Why Cliches attract

By Devina Joshi , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | August 03, 2010
Advertisers obviously lean towards stereotypes and clichés because they work. The question is: why do they work?

Over the years, advertisers of product and service categories in India have developed their own language and modus operandi of communicating to consumers. So deeply entrenched is this language - both in the minds of advertisers and consumers - that at some point it becomes an unspoken rule.

Consider these examples: the intelligent child wears spectacles; a housewife has to be in a saree with neat, long hair; a working woman with short hair in a salwaar kameez or, if she is liberated, in trousers; the sexy girl hopelessly attracted to a man because of his deodorant; words such as nikhaar, saundarya, pesh hai and keetanu can be heard in toothpaste, detergent and beauty cream ads alike.

& #BANNER1 & #Advertisers obviously lean towards stereotypes and clichés because they work. The question is: why? afaqs! investigates.

Cliché No 1: If it ain't broke…

It is said that a society gets the advertising it deserves. Perhaps, it also gets the clichés it deserves, because clichés actually emerge from the lives of people. At times, when brands move away from the clichés consumers are used to, there is dissonance. And marketers hate this.

Every brand has layered sets of consumers and a bulk of them live at the bottom of the pyramid of societal evolution. A small segment lies in between and an even smaller segment lives at the top of the pyramid. This segment is self-actualising and is not so cliché-oriented. But the segment at the bottom literally lives the cliché, which is why stereotypes tend to work in the case of mass brands or FMCGs. Also, FMCGs are one of the oldest categories, which explains why they have developed a large bank of established conventions.

Clichés exist at two levels. One, at the level of the proposition itself. For example, beautiful skin for soaps, bikes that give you everything - looks, mileage, power and safety. Secondly, clichés exist at the level of execution. A close-up shot using computer graphics to show dirt flying away from clothes or a celebrity who asks the viewers at the end of the TVC, "When are you going to switch to my brand?' The first case is a problem of parity products, but the latter is a case of parity advertising, which is what is dealt with here.

Cliché No 2: The more things change...

Stereotyped characters are fixtures in advertising and popular opinion is that women are the most stereotyped. This could be because most products are aimed at them. Clichés such as the Superwife have yet to see the exit door. The wife still seeks appreciation for her efforts at home, but perhaps the portrayal of a Supermom has changed to that of a multi-tasker.

Children are slotted into box-like categories. There's the perfect kid, the pesky kid, the bully or the super-smart-yet-angelic kid with solutions. In kids' advertising, the parents are marginalised. Speaking of marginalisation, fathers seem to be becoming mere props in commercials - resting on that pillow or reading that newspaper (it must be "dad', is the general feeling). "Women are props in suiting ads while men are props in detergent ads," observes planner Naresh Gupta, director, strategy and planning, Dentsu Marcom.

The flavour of "youth' is all pervading today. From soft drinks to pizza chains to telecom, everyone is jumping onto the youth bandwagon. So, we have typical situations like the boy-girl break-up drama or screechy youngsters falling in love at the drop of a hat in what is simplistic, bubblegum advertising.

If a marketer doesn't understand youth and goes by what he thinks they are like, he tends to borrow from stereotypes or worse, his own youth, when things were vastly different. "In my opinion, Cadbury's "Pehli tareek' ad is a classic example of a dated concept that wouldn't gel well with today's youth, not even as a spoof," says Bobby Pawar, chief creative officer, Mudra Group.

Then there are times when the brand is trapped in the heritage of a category. Carnal appeal and its portrayal dominate deodorants. The animated keetanu plagues toilet cleaner ads, underwear ads are about machismo usually projected by a yesteryear's action star. The list goes on. "Many of these clichés are elements I'd directly attribute to research and incorrect interpretation of findings. Clichés are used to help the marketing team avoid taking a stand and smoothen gut feel," deduces TapRoot India's co-founder and chief creative officer, Agnello Dias.

Cliché No 3: If you can't beat 'em…

When an entire category swings towards a particular language or tone of voice, it is called "category code' communication. Often, one brand, not necessarily the market leader, is capable of setting this code for an entire category. Back in the '90s, Rin set off the whiteness formula with its "flash of lightning' ads. Followers, who stick to established category codes, try to differentiate with a tweak in either the execution or by using celebrities. ICICI Bank pioneered the concept of putting the customer at the centre of things. It was followed by others like Bank of India (with its rishton ki jamapoonji).

It is the challenger brand - which is struggling with creating such minute differences and losing its identity in the process - that tries to break away from category codes. Tata Tea did it quite well with its Jaago Re campaign. The social touch, while challenging rival Brooke Bond, worked for it.

Sheer size isn't enough to allow a large player to establish category codes. It has to have the ability to hone its tone. Great brands know this. "Nike has been using the same tone for years, and it sort of formed the category code," says Pawar. He adds, "It is only now that Reebok has, with its latest campaign, stood for something drastically different - making your body look sexier. That's the whole point: identifying what you're about."

A humorous tone is next in the popularity stakes. But even within humour there could be unexplored territories that a brand could stake as its own. This is akin to comedians developing their own style. The confectionery category is an example. "All ads in this space are humorous but that is because one cannot have a serious reason to buy such a product. And yet, the advertising across brands is fairly different from each other," says ad filmmaker Prasoon Pandey of Corcoise Films.

