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Case STudy: Boy! There’s A Priest In My Ad!

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Adrian D'sa looked up as Barrun Sarkar his marketing head rushed in to drop some papers on his table.  But Barrun, who had seemingly been in a hurry, stopped short.  Adrian, the managing director of Speeder India, smiled.

There on the wall was a huge poster of an Antonio Federici ad for their ice cream, which showed a pregnant woman dressed as a nun, eating an ice cream.  Barrun was surprised, taken aback and then very confused. No, not the picture, he had seen it several times before. But it was at least three years old! "What's with that old ad on your wall?" he asked Adrian.

Adrian: You like it?

Barrun: No! I don't! Why are you displaying it? It's... eh… out of place.

Adrian: We will talk about this later. I have a meeting now with the Doordarshan people...

Barrun: Are you crazy? With that on the wall?

Barrun looked around. The other walls had Frequa's new campaign ideas plastered over them! Barrun was alarmed.

Frequa was Speeder's brand that marketed precision sports accessories and sportswear. Among these was a watch that had once been a very strong brand. Since the watch was selling on its own, not much effort was going into positioning it specially or doing anything for it. But recently, Speeder decided it would put the watch back in the limelight.

The brand manager (BM) who handled Frequa was Dushyant Verma. He had discussed broad ideas with Barrun and had developed some campaign ideas to see what imagery would suit Frequa watches. "Our steel and black image is now dead dull and people are now even going off watches; Frequa needs to show that it is ‘With the Times'." But these were not even finalised. So how did Adrian come to lay his hands on them?

The campaign presented a young man in identifiable Indian priestly clothing with hair tuft and religious marks on the forehead, in a pub slurring over a girl as she gazes at his watch. The copy line said, "In your watch... times are changing. Are you watching?"

Now something did not seem right to Barrun. He said, "Adrian, what is the game? These are in development and ideation, why do you have these on the wall?" There were other ads too -– like the old MR Coffee ad. There was one of Tuff shoes with two nude models and a python..... What was Adrian up to?

Presently Adrian's secretary Gopalan came in and cringed seeing the walls. Putting on his practised unfazed look, he said, "The DD people are on their way up, Adrian..." and as he left, he gave Barrun a withering look.

Barrun was taken aback. He shot back a "What have I done?" look and waited till lunch for the DD chaps to leave. Then stepping into Adrian's room gingerly, he asked: "Gosh did they react to the posters?"

Adrian (making a face): All kinds of comments. Remember Antonio Federici's tag line: "Immaculately Conceived… ice cream is our religion." They were  disgusted. Called it gumption. The Frequa poster mercifully did not carry our brand name, but they were potently upset. You could see it.

Barrun (relieved):  The ice cream ad was a shocker. No point upsetting people to increase brand recall — leaves a legacy of negative emotions behind. I recall the public were outraged and the ad was sought to be banned. Religion is something you don't mess with.

Adrian: As a matter of fact the company had said something on the lines that their decision to use religious imagery stemmed from the apparent hypocrisy of religious preachers to social issues. And that just because a small minority felt offended, should not stop them from taking their expression to a larger audience.

Barrun: Well, those ads were banned eventually, which shows that sensitivity does exist! Yet there are Benetton's ads that have also caused many an eyebrow to be raised! Thoroughly controversial, if you ask me.

Adrian: But if you look beyond the controversy, I honestly think they couldn't have chosen a better theme to make their point. Think about hate, and how it manifests in the world today; intolerance and bigotry are at the top of the list. Battles are fought and people are killed over differences in race, religion, sexual orientation. You could say that hate is responsible for all of society's ills. Their broken bangles ad for India and its dowry malaise caused every heart to lurch. Yet I would wonder if the guys who kill their wives for dowry are their
target audience... 

"But why are you eulogising about religion? Isn't your brand manager doing a campaign on Frequa that is going to set our business on fire?

Barrun: Oh! You mean the ad with the believer guy and the gal?

Adrian: Believer guy! That was no ordinary believer guy, that was clearly a Hindu priest.

Barrun: Many of them are forced to follow their father's professions. Adrian, you don't become a priest by wearing your hair in a tuft!

Adrian: That would seriously not be germane to any part of our business, no? So why are we dabbling in social war cries?

Barrun: The gal there is a techno gal, don't you see? The ad shows all professions mingling. It is about the young and their world...

Adrian: This is a distortion and mockery of the beliefs of a set of people.

Barrun: They wear watches, Adrian; they consume advertising.

