Benita Chacko

Decoding the pan masala ad template

While pan masala brands are moving from Bollywood celebs to cricketers, the brand message and positioning doesn't change. Here's why.

Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar, Salman Khan, Ajay Devgn, Ranveer Singh, Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Anushka Sharma and many more. The list of Bollywood celebrities endorsing pan masala brands is endless. But now we have a new list of cricketers endorsing these brands. After Sunil Gavaskar and Virender Sehwag, Kamla Pasand has roped in Kapil Dev and Chris Gayle.

While the internet is abuzz with concerns of these influential sportspersons featuring in a surrogate ad for a product that is known to be harmful to health, and rightly so, it also brought forth another question. Why do all pan masala brand ads have the same message and positioning? 

Beyond the celebrities in the ad, nothing much has changed. We still see exotic locations, a larger-than-life lifestyle, and every other ingredient of a regular surrogate ad for pan masala. 

Naresh Gupta, cofounder of Bang in the Middle, says that since this template has worked for them for years, they do not feel the need to reinvent it.

"Also how much market research are they doing and are they taking reactions from their audience? They will not reinvent because they are not really hearing the consumer feedback," he says.

Speaking in his personal capacity, Anchit Chauhan, AVP Planning, Wunderman Thompson, said that the category seems to have found the right formula to advertise.

"The brands do not feel the need to experiment in their messaging or format as their age-old formula is working. That is the reason why all the brands in the category follow the same template," he says.

Moreover, he says, that there has been no innovation in the category over the years and so they do not have anything new to say in their ads.

A study by market research firm Imarc pegs the size of the pan masala market in India at Rs 43,410.2 crore in 2022. The category has emerged as the highest ad spender in the first 54 matches of the Indian Premier League (IPL) this year. It holds a 16% share of the ad volumes, a 9% increase since last year. In fact, KP Pan Foods, the parent company of Kamla Pasand, is the second-highest advertiser on the IPL with an 8% share in the ad volumes. Rajshree Silver Coated Elaichi is in the list of top 5 new brands advertising on the IPL. Other popular brands like Vimal and DB Signature are also spending big on the IPL. 

From 2011 onwards, all state governments have banned the production, advertisement, and sale of gutka and pan masala mixed with tobacco. So these brands don't advertise their products directly and instead promote its 'elaichi' (cardamom), which does not have any addictive substances. The branding, however, is indistinguishable. 

For years these elaichi ads have had the same ingredients. One, the tagline usually elevates the brand's association to a greater cause. For example, Vimal Elaichi's ‘Zubaan Kesari’ brings in shades of nationalism. Or Pan Bahar's ‘pehchaan kamiyabi ki’ elevates the product from being a mere mouth-freshener to a ticket to success. 

These ads are shot in exotic or foreign locations and show the male protagonist leading opulent lifestyles, linking its products with success. For a product that is sold at a price as low as Rs 5, its ads sell dreams and fantasies of big homes, cars, and luxury living. 

Gupta says the biggest problem in this category is the need to acquire respect and it is these elements that help the category gain respect.

"When pan masala advertising was legal, it would show a highly lavish life and build imagery of success. Now that they have moved to elaichi they've carried the same template forward and built the sense that royalty eats our elaichi," he explains.

The use of a celebrity seems to have become a mandate. Chauhan says these celebrities lend credibility to the brand through their image and reputation. "Through these celebrities the brand attempts to associate themselves with luxury, success, and aspirations. These ads are driving on the aspirational value."

However, the category largely ropes in male celebrities.

Gupta surmises that it could be that many female celebrities turn down these endorsement offers as they do not want to be associated with the category. Or it could be that the respect it strives to bring in largely comes from bigger male stars. 

"The advertising in this category is mostly run by the owners themselves and they tend to look at the male celebs far more seriously than the female stars," he says.

There's also a cultural angle. Indian women do not really purchase from the pan shop making the category a de facto male category.

"In the smaller cities, women walking up to the pan shop is a bit rare. And so the category was built on the male ego and persona," Gupta explains.

With almost all the ads in the category following the same template it is hard to differentiate one from the other and for them to break through the clutter. However, Chauhan says brands in this category do not feel the need for clutter-breaking advertising.

"All these brands have a loyal customer base. They are not going to experiment with a new brand based on their ads. However, they need to continue to advertise to maintain brand salience. It's a competitive category and a brand can't afford to disappear from the media," he adds.

The IPL and other sporting properties are the major brand-building platforms for this category as it provides them with a large reach to the male audience. They also sponsor film, music, literature, and media festivals. The category is largely out of home and so one finds them on huge hoardings outdoors as well.

Beyond the lack of creativity in these ads, there are concerns about whether it is legal to broadcast these ads.

Shweta Purandare, an advertising compliance expert and former secretary general of ASCI, is surprised to see these ads being telecasted as she is of the opinion that these ads are illegal under the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA).

"Surrogate advertising is not permitted by law whereas 'Brand Extension' advertising is permitted for products such as alcohol. So, an alcohol brand can advertise packaged drinking water, provided it meets 'Brand Extension' criteria. However, it is different for the tobacco category because tobacco comes under the purview of COTPA regulations. As per COTPA, a registered trademark for a tobacco product can not be presented as a brand extension and is prohibited from being advertised," she explains.

Purandare raises concern about whether the regulators or ASCI have looked into this barrage of ads. "Since my stint at ASCI, a lot has changed in the last three years on the regulatory front – especially with the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) coming into being and the introduction of Guidelines for Celebrity Endorsements. However, we are yet to see if it has made any dent for surrogate advertising," she says.

Gupta agrees and says the regulators need to put stronger controls. "Regulation is very important in this category and these ads need to go away," he says.

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