Sai Karthik
Guest Article

Tamil Nadu’s counterculture can defy the ad industry’s mainstream mediocrity

A culture powered GPS for clueless brands.

Rewind to the past and examine standout campaigns that emerged from Tamil Nadu, and you'll discern a fascinating trend. The ads that made a national impact or distinguished themselves didn't adhere to mainstream advertising norms. The lesson here is clear: to craft authentic regional work, you must inevitably diverge from the mainstream.

Consider The Times of India (TOI) launch in Chennai with its 'Nakka Mukka' campaign. Instead of a highbrow, English-centric approach aimed at wooing The Hindu readers, chief creative officer Senthil Kumar and JWT (now VML) delivered a masterstroke of brilliance and craftsmanship.

They captured the trials and tribulations of daily Chennai life, portraying the journey of a cinema actor to politician through the metaphor of 'cutouts', a nod to Tamil Nadu's culture of idolisation. The campaign went further, using an engaging, chaotic soundtrack that mirrored the tumultuous political landscape as seen by TOI.

Delve into the details of 'Nakka Mukka', and you'll find it’s a song that translates to 'tongue-nose' in Tamil folklore, performed in the 'dappankuthu' style, traditionally used to celebrate birth and death. The campaign's authentic touches—the cinema star's metamorphosis, the life-sized cutouts, and Chinna Ponnu's rendition of 'Nakka Mukka'—ensured it didn't just pay lip service but boldly highlighted regional nuances.

From a regional lens, counterculture doesn't have to translate to edgy, avant-garde or out of the norm. It could be as simple as sticking to the norm with outrageous detail for authenticity

It’s true that some native forms of art and expression have made their mark in Tamil pop culture. We are privy to Tamil international resurgence with ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ and it would be absurd to claim that this song's 'rap' element is anything but authentic. The song mourns the demise of nature in the 'oppari' style, a Tamil tradition of singing praises for the departed, which interestingly parallels the aesthetics of rap.

TN has a rich history of spoken word expression, long before western rap found its way here. Forms like 'Gaana', 'Oppari', and 'Dappankuthu' have naturally thrived and permeated films and pop culture, reflecting Tamil love for local slang and lingo.

One can’t dismiss the international and Tamil rap culture evolution in the state. It’s a beautiful fusion that has found home in the hearts of many– from Yogi B Natchithra to Paal Dabba, artists from Tamil diaspora in Sri Lanka and Malaysia have bought their own styles to elevate this genre.

With platforms like Maaja propelling regional music to the global stage and campaigns from Apple to Acko leveraging local icons like Pal Dabba, a new genre of advertising is emerging.

This trend, rooted in cultural authenticity, challenges the cookie-cutter strategies that many brands fall prey to. Is this trend simply a reflection of regional culture, or a bold counterculture movement rejecting the homogenised, one-size-fits-all methods that have dominated the industry?

Part of the biggest pitfalls for thinking about culture or counterculture is to be wary of standardisation. To assume an insight or observation will work universally is regrettable thinking, especially in a diverse country like ours.

Instead what you can ask yourself is to discover an insight/observation that doesn't work elsewhere but only in a particular culture– this kind of bold inquiry can pave the way for richer observations.

It’s never been more important that we adhere to principles if we are to weave counterculture-first thinking and practices.

1: Being a proud ‘culture-fussy’ is the first, ensuring that voiceovers, music, cast, setting, and nuances celebrate regional authenticity. Identify production partners who think and speak the language, and ensure adequate representation in the core team.

2: It is important to have effectiveness in sight. How do you verify if the counterculture agenda has worked for a brand or not? In TN, counterculture does not pay immediate dividends, unless a brand is consistent. ‘Love’ or ‘respect’ is a sale earned. The way into Tamil households is through the heart, the way to Tamil hearts is through relatable, high-quality content that walks, speaks and sounds like them.

3: Consider the insider-outsider dynamic and you’ll realise that some of Tamil Nadu's biggest icons—MGR, Jayalalithaa, Rajinikanth, and MS Dhoni—aren't originally from the state. Whether you're a native or a non-native Tamilian, you must understand that building iconic status isn't transactional. Donning Tamil attire, adding 'Vanakkam' to a script, or making appearances selectively during Pongal does not suffice. Brands are to learn the distinction between fitting in and forcefit.

4: Harness the power of ‘hacking’ a culture. For Myntra’s Palich Palich Pongal fashion campaign, we used light-art outdoors usually erected for political or religious festivals. This hack was supported by choosing strategic OOH locations that helped the brand generate high engagement with nostalgic appeal. An iconic combination of craft and localities was identified because the TN team at Talented weren’t translating nuances, but knew them first-hand.

5: Don't be myopic with the internet and social media at large. Regional social is strong in the state of TN. This stands true for other language-first regions. When you think of an idea or an activation for a regional-first campaign, I urge you to ask, how can we best maximise reach while celebrating context and nuance that the audience will enjoy.

With brands looking to employ regional-first strategies, they have to first escape the act of slapping on a veneer of local flavour. We’ve seen well-done examples of how culture and countercultures can be truly powerful in unlocking regional audiences for brands and businesses alike. Regrettably, the intent to transact is greater than the intent to connect for many brands.

The guest author works in strategy at Talented, an independent creative agency.

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