Adrian: When heads of marketing remain in denial, then we have a serious problem as one chocolate manufacturer had some time ago, with a campaign they put out to launch a new variant. It showed Naomi Campbell and the ad was announcing the launch of some new chocolate, so the copy went, ‘Move over Naomi, there is a new Diva in town...'  Funny thing is, the whole world noticed the play of brown... except the campaign boys. Naomi Campbell herself said,  "I do not see any humour in this, it is insulting of me and the entire black community.

"Likewise, you are feigning it is about young professionals mingling. When what the eye sees is a Hindu priest in a dilemma...

"And funnily like you, like the Gelato ice cream people, the chocolate company too said to protestors, ‘no intention to cause offence – this is a humorous take on  social pretensions of our chocolate....'

"Barrun, they both knew what they were doing and why, and had this response scripted. Can we sell watches in a world where some like it hot, and some like it cold? Can we be sensitive to both kinds of people?"

Barrun:  I agree, but there is a difference.  The chocolate ad is playing on racial undertones – on an entire race in humankind, and not just one odd Hindu priest under the influence as in the Frequa ad.

"In India, don't we deal with paradoxes all the time? Temple priests stealing from the Lord's treasury, celibate swamis and their covert non-celibate life, or political parties quoting from the Gita to suit their gains, or IAS officers  filling their coffers out of state monies, or dalits being given quota but still being treated like one — where does it stop?

"These are our times, Adrian! The world of purity you seek to project is gone. This is not a race-hitting ad; nor is there an intention to poke fun at religiosity."

Barrun was not very convincing, probably because he was trying to speak for Dushyant.  And here he was between an MD who was saying no and a brand manager who, at 30, thought Frequa must speak, it's time! In fact, that became Frequa's tag line on the BM's pin board.

Adrian: I put up these ads to see how people react. Everyone who came in had a disturbing takeaway. I am in no mood to set fire to our business or be the driver of a communal riot on the streets. I am also coming from where they say, if your product is damn good, it will talk damn good and the consumer will hear damn good.

Barrun: Loads of products are damn good, but unless you make the consumer try every single Swiss watch, for instance, how will they ever know whether a Swatch is as good as Longines or not. It's partly about the product and in part about the hype, the brand presence and the WOM (word of mouth) associated with it.

"The problem, Adrian, is with the category, as I see it. To revive it, my brand has to don a desirable personality. It can use the vehicle of an ad to speak its mind. Such an ad need not be about the category or the product; it  can simply express the brand personality. Once the consumer likes this persona, he wants to hang out with the brand. This is Dushyant's reasoning, to be fair, and I second it.

"So today we are talking to a target audience  whose window shows them the whole world. They are reading all kinds of news, from fragmenting Uttar Pradesh to growing poppy in Canada to gay movements the world over. So what do we have here?

"Across the Western world, media has been obsessed with leading stories of church clergy and child abuse, gay celebs coming out of the closet and even rehab gone wrong. People consuming such material day in and day out often seem not to get shocked by shocking ads. 

"The brand itself may well be seen as funny, witty, uber cool, edgy or even borderline silly. Sure, it doesn't bring attention to its quality but maybe to its core values — especially if you are a brand that wants to depict how aware you are in bringing out taboo subjects to the table.

"Have you attended one of these ‘Say No to Drugs' talks in schools? Or their sex education programmes? It is about an open world that talks about things as they are. They talk to you about drugs and sex in a matter of fact way without showing alarm or concern and the target audience is most receptive when you are shockingly cool. Why? I want to know.
"More than that, if we must use shock, marketing firms like us can use this behavioural response to further their brand message."

Barrun's position was either sad or challenging depending on how you saw it. The fire of his younger  BM burnt bright in him too, but it did not spit and crackle like it did at 30. Between 30 and 40, it had been muted by a dull surrender to ‘life'. No, not that Barrun lacked chutzpah — he had a strong maverick streak, except this time he planned to let his BM present his ideas when they were ready.

No doubt he was defending Dushyant's approach, but as he himself reasoned to Adrian, "he represents the young people! He is able to see what the watch needs to have as presence."

Adrian: At the cost of propriety?

Barrun: No! Yet we cannot be inhibited anymore. The ground rules are changing, Adrian!

Adrian: But before that tell me why are we doing all this? What's the proposition?

Barrun: Starting with the brand and leading up, Frequa is damn good but the consumer cannot hear it talk. The problem is the category — it is doing very poorly. I have seen focus groups where respondents have said the following:

  • I wear a watch, while my kids look at their cellphones to tell the time.

  • I wear a watch only when I have to wear a suit. That is what it goes with.

  • I find everything tells me the time — the dashboard, TV, the microwave, cellphone, my iPod, laptop...

