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Case Study: Kindness Between Breaking News

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Naini Dalal walked in with the tea tray. At 6 am, the television had been allowed expression and her husband Navneet was on the treadmill, watching the World Cup grand finale all over again.  

"You surprise me," she said. "We watched the World Cup finals until there was nothing left to watch last night, called Prateek in Amsterdam and relived Dhoni's culminating sixer; and now again? Let us check out Libya and Japan!"

Navneet: Naini, after how many days we are hearing one good news about India! Finally there is a real reason to be proud to be Indian! It has negated the false image that the political media has been trying to shove in my face.

Naini: False image of what?

Navneet: Of India, of Indians, and sometimes, me, too! Arre, every day you wake up to a Raju or a Raja or an Adarsh or an errant cop or an errant minister. I was fed up, yaar!Presently, the screen broke into an ad he had seen at least a dozen times before. There was an elderly couple astride an old scooter on a joy ride down India Gate in Delhi and they were chiding each other in the happy manner of Punjabis.

Navneet: I like this ad, yaar. How sweet, just see. Nice Punjabi prem...."

Warming up to the ad, he said, "I am grateful for these ads, they make me smile, they make me happy! You feel good about your Indianness! These ad-wallahs know the real India as funny, wholesome and loving. They can ignore the aberrations like scams and whatnot. But the political media is screaming, ‘Do we have a future?' (he said miming a news anchor)."

Navneet was convinced that ads were contributing to the well-being of the average Indian. Next only to cricket, he mused.

When Naini, who was a news editor, entered her office at C4 News that morning, she shared the incident with her colleague Pragati, and said "Why do we have to be the bad news people?"

Pragati: But then what is the nature of our good news? Yes, we have news that is ‘not bad', such as ‘Ranbir Kapoor took an auto rickshaw home....' I have argued with TK that people need good news. News that will perk them up, make them feel happy about India. What makes you happy, Naini?

Naini: Some of the ads today, like the ‘dil hai chhota sa' ad with the little girl and her mum in a bath tub — making history fun by mixing it with a song! Also, the Freshology series, the Reliance mobile ads — they are so amazing. You can just sit there and be with the characters. I love the HCL banker-HCL man ad, too.

Pragati: You feel it defines you?

Naini: See, there is a serious sociological drama at play.  The consumer is torn between a macro picture of India and (hence) Indianness and their own perception of their limited world. The macro picture is a daily soap that gets from bad to worse. The Indian is also harassed by voices from out there that tell him ‘and what have you done about this mess, Gunga Din?' And every time he looks up between bites of idli, he sees another ugly side to India on the news.

From scam to rape to murder to lies to utter idiocy, he sees it all. He wonders if this India is a reflection of himself. Between breaks, he sees Naukri dotcom's Hari Sadu and he feels restored.  Hari Sadu's crimes are even enjoyable.

Pragati: What I am seeing is that ads are sensitive to the human in me. News is not.

India, as reflected by ads, comes in smaller helpings. It does not make a sweeping statement about India as a whole, but about individual segments of people. It seems to have the ability to slice thin and deal with individual stresses and joys in my life, revealing  the national mood through a bouquet of myriad rasas!

With that Pragati flew to Advait Chattopadhyay's room, taking with her the recent ad for their channel, ‘C4 Sensation'. The same poster hung on his wall too — "Know the truth from us!"

Pragati: We must rethink this, Advait. Don't you think you should tell the consumer what he wants to hear?Naini (joining them): The expression our channel lends is the fear and anxiety that our bosses want whipped up. See, once there was news. Now we are perennially in Breaking News mode! I don't think what is going on out there is representative of the entire country. But we are making it seem as if the whole country is corrupt and wanton, as if a great disease has come upon us. Cops are molesting the commoner, doctors are raping patients, governors are stealing from the nation... I mean, really! This does not describe the nation. It describes only the afflicted, and the afflicted are a few. Because they are in the governance, we see it; if not we would not. 

At lunch, the topic came up just as the head of marketing and communications, Govind Rana, joined their table. He heard their argument and said, "Both ads and news talk to the viewers directly, no doubt, but they have a distinct personality. And that cannot be compromised.

"Ads are the opposite of the news in some ways and compete to engage the viewer. News by definition tends to focus on what's wrong with society (not on what is right). People expect that from news. Whereas, ads try and portray the way things ought to be in life and society. So ads are feel-good capsules which try and feed your personal identity in a positive manner!"

Pragati: Then shouldn't news also bring some newness and not just newsiness? News is meant to be a lot of reality and no fantasy, I understand, but our news is far too dramatic and severe.

