Around June last year, Airtel launched an ad film featuring actress Rakul Preet Singh. Out of nowhere, she became one of the most searched names on Google, for a brief while. Now, over a year later, the brand has launched an ad campaign featuring Sasha Chettri, copywriter-turned-face of 4G. Sasha, too, has become an instant hit. She's referred to as 'that short-haired 4G girl' these days. Never mind Mary; there's something about The Airtel Girl - and this time, we mean that across campaigns and faces...
Cadbury's Kya Swaad Hai Zindagi Mein gave us the 'Cadbury girl'. Liril, with a little help from waterfalls and green bikinis, gave us the 'Liril girl'. More recently, well before the hit item number 'Babuji' gave us Yana Gupta, a scene of her tossing popcorn into her mouth at a crowded stadium, in an ad, had everyone talking about 'that Lakme girl'. We're going to add the newfound 'Airtel girl' to the list - her name is Rakul Preet Singh and she's a budding actress.
Miss 'People's Choice' Indeed
At 17, Rakul, arrived on the modeling circuit; the year was 2009. With school out of her way (Army Public School at Dhaula Kuan, New Delhi), she started modeling for brands that needed a pretty face for their print and TV campaigns.
Rakul recalls, "I started modeling right after school. Three months into it, I got a call for a Kannada film 'Gilli', a remake of Selvaraghavan's '7G Rainbow Colony'. I wasn't aware of the size of South Indian film industry then and did the film only to earn a little extra pocket money."
After that, Rakul returned to Delhi to pursue a degree in Mathematics from Delhi University's Jesus and Mary College. "I realised that films require serious commitment and time so I decided to continue with my modeling assignments," she confesses.
In 2011, Rakul participated in the Pantaloons Femina Miss India pageant. Though she didn't win the title, she managed to bag five 'sub-titles' including the Miss 'People's Choice' Award, one based on audience votes. Clearly, she always had that 'mass appeal' quality... something one just can't place a finger on.
For the next two years, Rakul appeared in a lot of TV and print campaigns. Some of the brands she worked for include Vicco WSO cream, Carbon Fine Jewellery, Eno, V-Care Shikakai Paste, Big Bazaar, LG, Samsung and Indiafirst Life Insurance, among others.
"The recall factor is higher for 'Airtel ad girl' than for my character in Yaariyan"
But her real 'claim to fame', though, has been the recent Airtel ad; after all, the fact that that she's being 'searched for' online as 'Airtel girl' shows that not many have 'recognised' her in the ad. And she was required to play the girl next door, someone young brides can easily relate to.
Speaking of relatable, that's exactly what she terms the script, citing it as reason enough for her to do the ad. That, and the chance to work with Vinil Mathew, director of the ad. Recently, Mathew directed the movie Hasee Toh Phasee.
"I got a call from Mukesh Chhabra (casting director). I found the script cute... something that would strike an emotional cord with young couples," says Rakul, who is also a golf enthusiast. She adds, "Vinil is so much fun on set. He makes his actors feel relaxed. That helps extract spontaneous performances from them."
Did she ever imagine that one simple ad could catapult her into the 'most searched for' list online? "I never thought the campaign would become so popular. I have been receiving a lot of compliments. The recall factor, I guess, is higher for 'Airtel ad girl' than for my character in Yaariyan, my first Hindi film!" she admits with a giggle, "People see me differently now. The kind of scripts I'm getting has also changed."
According to SocialBakers, provider of social media monitoring tools, the actress' Facebook page gained over three lakh fans in a month, after the release of the ad. Over the last six months, her fan count (on her Facebook page) has grown from 6,50,000 to more than 1.2 million.
Most of her fans are from India, followed by Pakistan, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia. On Twitter she has 24,000 followers, at present.
"We never intended to make Rakul a sensation"
Agnello Dias, aka Aggi, co-founder and chief creative officer, Taproot India (the agency that has created the Airtel ad), says, "Casting is very crucial for a successful ad campaign. But ads like these, which have a story of their own, demand faces that fit the character, instead of just pretty faces. The idea is to tell a story honestly, so that it strikes a chord with the audience."
Helping us decode what may well be termed 'The Rakul Factor', Aggi explains, "In the case of ads like Liril or Rasna, in which the main character interacts directly with the audience, one may choose a more charming, appealing persona. But when you're telling a story, then the cast must fit the characters. In Rakul's case, she's portrayed as a strong, well-balanced girl who loves deeply but is not animated or moony-eyed about it."
"When we took her," he therefore admits, "we never intended to make her a sensation. But she has caught people's attention; we've got calls from film directors in Kerala about her contact details."
"Fresh faces enhance a simple script"
The basic characters, she ads, ought to be kept as "real" as possible. "When you cast mini-celebs like Rakul or Pulkit for a sweet, simple story, viewers like them. It's more true for girls," she decodes, saying this is the same reason viewers liked Aditi Rao Hydari in the Facia Hair Oil ad, which was released before she became popular as a film actress.
They say, when you see an ad and find that you know the model's name, that's when you can say her (or his) 'struggling days' are officially over. But in some cases, such as Rakul's, it probably worked in her favour that she wasn't recognised in the ad.
Freshness is what people like, apparently. "When you have a simple script, fresh faces add to it. The Airtel ad might not have become so popular, if a known female celebrity was cast instead of Rakul," Smitha hazards.
"Consider the recent Nestle ad on adoption; I had to struggle to find the right faces. The toughest part was finding the girl," she shares. Finally, Smitha zeroed in on a Japanese girl for the part.
Ram Subramanian, ad film director and founder of Handloom Picture Company, a production house, says, "A lot of things that have worked for the Airtel ad: There is a 'soft space' where a couple is getting married, it's a vulnerable moment to which people can relate. Having said that, a fresh face does help in getting popularity."
Subramanian reminds us of the time Preity Zinta gained popularity as 'the Perk girl'. A lot depends on what the model does with her career in the days that follow such spurts of fame, he cautions. "Preity became very popular as an actor while, somewhere, she is still associated with Perk in people's mind," he says.
Which brings us to the question: What can Rakul do to leverage this fame? Rajiv Dingra, founder and CEO, WATConsult, a digital and social media agency, suggests, "The best thing she can do is engage more with her fans and followers, do more interactions - one-on-one, if possible."
"This is a classic example of how digital plays a role in amplifying an offline campaign," he says, "It shows how you can digitally 'activate' content to have a lasting effect."
As for Airtel, Dingra says the brand can scale things up further by releasing digital videos. "They can extend the campaign and launch a second leg," he says, citing Old Spice as an example of a brand that has done so in the past, following the popularity of its TV campaign.