  • Only if I am wearing a T-shirt...

  • I barely get my cellphone when it rings, because my bag is a mess! No no, a watch is better for me.

As Adrian smiled, Barrun went on to justify that the brand has to lift up the category as well as present itself as a brave, bold and strong brand that brooks no nonsense, wishes to be with the times, and prefers that governments and elders contextualise their preaching and policies — that is what Frequa was going to do, but he, as head of marketing, was concerned with the category fading.

Barrun: The only option is to position Frequa contextual to time.  Technology, quality, pricing will be our table-stakes; but we will work on emotional parameters like "cool", "hip", "rebellious", etc., and adjust the storyboard accordingly. Frequa wants to be heard, Adrian.

Adrian: And that translates to reckless?

Barrun: On the contrary, to rebellion. Rational rebellion. I do care what the campaign says, but right now, we need to yank up the category with a shock.

At this stage, Adrian called in his brand strategist, Nimki Bharucha. After hearing the argument, she said, "Shock sells products, not brands."

Adrian: Nims, listen, these clichés are awesome, but right now, my point is this: Generally speaking, shock, like any drug, keeps reducing in its effect unless higher doses are provided — a brand's strategy is often unable to provide the same consistently over time. Now, how is an errant priest connected to my product? Barrun is right, the problem is also the damn category. Nobody wants a watch less than a Tag Heuer with a Shah Rukh Khan attached. But we are selling a traditional Frequa. What on earth then, is a priest doing in my ad?

Barrun: Sure it is not necessary to resort to messages that are not connected with the product, but then how does one explain the success of Onida ads decades ago in India with its devil as the platform?  Most virals happen to be very topical and push the envelope and people's sensibilities!

Nimki: Shock and awe tactics are an old hat — leading to increased sales and retention always. Whether it always helps the brand is questionable but if played right, it can. Point is, as society changes, the content they digest does have to keep up too. Edgy is not always bad, unless done without any taste!

Adrian: If shock is what I want to depict, without hurting the feelings of the target audience , then ‘cop buying drugs' is probably better, maybe not so offensive. But where does one draw the line? We are a country divided by communities, sects and deities. Even within Hindus, you have sectarian animosity! So to what sect does that priest belong to? See?

Nimki: Today's young do not worry about all that. Those who subscribe to a religious system are well grounded and ignore social taboos, for their religiosity has risen above social differences. And those who do not subscribe, don't care anyway. 

Adrian: Point is, we have to examine society as it is, not as we like it to be. The society ‘as it is', is the one making choices based on its likes and dislikes. And its likes and dislikes are coming from a society that is seeing a lot more than we like. So as society changes, the content they digest does have to keep up too — edgy is not always bad, but it must be done with taste.

"My question is this: Is ‘shock' an ingredient in the brand's personality? Or is it a vehicle to keep the brand afloat? Or is it an accessory to keep its recall high? I don't understand.

Nimki: I think Barrun wants to use shock to reinvent the brand and through that the category, or the other way. Okay, so let us look at other brands that shock effectively. Take FCUK, for example, where cleverly or cynically, it has reinvented itself due to shock, but it has not lost sight of the truth of good edgy fashion wear. Benetton has used shock but more as a tactic, I feel. Having said that, isn't it a double-edged sword? Shock generates feelings, positive or otherwise, that impact the relationship with the brand. So religious taboos like celibate with child, or priest in a disco or even racial ones like a black woman feeding a white baby are all difficult issues that a brand takes a stand on and if it aligns with the strategy then the pay-off is immense. If not, then you could well desensitise your target audience and not touch upon their core beliefs.

Also, if shock cannot constantly innovate, stay smart, edgy, topical or interesting, then it is a lost game. There are moral standards that keep getting pushed, barriers of grossness that are yet to be broken and the direction we are set in, more is yet to come.

Adrian: Absolutely! Shock must deliver a brand realisation as well. If not, you will fade with the shock. 

Barrun: Please understand, the category will do poorly if limited to the functional scope of timekeeping. Having said that, the luxury market has actually grown over the past decade, thanks to markets such as India, Brazil and China. And all watches that focus on emotional parameters such as sports watches with tennis, cricket and F1 ambassadors, show a rebellious streak, as having a personality. Thus, adding to one's sense of style and presence is very relevant today.

Adrian: All that is now passé and boring too, Barrun, frankly, I don't identify with any of the sports. Is there a new story for me? Till you find that, don't abuse Frequa. I am not buying the shock theory.

Classroom discussion
Can advertising be a social reformer or should it stick to product?

To be continued....


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 02-04-2012)