’t know what message he is seeking to send out. I am waiting for the CEO to return. But we have all seen this at one time or another, seeing a foreigner where you expect it the least … an ad selling sanitaryware , or cars at an auto show, or furnishings. I was Googling and even came across an old TV ad with an Indian movie star walking on a beach, and all too soon a white woman sashays in, in a black bikini, followed by a whole gaggle of foreign models chasing the movie star. I couldn’t tell what the ad was for till I saw the tag line. Maybe it was the beginning of the ‘foreign skin’ in Indian ads!

Kerson: And why can that not be done with Indian models? Like right now our POP too, what is he wanting to say using white models? Ha ha ...why do you say ‘foreign skin’? We are talking about ‘white skin’, so why this coy act?

Zara: Seems politically incorrect to use racial terms, na...

Kerson: This is the difficulty. We hide behind a fig leaf always and thus the dirt remains under the carpet.

Zara: I am sure it feels as offensive to be called white skin as it does to be called brown. And you can’t use two metaphors in one sentence.

Our intention is not to be hurtful, but to remove the surreptitious pain in there that is being caused to an entire civilisation by saying through action that your colour of skin cannot sell my fantastic product. I don’t see any other retail chain make such pitch. Where did this ‘gora-gori in ads’ come from?

Zara: It’s always been there, Kerson, this preference for the fairer. Don’t tell me you did not notice it. I don’t know whether to blame our deep-rooted cultural preferences for fair skin, or its derivative — our inherent perception that a white model in the ad drives aspiration better than a brown skinned one. Yes, advertisers are known to ask for ‘gori’ models who are Indian-looking, which means dark eyed and dark haired.

Kerson: How does a foreign looking model add to relatability?

Zara: I don’t know but some surface level researching does point to the male. I do think once again it is the male gaze that decides what is preferred. A woman marketing head is less likely to think that a white skin is needed to make her brand attractive. But I really cannot think of any other reason.

Kerson: I may not agree entirely. The preference for white is also resident in the female mind, not as a preference but as say a conditioning that white is better. In fact, I would say that the driving force for white, socially, is the woman who tells her son to get a fair bride. My granny would say solathe urlagaddeska gori — meaning fair as a peeled potato!

Zara: Yes, this was one of the questions I asked people when I researched the fair-skin fixation. Forget all else, the one that startled was Tamizh, where almost everyone said the equivalent of fair was ‘beautiful’. That means the word used to describe a fair person is almost always approximated to ‘beautiful’. In other words, to be beautiful is to be fair. There is no specific word but the intention is just this! Which means, this goes far back in time.

Our colour fixation runs deep and we introduce a child to it right in the cradle, nay, in the womb. Expecting mothers are told to eat almonds and saffron to produce fair babies! Mothers labour on daughters through their childhood scrubbing them with all kinds of fairness potions.

Kerson: Exactly my point, the view for fairness is implanted into the girls as well, as a way of life. So she would like to be seen as fair and beautiful, if you can see the difference.

Zara: Yet model Lakshmi Menon gets sidetracked for her skin colour but stirs up a storm in New York. Ditto for Ujjwala Raut, Meghna Reddy, Madhu Sapre…
Kerson: But now a serious question: How do we know the West’s desire for dark is not a close cousin of our desire for fair?

Zara: Then we digress. I do not want to debate why fair, because that is a different dead horse. But my wonder surrounds a new observation, that is, the desire is for not merely fair skin, but it surpasses all that and wants the gora himself and herself. Indian ads, as I see, in any case, choose only the fairest and loveliest of maidens. These days even mothers and grannies have begun to look awesome. But now they don’t want even her. It’s about the white man, the Westerner, the English speaker maybe. We have so many light-eyed and fair skinned, but this Westerner thing beats me…

Kerson: So, then it is not really to do with the penchant for colour of skin..

Zara: That is my feeling. I know it has to do with some other covert inner desire. The trend is aggressively seeking ‘white’ than fair. Take the recently relaunched Liril ad of 2015. Karen Lunel yanked the soap to the heavens in the mid-1980s. Liril gained visibility thanks to Karen, an Indian. Following her were Anjali Jather — lemon green bikini — laaa-lalalala-laaa and same Liril. Then came Pooja Batra in shorts and blouse straight from her car into the waterfall with Liril Active. In 1994, they brought in Ruchi Malhotra, bikini, green, waterfall but the lalalala began differently. In 1997, they tried music as a motivator with Preity Zinta and in 1998 Anisha with sports. The very next year Liril went blue — Rainfresh — and interestingly a man was introduced into the ad. He was merely a prop. So, I wonder why Liril freshness is not for men.

