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Exploring Forbidden Territory
Brands get bolder on the web as digital advertising gains momentum

Tasneem Pocketwala

An apologetic father makes amends with his daughter and wife for decades of gender stereotyping; a young girl nervously anticipates a visit from her female partner's parents; a school kid innocently questions the denial of equal rights to her mother, a transgender. Of late, there have been several ad campaigns in India that seem to market products by breaking free of decades-old stereotypes. Whether it is the propagation of gender equality at the domestic level or foregrounding homosexuality — bringing about change and challenging social norms seem to be the ostensible driving factor behind this boom. While it would be too far-fetched to expect these ads to change India overnight, what they do end up doing is being relevant to exactly the kind of consumer they want to target.

For example, observe the ad titled "The Visit" part of the 'Bold Is Beautiful' campaign for Myntra's ethnic wear brand Anouk. The online video shows two women in a live-in relationship, dressing up for the day, as they get ready to meet one of their parents. Marketed at the urban progressive woman, the ad then earns the brand the tag of being “forward-thinking and progressive”, thus creating an immediate brand appeal for its targeted consumer. In less than ten days of its release, the digital film got over 2 lakh hits.

RB (formerly Reckitt Benckiser), too, had rolled out a quirky digital campaign last year titled #D20 Dictionary that ran during the course of the ICC T20 tournament for its condom brand, Durex. The series of still ads had cricketing terms with sexual innuendos such as ‘run out’ and ‘obstructing the field’, aimed at drawing a parallel between the game of cricket and the art of love-making.

Even traditional family brands such as Vicks used the Touch Of Care ad film that features transgender activist Gauri Sawant to go a step beyond and focus on social relevance. Not wanting to stray far from what the brand itself stands for, it pulls social issues into its own brand narrative. So when the brand depicts the normalisation of transgender motherhood, a grave topic of taboo, it is essentially doing so within the brand’s own “family and care” philosophy. Nitin Darbari, chairman and CEO P&G Teva JV China, marketing director Asia, Middle East and Africa says, “Breaking stereotypes is also taking the message of the brand itself further among its target audience. The Touch Of Care film was more so about redefining family care, which Vicks as a brand has stood for over the past decades.” 

This April, Ariel’s ‘Share the Load’ campaign topped the annual World Advertising Research Centre (WARC) 100’s list of the world’s best marketing campaigns according to their business impact. (The WARC 100 draws its list after tracking individual award winners of other effectiveness and strategy awards held around the world.) The campaign by the advertising agency BBDO and media agency Mediacom looked at the deep-rooted view of Indian women being in charge of household duties. Ajai Jhala, CEO, BBDO India says, “We integrate the brand at the heart of the idea. At the same time, we also give people a useful idea that they can chew upon and do something about it, and in the process try to break an existing stereotype.” Ariel’s campaign takes the social context in which the brand’s core functionality — household work — is put to use and attempts to break free of gender inequality. Jhala, whose company has been making ads with an inherent social message for eight years now, feels social themes have a strong pull. “We’ve done this for many clients, for many brands, and we are always able to demonstrate that it [making ads with a social message to impart] delivers good business results.”

In a statement on its website, WARC said that Ariel had more than doubled its value and volumes sales, which grew 106% and 105% respectively. It also claimed that over 1.5 million men had pledged to share household chores. 

The digital play

While Ariel’s campaign was released digitally as well as in cinema and on television, several other such ad campaigns are carried out digitally, sometimes exclusively so. Myntra’s Bold is Beautiful ran its ads digitally, while Nike released its Da Da Ding commercial first online, then to select English language channels. Does the medium in which the ad is to be released play a role in conceptualising it? “The medium has an effect but only to a certain extent,” says Mohamed Rizwan, creative director, Wieden+Kennedy Delhi, the agency behind Nike’s viral Da Da Ding commercial. “It’s the idea that has the final say on a campaign’s impact.” 

Releasing digitally enables cashing in on the (more or less) democratic nature of the Internet. The Internet offers reach, with social media providing a platform to discuss and extensively share an ad that has a relevant, “trendy” issue — such as feminism — at its core. Vicks’ Touch Of Care was one such ad film that was hosted on the Vicks India YouTube page and shared on the Facebook handle. On why the company chose to release the film digitally, Darbari explains, “When you want to give out a strong message, it's important that the receiver gets it on a platform that helps them to engage [with the message] and give their own point of view.” 

The digital space allows for the normalisation of what is usually relegated to the peripheries of mainstream Indian culture. A case in point is an ad for Brooke Bond, featuring a transgender pop band called 6 Pack Band. The ad is actually a cover of Pharrell William's "Happy", and features transgenders prancing about, being normal and happy.

As a matter of fact, Indian consumers have long warmed up to digital ads. According to a report by Adobe Digital Insights, 59% of Indian consumers found that digital ads were “more interesting and useful” than ads on traditional channels such as TV and radio. 

Ad spends of digital media have increased from last year and are growing at a rapid rate, says WPP-owned media agency GroupM in its report This Year Next Year (TYNY). From ₹7,300 crore in 2016, the digital spend is expected to grow by 30% to ₹9,490 crore in CY17. In fact, digital advertsing is estimated to take a 15.5% share of the total ad spend this year thanks to mushrooming OTT platforms and improved internet speeds.

While that may be good news for the digital medium, it must be kept in mind that the Internet is not always a warm, welcoming place. “The online world affords brands a better chance at storytelling. But it can also be incredibly unforgiving. So if you don’t have an interesting idea or story, you may as well not bother,” says Rizwan.

But given that there is certainly no dearth of stereotypes in our country, digital advertising has enough taboos to play around with in its attempt to click bait consumers.

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