Sanjana Ramachandran
Guest Article

The Sanjana Effect: almost 50 girls were named after Pepsi’s 1993 ad

One of them wrote this article. She also tracked down the other ‘Sanjus’.

This article is an excerpt. The original article can be accessed on https://fiftytwo.in/.

“Hi, I’m Sanjana,” began my conversations with 47 strangers on the Internet recently. Their names were, by and large, also ‘Sanjana’.

Sanjana Ramachandran
Sanjana Ramachandran

Sanjana Parag Desai’s mother had known what she was going to call her daughter for eight years. Sanjana Harikumar’s mother had known for nine. For Sanjana Prasad and Sanjana Hariharan, their elder sisters had made the decision before they were 10 years old themselves. Arun Thomas, who named his daughter Sanjana in 2009, vividly recalls the first time he heard the name.

The year was 1993, and the 50-second phenomenon that had swept them up - along with the rest of the nation - was a Pepsi commercial called Yahi Hai Right Choice Baby! Starring Aamir Khan, Mahima Chaudhary (credited with her birth name Ritu) and Aishwarya Rai, the “young and popular models of the time,” as my father described them, the ad begins on a stormy evening.

A man in a brown jacket, evidently single, is humming as he plays chess with himself. The doorbell rings. It’s a beautiful young woman. She wants to know if he has a Lehar Pepsi. He’s run out, but she won’t settle for anything else. In a heartbeat, he jumps out of the window and runs across the road, braving rain, traffic and closing shop shutters, to bring her a sweating cola bottle.

Before he knows it, there’s another knock on the door. “That must be Sanju,” says the beautiful neighbour. “Sanju?!” he splutters, wondering if there’s a boyfriend in the mix - until she comes in, wearing red lipstick and wet hair.

“Hi, I’m Sanjana,” says the 19-year-old Aishwarya Rai. “Got another Pepsi?”

The first time I met another Sanjana named after a model in a soft drink commercial, was in 2018. “What was my father thinking?” exclaimed Sanjana Vasudevan. “Did he think she was hot?”

It was a rhetorical question. Prahlad Kakar, the director of the ‘Sanju ad’, as it came to be called, had very specific instructions. “I told Aishwarya, walk in, lean against the door. Your look has to say,” said Kakar, putting on a hoarse, female voice now, “If you want me, come and get it.”

A few months ago, I wondered how many Sanjanas were like us. A clear pattern revealed itself on investigation. There were more than twice as many Sanjanas born in 1993 as in the preceding three years, according to voter rolls from the 2015 Delhi assembly elections.

I put out a tweet calling for other Sanjanas, wanting to understand who was named after the ad and why. This brought forward several tales of smitten Indian families. Rai’s was the “face that launched a thousand babies,” as Kakar put it.

Yahi Hai Right Choice Baby! also launched Rai. A year after the release of the commercial, she made international headlines for her victory in the Miss World pageant. Her answer to the final question, about the qualities of an ideal Miss World, charmed a generation of viewers. She would have “compassion for the underprivileged, not only for the people who have status and stature,” Rai said, tall and glimmering in her white gown.

“She signified everything, didn’t she?” said my mother, about why she chose my name. “Beauty, success, making her parents proud. Plus, the name wasn’t very common then. It sounded unique and modern.” My father, an advertising professional himself, recalled of the ad, “It was on TV, day in and day out, and it was cool, youthful and lively.” (Sanjana Harikumar’s mother had similar aspirations. “She just decided she wanted her child to carry herself with the grace and poise that Ash did.”)

This Sanjana Effect, encapsulating a generation’s desire for their daughters to channel the spirit of Rai and her public success, is well-described in the 2005 book Freakonomics: Parents, whether they realise it or not, like the sound of names that sound successful. The authors analysed findings on how several factors - name, race, gender, socioeconomic status - are correlated with life outcomes, and posited that baby names “suggest how parents see themselves, and the expectations they have for their children.”

The author is a writer and marketer, who has worked on brands like Tide, Ariel, The Ken and The Caravan. An electronics and software engineer by training, her writings on business, tech and culture can be found here.