Incredible India has done what seemed incredible a while ago. The campaign by the Ministry of Tourism has grown in popularity over the last few years using the strength of power punched creativity in its messaging. Now, for the first time ever, Incredible India is being given a face - one which people recognise easily.
Two TV commercials for Incredible India, with Hindi film actor Aamir Khan starring as the face of India, have gone on-air recently. The commercials are a part of the 'Atithi Devo Bhava' campaign targeting the domestic audience in the country.
opens with a scene showing a group of foreign nationals asking for directions to an area in India. Some rowdy tourist guides start harassing them with unpleasant remarks and gestures. Khan enters the scene and questions the tourist guides' misbehaviour.
In retaliation, one of the perpetrators shouts out to Khan, "Teri kya behen lagti hai (Is she your sister)?" As a crowd gathers, Khan firmly explains that tourists are not only guests but a source of income for the country. Finally, he manages to swing public opinion to his side and the erstwhile impassive onlookers teach the offenders a good lesson.
The second film depicts a couple who, in a romantic mood, are looking forward to 'inscribing' their names with a stone on a historic monument. Khan makes an entry and snatches away the stone from them, attempting to write on the man's face. In a gesture of self defence, the man steps back. Khan informs a group of children watching over the entire episode that the monument the man was about to spoil is about 2,000 years old. Since such monuments are India's pride, they should be preserved.
The films have been put together by FS Advertising, one of the creative agencies appointed to handle the creative duties for the Ministry of Tourism. Ramma Luthra, managing director, FS Advertising, takes pride in telling afaqs! that the agency proposed the concept of 'Atithi Devo Bhava' five years ago and has been nurturing it since then.
The two campaigns address two different hurdles for the tourism business in India - the vandalism of monuments by the Indian residents themselves and the misbehaviour towards tourists. The campaign concerning graffiti on monuments is carried forward from last year.
Prasoon Joshi has written the dialogues and script for both the films. He has also directed the graffiti film. The misbehaviour film has been directed by Rakesh Omprakash Mehra of Rang De Basanti fame. All three - Aamir Khan, Joshi and Mehra have given their time and effort for the film, free of charge.
Khan will star only in the Atithi Devo Bhava campaign, which is a part of domestic publicity and not intended for international airing. The misbehaviour campaign ran for 15 days and soon, the graffiti commercial will be on air for a fortnight. A website, www.atithi.org.in, has also been put in place to highlight the same concept.
The Atithi Devo Bhava campaigns have always aimed at bringing out social ills which affect the tourism business either directly or indirectly. The first campaign was released in 2004 about the misbehaviour of taxi drivers. The second was based on misleading tourist guides and in the third year, it was about garbage accumulation. The campaign, in its fourth year in 2008, focussed on the garbage issue, apart from graffiti.
Talking about bringing Aamir Khan on board as a brand ambassador, Luthra says, "The Atithi Devo Bhava campaign has been building up gradually, and now, it takes a quantum leap with Khan as a brand endorser. It was essential to give the campaign a voice. When we offered the role to Khan, he agreed.
"It was important to put the onus on each resident of the country regarding such an issue; each one of us becomes a stakeholder in behaving well with the tourists and preventing wrong incidents from taking place," she adds.
Tete-a-tete with ad men
"I think these ads have been made with a specific agenda and it's good that they are doing this. I wish we had a paramilitary force that's pushed into apprehending people who damage our monuments and those who over charge tourists," he says.
He adds that this cannot simply be a campaign. "There has to be a constant and consistent stream of messaging in all media against this. I think we need to get more serious and more visible with this messaging. I also believe that the tone needs to be harder. It has to punish the culprits."
Ankur Khurana, brand partner, planning, Orchard, agrees with the insight but has apprehensions about the creative output. "Both these issues are serious and genuine but the solution and the way it has been captured/treated somehow fall short of the task." In his opinion, Incredible India campaigns have been liked for their execution and their messaging but these commercials have not created that level of excitement.
Santosh Padhi, fondly known as Paddy amongst ad-mates, brand partner, TapRoot India, is sure of the issues being taken care of well, but is doubtful about the execution and the storyline. "The moment you connect in an obvious way, the creative loses its charm," he brings out.
The Incredible India initiative has a lot going for it. Paddy agrees that the brand has done well in terms of recall value and realises that the brand wishes to get everyone to react. Pat, too, has seen the brand grow in front of his eyes and feels that India can never run out of things to talk about for itself.
According to general opinion, the strength of the Incredible India concept is this endless and almost infinite supply of facts, myths, stories and legends that make the country such a rich subject. There are so many subjects that every year, the brand can have a new subject to talk about.
Pat, however, opines that the brand needs to be merchandised more. "Compared to more developed tourist destinations such as Spain or Singapore, we can have a whole new industry that feeds into merchandising India's tourism campaign. I am not talking of just T-shirts," he says.
Social messages in general suffer from poor execution. According to Khurana, the commercials are good for a start on awareness but it may be difficult to get people to act on them.
"The solution does not just lie in finding the right insight but also in doing action oriented communication, which could show results faster. Without going into the details individually, I would rather say that these commercials are not in the same league as some of the earlier Incredible India commercials," he says.
As a starting point, one option could be to look globally and use examples from other countries to sensitise people about the need to treat tourism as a very important aspect of globalisation.
Pat feels that perhaps there is a reason why such issues get multiplied. "I have personally seen a notice outside the Taj Mahal which says that foreigners will be charged more. This is downright pathetic," he says. "Now, if the government does that, what does that say? And how can you then blame the drivers and shopkeepers when they charge extra? Double standards perhaps?"
Perhaps a more effective tourist rights law could be an answer but that's a whole debate altogether. Often, awareness is not the real problem - getting people to take action is. Khurana suggests that the brand may want to look at non-TV communication involving communities in a more wholesome manner.
Getting a face for the first time
Aamir Khan as the brand endorser for Incredible India may seem like a good idea to some, but there are the exceptions. Khurana feels that Khan the actor has been underutilised and muses if there could have been a better way of using him.
Reviewing what Khan has delivered over the years, Paddy feels that the people have a lot of respect for the Bollywood actor and getting him on board was a good thought. But that neither makes the story engaging nor does it give any long lasting or recallable value.
Pat feels that Khan fits the bill and it's a good idea to make him the spokesperson; he carries enough respect to come down hard on people.
Being a part of domestic publicity, Khan will be seen only for the Atithi Devo Bhava campaign.
For the record, the communication for Incredible India (created by Grey Worldwide back then) had gathered accolades at the Euro Effies in 2006.