Now, in the 2015 relaunch, we have the same green bikini, same waterfall, same soap, the same lalalala, but a Brazilian lady model, wonderfully named Annabelle. White skinned, looking like Indian, but not Indian even if she sports payals! My point is why Brazilian? If you want the model to look like an Indian, then why didn’t you take an Indian? What was missing in the Liril girls until now that is no more good today for Liril to express its goodness?

just then, Estelle D’Souza, the assistant marketing manager, walked in and joined in the discussion.

Zara (continuing with a ‘Hi’ to Estelle): Take the recent ad for Parle Biscuits. They now have a poster that says ‘Foreigners eat Parle-G’. Parle-G is an amazing biscuit and it is my comfort food; but why does Parle need that foreigner to endorse its goodness? I have loved Parle-G (like Thums Up) for its home-grown originality, goodness that fossilises years and years of memories. Parle even had a lady interview a dozen foreigners to ask them what they thought ‘Parle-G’ was. Today, that essential Indian biscuit, Parle-G, is seeking foreigner approval? Why, pray why?

Estelle: It is to get there before the others do, or to get there where the better brands are. Take Ballantine’s covert ad for its liquor couched in some philosophy pish-posh. The model is ‘Suits’ star, Gabriel Macht. The intention: expanding its base in Indian market. Do Indian whiskey drinkers seek foreigner approval? These are real questions demanding real answers. The killer is Macht’s words, “I truly relate to the brand’s attribute of staying true to one’s character and maintaining one’s integrity.” Really? What has that got to do with anything? Is this marketing Macht or the Malt? Then they say, “The ‘Stay True, Leave an Impression’ campaign serves as an invitation to the Indian consumers to express themselves in a genuine and authentic way.”

Without a doubt a hasty assemblage of the wrong words in a rush to launch fast. Even then, why American Macht?

Is it that Indians are not discerning drinkers or that Indian drinkers need a phoren endorsement? Glad this came up Zara. I have had a difficult time telling GG that we don’t need a gora to market Trolley.

Kerson: I agree. When we open up these ads and question the intention, we find the questions gaining girth but no answers! The same holds true for ads that use foreigners to look like Indians. This is where I have difficulty, Zara. Is it difficult finding good looking Indian models? Take the Dew Body Lotion ad. Both models look non-Indian. The lady I am told is half German. And this is what bothers me. There is a concerted effort to use models who are not the average Indian, in appeal. Equally, the imagery that is definitely not India.

You can tell when they want an upper-upper look even for something as simple as a body moisturiser. Unless you are saying the creative guys are itching to change the look of India and Indians.

Zara: I recall when we were getting an ad together for an anti-ageing cream; the team head was singlepointedly looking for a Spanish looking male model. And I was wondering why. The product is Indian, being sold in India, the client was not exporting,…above all it was targeted at the woman, at least ostensibly. But they wanted to create an international appeal. And they did get a half-Spaniard. Even the lady model was chosen out from a long list, as they wanted one that had dark hair of course, with a glossy shade of skin fairness, cheekbones and all that were confusing of origins. Yet, to deliver seeming Indian-ness they wrapped her in sari and mangalsutra.

And this is not something very new. Way back, and I mean at least five years ago, I even had goras in some of my brand ads at Teffer India; but while that had more to do with the lack of monies to build local brand communication — so we were asked to use international model-based creatives — I do not recall anyone questioning whether the foreigners in the ads would be misplaced in the Indian context. If anything, they said foreigners would boost the brand!

Kerson: So, you see, there is a penchant for a foreigner-looking model. Why is that? What would an Indian model bring less to the brand communication? In this mass delusion of the Indian consumer, who is it really that wants the gora in the ads? GG the owner? Zara for giving in? Or the Indian consumer, who will buy more after that POP?

To be continued...

[email protected]

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 30-11-2015)