Advertising is all about persuasion. And persuasion, it is said, works best when the message is delivered by people you can identify with, be it in terms of physical appearance, life stage or the situation they are shown to be in. It's a wonder then how so many ads meant for Indian audiences refute the first of these conditions by featuring non-Indians.
A common one is to make the statement: 'We're as good as our international competition'. We see this most often in the case of Indian handset brands. The occasional exception does exist (Bikaji Papad), but it pales in comparison to the long list of handset brands that have resorted to this -- Micromax, Lava Mobile, Xolo, Karbonn Mobiles, Maxx Mobile and Zen Mobile. The writing on the wall is clear: 'We're as good as the Apples and Samsungs of the world', these brands appear to be saying in unison.
As Shubhodip Pal, chief marketing officer, Micromax, told us earlier this year in the context of Micromax's then new smartphone, Canvas, "My prospective users perceive Micromax as yet another 'Chinese-trading company'. We want to transcend this image. The process has started already; our ad for Canvas has a very 'premium' feel to it." And sure enough, the ad he was referring to featured white models. Other categories have also exploited this connection between 'white' and 'premium' -- in its recent spurt of print communication, Italian scooter brand Vespa featured white models. And, guess what! Vespa is priced at a 40-45 per cent premium vis-à-vis the average scooter brand in India.
Another reason Indian ads feature non-Indian models is to draw attention to the raw components of the product. Manosh Sengupta, brand-parent, nurturer and mentor, brand@itude, says, "In the case of food brands, showing foreigners could serve the strategic purpose of establishing the fact that the ingredients used in that product have been sourced from various parts of the world." For example, the use of blacks in Cadbury's Bournville ad helps convey the message that the chocolate has been made by using the choicest cocoa beans from Ghana. Even the recent ad by Cadbury Celebrations shows people of different nationalities procuring the raw materials for the chocolate from places best known for them.
The 'Idealised Self'
A third reason we see so many non-Indians in our TVCs is because international ads, originally made for an overseas audience, are often aired in this part of the world. This happens in the case of global brands that have a strong Indian presence, most frequently cosmetics and beauty products (Maybelline Outdoor). Typically, the audio is dubbed in Hindi or Indian-accented English while the visuals remain international. And somehow, this works.
Strange as it is, these international ads don't look out of place on Indian media. This could be because the Indian eye is already quite familiar with foreign faces, because of our exposure to American serials on TV and Hollywood movies. As Sumanto Chattopadhyay, executive creative director, Ogilvy India, puts it, "I don't think Indian viewers even stop to process it as different or deviant when they see foreigners in an ad."
In the context of the beauty category, of course, international ads understandably work given the famed Indian fascination for extreme fairness. Chattopadhyay says, "In this category in particular, international models have aspirational value. Given our obsession with fair skin, we can easily see an international model as an 'idealised version' of ourselves."
However, he cautions that overdoing international imagery could be detrimental. "While we can identify with a dark-haired, dark-eyed European, you'll never see a blonde-haired model in an ad. Brands have to walk a fine line, balancing their 'aspirational quotient' and 'relatability quotient'. Showing a blonde is a stretch. We just can't relate to a golden-haired, blue-eyed person," he reasons.
Sometimes, an international ad makes it to Indian screens due to practical considerations. For example, if a global cream brand (Vaseline body lotion film) is making an ad that has to run across three Asian countries, featuring a Caucasian model seems like the most viable option. Here's why: "Indonesian audiences may not relate to an Indian model and people in Thailand may not relate to an Indonesian model. But all three countries can relate to a Caucasian face," says Chattopadhyay. Making one ad with a face that has cross-country appeal and running it across a region is more cost-effective than making a separate ad for each country within that region. Now, why the Asian sub-continent is always at the receiving end of ads featuring people that don't resemble its citizens is another issue for another day.
Speaking of practical considerations, sometimes, the script demands the use of a foreigner. The popular 'Survive Mumbai' ad by American Tourister, for example, was specifically designed to target foreigners touring Mumbai. Featuring a white gentleman braving Mumbai's crowded local trains was logical. Similarly, brands targeting NRIs use Indian faces for a better impact.
Clearly, featuring firangs in our ads serves many strategic purposes. While experts don't question marketers' decisions to do so, they do ask them to tread with caution. Anuraag Khandelwal, ECD and creative head, Soho Square, says, "We, as a country, have not evolved; 'gora chamdi' is aspirational. And through our ads, at the end of the day, we are selling a dream. But you can't use this as a strategy for any category. It has to be relevant. There has to be some believability." He feels it works for brands like Vespa or Zara, that already have a certain international lineage to speak of. And it works for categories such as apparel or automobiles, in which 'international' is anyway considered 'superior'.
We asked Khandelwal the question raised at the start of this piece: Isn't it easier to persuade potential buyers by featuring someone who resembles them? "Well," he answers, "if an Indian is persuading you, then that Indian better be a celebrity. A lay firang and an Indian celebrity have a similar effect on Indian viewers."
'Fair' point, eh?