Govind: Yes, we have had a lot of bad news but we are not producing false news! I know the amount of bad news from Raju to the Adarsh scam to Raja to CWG to Thomas has been a year-long parade of ethical obscenity. But these are what is unfolding in the country.

Naini: Every television has at least 8-10 news channels. Each news channel largely derives its packaging value from its news reader, even though the news is the same. All news channels get advertising, and all advertising is nearly common in spirit across the channels. Only, news gets aggressive and hyper in tandem with the degree of competition it has to parry.

Govind: The process of selecting what constitutes news involves selecting events which are considered to be worthy of being talked about or printed as news, and excluding those which are not.  What makes for news for India TV is different from NDTV 24X7, which is different from that for us. But the tone of presenting while being a stylistic choice, cannot change the content.

Akshay Dhawan (news editor): Naini's point is that all news point to corrupt behaviour. As a result, we are watching more news than we did before. Earlier, we scanned the headlines and moved on to Discovery, NatGeo, Star Plus, or movies. Now, we are getting hooked to news because the drama being created is so intense that we must know what happens next. So we flip from one news channel to another worried we may miss something! Content is one thing Govind, but it is the format also. The so-called investigative approach, arguments, local inputs are noisy, hyper!
Pragati: And as a result we are locked into a long engagement with bad news, which leaves us depressed.

Naini: This morning, between news, an ad came on air. It was just a couple on a scooter and their harmless ribbing and jibing. What they said to each other had nothing to do with the brand, its attributes or its offering.  Once you start watching the ‘story', you do not even focus on the brand anymore... and when the story is over, you take away a smile and a good feeling. It seems ads these days are an act of kindness on the laity! I have seen this ad several times before, and my husband endorses this saying, "These ads make me happy about who I am and what I am!" In fact, he said he preferred it to news!

Govind: I guess he just liked the ad very much and identified with it. See, ads work very hard. Agencies kill themselves to produce communication which your mind will permit perceiving!  

There is a school of advertising called ‘interruption advertising'. It comes from a realisation that people do not watch the television or read the newspaper for ads but for viewing editorial. So, there must be a reward for viewing the ad. The first rule is that above all else be entertaining. You cannot bore your consumer to buy your product. And try and weave in your message and brand in a manner that you can own that. Research guys call it ‘branded memorability'.

Advait: Fair, Govind, but news is competing with movies, serials and ads. Yet, ads are getting more happy eyeballs!

Govind: Because brands have become carriers of religion-like ideologies — ‘Just do it', ‘You are worth it' — and provide new anchors for identity construction or means of  creating purpose and meaning. Like Tata Tea's jaago re, which, through a purposeful exhortation, is also establishing the tea brand with a strong identity.

Advait: No! No! What I mean is, more people are watching more ads, more often!

Govind: Advertising that tries to tell you a story about how the brand built lives, will necessarily have people watching it as closely as they would a story in a news clip about a young bride from Meerut narrating her story of dowry harassment. The story gets more attention when she gives inside details. The same goes for brand stories that hang on problem-solution advertising; such brands can exaggerate the problem or present it subtly, like the cracked feet ad, "chehre se rajraani...", etc.

Pragati: Sorry, Govind, I am not convinced. It is not as if something new is happening. We have had television in India for 30 years now. We have had news and advertising coexisting. But today I find I am happier watching ads than news. That is the point!

Ads make me happy today, and this is unusual. News was always boring but today news has become exciting in form and structure. But, news distresses me. News has reached a point where I am anxious all the time!

Both news and ads portray me. Ads, the Indian me, while news is portraying to me India and through that, me the Indian, in a convoluted way.
Naini: We have become sensitive to news rhetorics like ‘Kya India corrupt hai?' ‘Kya humne sahi leaders ko chuna hai?' Navneet feels the perception of the Indian by ads is based on sensible research (hence, defines the Indian better), whereas the news people base their research on news, and through news they define the Indian.  

Pragati: It's the packaging, or the presentation. Content is one thing but to apply that content to define India or Indians... For example, can you look at Ariel detergent or Parachute hair oil ads and say this is P&G or this is how Marico is?

Govind: Ah... in fact, they should reflect each other. The values of the corporate brand must be seen in the product brand, since they are mother and child. Anyway, so tell me, how is the brand Indian getting defined through the illnesses of the India brand?

Pragati: When you announce a new scam daily and global media picks it up. When foreigners in India tell me, "You Indians are corrupt", I want them to know that Indians are not corrupt, the Indian political community is.

The entire political fraternity is not even equal to 1 per cent of the country's population, yet the remaining 99 have to carry the can for the sins of the one? It depresses me. When my little son hears all the arguments and shouting on television and asks me, "Amma, are we bad people? Did we ‘do' wrong thing?", I want to be able to give him easier explanations. Brand India is not easy anymore.