When a particular category is growing, many brands flourish, even when undifferentiated. "As time passes, the category matures, but most people find it difficult to give up the "rules' that once may have worked for them," says Samit Sinha, managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting.

Cliché No 4: Light at the end...

Ever wondered why that glorious hair shot in Brand X's commercial looks exactly like the one in Brand Y's? It could be more than a case of category codes being followed here. The chances are that the same person shot both.

For the last few years, most Indian creative directors and filmmakers have been sourcing post-production expertise from Thailand. "You get the best hair there," quips an ad filmmaker. What's more clinical, these shots each have names. There's the Peacock shot which implies hair fanning out like the feathers of a peacock. Other popular shots in the haircare space include the glorious hair shot, the flying twirl, the hair pull, the hair parting, the hair tests (pillow, comb or paper bag test) and the product ingredient story.


(A look at some popular clichés that are fading out)

  • Fewer bathroom shots in soap ads: now it is more about outdoor shots or situations of romance within the home.
  • The grandfather-like elderly figure who called the shots has faded away with the emergence of nuclear families in ads.
  • Song and dance sequences: There could be a background track, but little jumping around.
  • Bikes as babe magnets: Although the obligatory girl still dots some ads, machismo is taking routes such as stunts.
  • Party setting in deodorant ads: it has given way to bedroom/home settings or outdoor shots.
  • The stern mother-in-law whom the daughter-in law has to toil to please.
Even skin shots (lightening tones, disappearance of blemishes) or food shots are created by Thai post production experts. So, while a filmmaker who is faced with a mundane script may bring his own touch to the execution and look of the film, he can do little about the product shots that are created by experts. It's a little like a movie director creating a feature film while the dance director takes care of the steps.

Brands also try to distinguish themselves, with a different look to the same set of shots. Garnier, for instance, makes it a point to have an element of nature (shooting in the lush green outdoors, using mnemonics like an ice cube with fruits in it, and a greenish hue) in all its films, while some others in its category are pristine white in their look.

Pandey relates how a small executional detail made a big difference to the overall feel of an ad film. Years ago, he worked on a commercial for Pears where the situation (typically for the brand) was that of the mother bathing her little girl. Going by what was popular, the ad was set to cast a "mom' clad in a saree with her hair neatly tied up. But Pandey took a different tack.

"I wanted to shoot the lady in a nightgown with her hair messy and splattered because, typically, an Indian mother would bathe her baby first. All that splashing follows and then she takes a bath herself," shrugs Pandey. He was then told the Pears mom is never like that. "I simply asked, "who said it and why did they say so?' We were blessed with a client that saw the logic," Pandey says. Pears went with this for some time but switched back to the old formula a few years ago.

It is also the onus of the filmmaker to question and sharpen characters in an ad film. A working woman, for instance, need not be cast as a marketing executive or a TV reporter. When options are considered and rejected, it is healthy, but if they aren't considered, alarm bells ought to go off.

Some clichés are, in fact, to be welcomed. Having a name such as Vijay or Priya in an ad actually help the story stand out instead of unnecessary attention being drawn to a unique name. Also, it will take several seconds to establish that a lady dressed in jeans is actually a housewife, so the saree route is quick and painless.

As industry experts put it, it is the story that is important. People don't care if the highlight in Amitabh Bachchan's hair was not there, they care about his reaching in time to give the medicine to his mom.

Cliché No 5: Better safe than sorry

No advertiser would want a blind spot (no pun intended) on TV. Therefore, advertisers follow codes because they are proven, easily accepted and are not risky. The thinking is that if it's familiar, it may be boring but cannot definitely be wrong. If it has taken years to establish women as homemakers, why would anyone want to risk upsetting that image? This is especially true for convenience products.

"Advertisers tend to settle for convenience over risk, unless they are market leaders or significantly big," admits Anisha Motwani, chief marketing officer, Max New York Life Insurance. Srikanth Srinivasamadhavan, general manager, media services, Hindustan Unilever, flips it around saying that consumers expect to see good-looking models or cars, a touch of humour, fact, advice, romance and relationships. "If cliché means what is traditionally expected to be seen, then clichés are part of normal advertising," he shrugs.

Not every brand can take risks, and the ones who do should not do so for the wrong reasons and jump off the other extreme.

"Advertisers and marketers in most categories are worried about shaking up the status quo. They are willing to do so only if there is a guarantee of good returns. When no such guarantee is possible, it is intelligent to stick to the safe path," muses brand strategist Harish Bijoor, CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults. No brand wants to get on to the road less travelled without a really good reason. That reason is still some way away.

(Based on interviews with Agnello Dias, TapRoot India; Anisha Motwani, Max New York Life; Bobby Pawar, Mudra; Harish Bijoor, Harish Bijoor Consults; Naresh Gupta, Dentsu Marcom; Prasoon Pandey, Corcoise Films; Rohit Srivastava, Contract; Samit Sinha, Alchemist Brand Consulting and Srikanth Srinivasamadhavan, HUL).

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