Shreyas Kulkarni

What ails India's festival advertising?

Buckling under the weight of trolls, boycott calls, and the mere seconds of airtime, the festival ads lack lustre, finesse, and fun.

Surf Excel and Bharat Matrimony have nothing in common. Almost nothing. One is a detergent brand, and the other is a matrimony app. They are as different as chalk and cheese except that both have seen extremists attack their festival ads.

The detergent brand saw its 2019 Holi ad trolled for showing a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy, and their friendship. #BoycottSurfExcel was the sweet shared online amongst the reactors. This year, Bharat Matrimony’s Holi ad created a furore for showing the violence women face during this festival by men.

Such incidents have become normalised during Indian festivals in the past few years. If a festival ad is not attacked or trolled or its makers called out and asked to be boycotted, then the surprise and shock effect comes into the picture.

What, however, stood out this year, is the near lack of Ramzan ads. We (afaqs!) struggled to find ads around this festival. If advertising is society’s thoughts reflected, it is quite a disappointing reflection.

Adding to the missing Ramazan ads is the lack of layers or finesse of festival ads regardless of religion. Forget causevertising, most ads are so generic, they often fail to hold the attention of a viewer for even 15 seconds.

“Brands, in the last two years, have stuck close to the festival spirit and have not added any layers to their ads because of the pushback they have received from customers and social media,” explains brand strategist Ambi Parameswaran. 

He, however, does not believe festival advertising has gone away, only the “big campaigns have been reduced into shorter ones.”

“I don't think festivals are a time to make a statement, they are a time to celebrate,” states Rahul Mathew, chief creative officer, DDB Mudra Group. He says a brand should think about why it is advertising at any time before doing it.

The CCO cites his agency’s client McDonald’s as an example. Take the food brand and Ramzan and put them together, it makes sense.

What he says can go ahead and make the problem is when a brand tries to participate in the moment and not the emotion. “It's about the sensitivity with which you do it. How do you portray the community, what do you show...”

Advertising in the age of seconds

A good story is chewed, slowly and then digested. Viewers today, courtesy of the 10 to 20 seconds time frame on TV made famous by the Indian Premier League, gulp down ads like a man coming across a pool of water after wandering for hours in the desert.

It is evident in the multitude of festival advertisements which do not focus on the story or fail at it miserably, and instead jump straight to the Call to Action (CTA). “Buy Now”, “Download the app now”, “Gift this today”, or “special festival offer” …  One gets the gist. 

We mention television because, during festivals when families get together or just chill and have tea, the television tends to stay on. Passive viewing? Maybe, but it is better than no viewers at all.

“Very few brands today are doing storytelling… you can tell a story when you have duration. Or you can laugh at a joke when it's 20 seconds,” says Anupama Ramaswamy, chief creative officer, Havas Worldwide India, explaining the challenges one faces from a creative point of view when it comes to writing ads for festivals.

Brands, Ramaswamy says, are cautious today because of the unnecessary trolling many have faced, they feel it is better to give an offer instead of a story with a point of view.

It is not the 20 seconds but what you wish to say, for DDB Mudra’s Mathew which is the problem. “It takes time and effort to cull down information. It is easy to say a lot. It is tougher to say what matters. Before a 20-seconder, brands should have a conversation on what are we willing not to say because then you'll be able to say it beautifully.”

A whole new way?

One should not consider television as the primary or priority medium while others are relegated to minor positions in a media plan, it is passe, says Kunj Shah, former head of India creative, Amazon.

“We need to continue to reinvent the storytelling on TV,” she remarks and says good content will organically become social content. “Whether you see it on TV or banners becoming gifs shared on social networks, WhatsApp, etc.”

“Why can't I reintroduce the approach? Maybe the 10-15 seconds on TV can lead you somewhere else. One has to be clever the piece the story across all media and that is where creativity will come into the picture. Not just in the narrative but in the use of media.,” she asks.

The new codes

Unwritten, unspoken, and understood; the codes of what works and what does not in advertising change after a while. For instance, ‘run like a girl’ passed as an acceptable mocking a decade or two ago. Today it only exposes your immaturity.

Festival advertising too has seen this change. Causeverting during festivals, for example, when done right, works wonders. Although the strike rate is often low on this one, it is buckling from the online reactionary troll farms after every festival.

“… do not hurt sentiments because as of today, sentiments are fragile,” says Ramaswamy, explaining what she keeps in mind these days before brainstorming on a festival ad.

It is then not surprising to see brands take on a conservative avatar, which Shah feels is common be it today or 20 years; “the belly of the market will always be in status quo.”

The ones who will stand out, in her opinion, are those who were, are, and will remain bold. They will stand out and become beacons… “Brands will ask “why can’t we make such ads” to agencies.” 

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