Advait: But the World Cup is a good thing? We are good cricketers! Tell your son that!

Pragati: For how long? The glory of the WC lasts one week, in between two more scams will surface... I am not asking for a solution, Advait. I am saying news is depressing, demoralising; and advertising is restoring, renewing, accepting. Yes, this is it — news is alienating, advertising is accepting.

Govind: See, ads try and talk one-on-one with a viewer. That is how they design their communication. News is passive. Interpretive reporting requires reporters to give shape to the news, and they tend to shape it around their perspective on politics. To journalists, politics is not a struggle over policy issues. They see it largely as a competitive game waged between power-hungry leaders. But in the case of a product, there is no scope for subjectivity. The product has to sell for what it is and you cannot bring in your opinion.

Then again, the brain devotes more attention to anything that appears threatening. Our automatic vigilance for threat has given us an enormous survival advantage throughout the ages and we now do it continuously, subconsciously, and instantly. This is what makes news harsh on the psyche. And when a whole period is stress filled, as it has been lately, news kills.

News is as much a commercial product as ads and has as much a need to sell. So yes, news people also try and grab TRPs and cater to their TA!

Pragati: Then how is it that ads tend to impact so much even if they are fantasy and not fact? Could it be that ads do not have the potential to shock us? Then how come we do not plan for good news as our content too?

Govind: The best ads are a transportation device to a transformed life; they tap into a human aspiration and try and make you believe that it is possible through science or nature or miracle — what they call RTBs (reasons to believe) — that through the consumption of the product, they will enable the experience of an altered but desired state.

Brands give you belief, like Apple's assumption that ‘there is a creative genius in you' or Dove's reassurance that you are beautiful the way you are. These are essentially tapping into your insecurities, your anxieties and then presenting them  to you in a manner that your anxiety is removed.

Naini: Govind, I still feel there is a difference. I am contrasting ads and news and that is where I feel that ads talk to me in a way that makes me feel reassured, happy, which is the complete opposite of what news does to me.

Govind: Naturally. News cannot sell you hope. News tells you things as they are... and that can be hopeless too!

Pragati: No, much more. News channels and newspapers actually take the pains to package news in horrific sights and sounds. They make bad into worse. For example, recall the Bhopal gas tragedy. I remember a magazine's cover (I was in school then) that showed an infant half buried, with scalded eyes, blinded by the leaking gas. It was a picture that destroyed you.

They say Raghu Rai wept when he took that picture. But it kept showing up on every newsstand, on every coffee table, in every waiting room. Tragedy entered the drawing room. It was called ‘Portrait of a Corporate Crime'. A technically sound picture... but its impact? It aimed to keep you engaged with grief. And when the Bhopal gas news was refreshed recently, the same picture was back, engaging your grief. During such a moment, if you watch ads, they restore...

Govind: Brands tend to address an anxiety head on and even say it as such. So we have brands that provide happy reconciliations for the new emerging contradictions in a society going through a rapid change, the  good mother versus the classical strict mother (Surf's Daag achche hain); Saffola's Kal se, for instance, addresses the knowing-doing gap — that life is stressful, we must take care, but it's difficult to exercise. This is what makes us resonate with ads. Because they mirror our dilemmas, our unwillingness, our fixations! So what was until then a private angst, comes out in the open, and that is the comfort you feel!

Brands have thus taken to presenting easy, simple and credible answers to life's complex issues, in a disarming, direct way, leaving behind a business card that says, this is my name, brand and purpose. No ‘Breaking News' dramatics.Advait: So are you saying news reflects the society we live in?

Govind: News is not "what the audience wants" and it does not simply "reject society". But ads tell you the state of society in a different yet endearing way. It is just that it is woven into the storyline. Take the insurance ad that Naini mentions. How are the visuals connected to insurance? Life insurance used to be about meeting a commitment and fulfilment of duties after the death of the chief wage-earner. Now, as prosperity is increasing, the code of life insurance is becoming ‘enjoying life while you are alive', life mein life add karein!

Now this behavioural issue must have emerged out of observing people's reaction to uncertainty, no? The moment we buy insurance or are faced with buying a policy, it seems as if there is a suggestion of finality, mortality, a finish line. These may have been seen as roadblocks to policy sales? So there is an attempt to ensure happiness and enjoyment by saying, insurance does not mean morbid, morose or mortality. Insurance means ‘bad news does not have to be worse'!

Yes, the fundamental difference is that ads come dressed as ads — maybe that helps!

Classroom discussion
News engages you, but not with you as a stakeholder. Hence, news is alienating


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 09-05-2011)