It's just as well that today's 30-plus generation did not get to see too much TV during its adolescence. It knew what to expect on Suhaag Raat Day. Er… night, that is.
No such luck for today's adolescents. At least, none for those being bred on a staple diet of television. (And for those of them who'll get married the 'traditional' way.) For when the much-anticipated hour is at hand, tomorrow's dulhas and dulhans will be counting not just the moments that separate them from their respective spouses, but also the number of potential surprises that could be waiting to pounce on them once the ghunghats and assorted paraphernalia are off.
Surprises like the coy dulhan wearing a helmet under her ghunghat. Or a pretty face painted with the national colours. Next, instead of the bride, the enthusiastic groom might find a pack of extra-powerful detergent under the ghunghat. Or, perhaps, the key to deciphering the Harappan script…
For such are the new images of suhaag raat depicted on television, courtesy Indian advertising. In fact, there's a whole rash of 'suhaag raat advertising' on air these days.
Let's look at some of them. Britannia's World Cup promo (the Indian tricolour one); Clinic All Clear Hair Oil (the helmet); Ariel (the detergent pack under the ghunghat); Maaza (bride offers groom Maaza instead of milk); Maruti Alto (bride impatiently waits for groom, who is absorbed in gaping at an Alto parked outside the window)… Then, of course, there is that brilliant ad for Femina, that shows the assertive, initiative-taking woman of today. And even the winning entry for 'honesty in advertising' - which is supposed to be telecast nationwide, and sponsored by ASCI - at the recent India Advertising Festival, used the suhaag raat situation as the peg.
Here, there are two factors that need to be taken note of. One is the fact that quite a few of these ads have appeared on TV over the last three-four months. And the second is that most of them are trying to surprise the viewer through that 'funny twist-in-the-tale' device.
Explaining this sudden spurt in suhaag raat advertising, Swapan Seth, deputy CEO, Equus Advertising, says, "I think we are struggling to get hold of ideas. So, if suhaag raat worked with one ad, just about every man and his mastiff will run behind it. It is a horrible overkill, and an ancient idea."
Umesh Shrikhande agrees. "When the first brand does it, a second brand comes along and says 'one more similar situation in a different category won't hurt'. This logic soon becomes the way to go. For one, I think it's one big human frailty that makes everyone feel that plagiarism will not be noticed. Secondly, and more bluntly, it is a lazy approach which makes one justify the process by announcing 'after all no one has a patent on the suhaag raat idea, so one more is just fine!'"
Prathap Suthan, associate vice-president, Grey Worldwide (India), is more charitable in his opinion. "I think it's just a coincidence. I guess all these ads were made during the wedding season, and creative people are inspired by what they see happening around them. Most ads are a reflection of what's happening around us. That's why when KBC (Kaun Banega Crorepati) was launched, we had a spate of ads inspired by the show."
Shrikhande, of course, will have none of it. "What seems sudden to us is nothing but the bandwagon effect. And through the years, there have been numerous times when such mindless emulation has happened." He cites the example of the Ajit jokes, and filmi jingle-based ads. "More importantly, this effect is not limited to such instances. Far more expensive examples of this behaviour are when the same celebrity starts appearing in a spate of commercials. Apart from being unimaginative, here, the concerned are also guilty of being financially imprudent by paying a fortune to the same celebrity for a lesser and lesser ROI (return-on-investment)."
Lesser ROI translates into diminishing impact per exposure, in a way. And the same can be said of these suhaag raat ideas. Almost all these ads have a surprise element built into them. And while each of these ads may, in isolation, surprise the viewer, the fact that they have been aired on a trot does nothing in terms of 'surprising'. "When this kind of thing happens too often, the viewer expects to be surprised, which defeats the purpose of the surprise," says Suthan. "What you then get is a blind spot."
Here, it is worth asking whether this 'trend' is in any way linked to the increased depiction of Indian traditions in communication? For instance, karva chauth is a recurring theme too (in the Lehar Namkeen ad, the Perk ad and the Allwyn Sensor spot). And marriage situations are endless.
"The increased depiction of Indian images is welcome, since advertising is about filling cultural cavities," Seth admits. "But there must be nine thousand other traditional images that can be employed. And I think the suhaag raat context does not exist, only because the traditional suhaag raat as we have known it - and as is depicted - is hardly real any more. It is certainly driving communication into a degree of sameness."
"Generally speaking, both advertisers and agencies have always subscribed to the dictum 'when in doubt, go for the Hindi feature film idiom'," feels Shrikhande. "Granted, Hindi feature films are mass opiates, but it is time to realize that there are far many more insights available both within and without Hindi films and TV soaps, without having to get obvious about the whole exercise."
Shrikhande also explores another angle. "The entire discussion stems from the said unimaginative 'overkill'. However, there is another dimension that has to be noted. After all, insights are slices of life. And given the way we live our lives, certain slices - relationships or situations - continue to have an inherent and enduring appeal." His examples include the mother-in-law-daughter-in-law relationship, the strict teacher-naughty student one, nosy neighbours, the boss and his 'slaves', the housewife and the shopkeeper, the inside-the-elevator situation… and suhaag raat.
"What is also true is that no matter how many times we may have seen these contexts, they still interest us," he continues. "The challenge always is to find newer dimensions of these constructs, and to pleasantly surprise the consumer. Many TVCs, over the years, have used an elevator as the backdrop, for instance. But so long as they didn't all come together, and so long as there was a new twist every time, it worked out fine."
"The suhaag raat situation is in the same zone," he continues. "As a situation, it will always draw interest. The only questions that need to be asked are whether it is overdone or not, whether there is a surprise or not and whether it seamlessly fits in with the needs of the brand." He adds that any overdose - contextual or otherwise - is not clutterbusting. "Provocativeness has to stem from the product. And humour is also about the unexpected. It's not about cliches."
Perhaps, now someone has to do a suhaag raat ad that suggests a surprise, but doesn't have one. Remember the Chiclets ad, and the way it made a sucker of the viewer for expecting the sassy lass to turn down the advances of the podgy no-looker?
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