Aishwarya Ramesh
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Comedian? But, where exactly is the comedic element?

Sapan Verma stars in ads for ICICI Bank's FASTag service, but the comedian's stage persona is, surprisingly, nowhere to be seen.

Sapan Verma is a well-known comedian. Why then is he grimacing into the camera during a FASTag ad? We’re not sure either. The ad is for ICICI Bank’s FASTag service and it stars Verma, from the comedy group East India Comedy.

The ads can be found on ICICI Bank's official YouTube channel and the tone seems rather forced. Verma is a stand-up comic - a serious job in itself. He also works with brands as an influencer, but in these ads, he behaves more like the brand ambassador, taking on the tone reserved for yesteryear actresses starring in Lux soap ads.

This is not the first time a stand-up comic has been spotted in an ad. Owing to their personalities, stage presence and fan following - many stand-up comics make for popular influencers. Among them are Biswa Kalyan Rath, Kaneez Surka, Tanmay Bhat and Urooj Ashfaq. Bhat is no longer seen in commercials (endorsing products) after he had to step down from his post as co-founder of the comedy group AIB. He was accused of inaction against a harasser who worked in his group.

At the time of release of the Taco Bell commercial, Emili Matsumura, director marketing, Taco Bell APAC, told afaqs!, in an interview, that Bhat was the natural choice for the ad. "Our brand, around the world, is associated with what's trending in youth and culture, but in a tonality that is uniquely ours. When we decided to go the route to 'Make Potato Great', we knew we had to find a cultural icon who could organically collaborate with us and authentically speak to our fans. It's been a fantastic collaboration from content to delivery to co-promotion," she recalls.

A common element in these ads is that when they employ a stand-up comic, they ensure they retain his originality - capitalising on what sets them apart in a crowd. The engagement is strictly from a brand's perspective, but it still feels like organic content as they are not deviating from their public personas.

In 2018, DLF's Karan Kumar wrote a guest article on the serious business that is comedy. He had an interesting parallel to draw. "Think of this disarming comedian as an expert data scientist - one who consumes and processes data; painstakingly drawing out broad patterns and broad truths. Patterns that have been fed by its people's (consumer) understanding; patterns that feed into generations of consumer insights. Laced with these consumer insights, he devices his communication package - that line or two that suddenly cracks you up and makes you feel connected to him. Forming a bond of trust and acceptance that unexpectedly quick, one that leaves you subconsciously happy and bewildered, all at once!," he explains.

In the article, he reiterated that a stand-up comedian performing a gig for a packed house is one of the finest examples of strategically considered communication intervention. "It is a masterful class act that could broadly be split into two parts: Content of the message and its method of broadcast. Both of them are governed by his deep understanding of the world his audience lives in and the overall 'language' of the contemporary narrative," Kumar concluded.

Things have since changed since 2018, when the article was published, but in a way, it was ahead of its time. Influencers from Mumbai's comedy circuit were quite sought after and have collaborated with some of India's biggest brands. However, when the #MeToo movement reached India in 2019, quite a few comedians were found to be directly guilty, or guilty by association - leading some brands to drop associations with those accused. It remains to be seen if the new style of marketing - by using comedians as influencers, not as comic actors, is a way of appeasing a trigger-happy social media audience, who seems to get offended at the smallest provocation.