Selected ethnography of marketing in India

Biscuits (cookies) in India are marketed for their “glucose shakti(power)”, bath soaps are marketed for their ability to get rid of germs, hair oil for its efficaciousness in keeping “lice away”, and the famous “fair and lovely” for its eponymous abilities. We have popular biscuits made by “Britannia”, a popular red tooth-powder that left chalky marks on your teeth sometimes and turned your spittle red, neem (mainly known for anti-bacterial properties) soaps and toothpastes, a “farmer” brand ketchup, “brooke bond” tea (after English tea retailer), “clinic” shampoo, “kwality” ice-cream (I always found it perversely ironic that somebody would misspell quality), and “prickly heat” powders. We have multiple competing mosquito repellents including the famous “tortoise brand” mosquito coil and “good knight”. We have ads showing joint families cheerfully celebrate and lighting fire-crackers and earthen lanterns after getting their houses painted with “Asian” paints, or buying a “Maruti” car, or for that matter a Chetak (after the horse of Rana Pratap Singh) or a “hero”-Honda. Our movie studios often have introductory banners that are full of religious signage.

India is a poor country. It is a post-colonial country. We are as nostalgic about British era ‘quality’ products as we are about the merits of “herbal” remedies even though popular herbal concoctions like Chyavanprash contain mainly sugar.

India came of age, IT age that is, celebrating its “kissans”(farmers) and “jawans” (soldiers). India entered the age of economic liberalization with its own baggage of history - colonialism, and its familial structures, religion, and government propaganda. The specificity of ads, the perversities of the pitches, all are merely scavenging over the body of this skewed, troubled body politic.

I grew up in this strange India. I grew up drawing my houses with slanted tiled roofs even though I lived in Delhi which only has flat roofed houses. I grew up drawing my houses as spare free standing houses, in middle of nowhere, and with a long winding walkway and green brushes even though, I never saw such houses while growing up. I drew colonial beauty - the mimesis of colonial aesthetics in India is deep and resonance, powerful. I grew up in a household where both of my parents were government “servants”.

Commercial advertisement traditions in the country are still cognizant of India’s deep poverty - they focus on the practical and not merely the aspirational though that is rapidly changing. I suppose as the economy grows the ratio of practical pitches to aspirational pitches increases. It is an artificial line - the line between practical and aspirational- and a line that blurs often but a line nonetheless. The fact is that most Indians haven’t reached a level of material comfort where each additional major or minor purchase isn’t looked on as something that materially and significantly improves comfort.

India in some sense is a prime market for marketers, except of course its soul sapping poverty. Indians, ever aware of social position and with brains hardwired to equate price with quality, are almost always willing to buy something costlier that shows better taste or portends better quality. Of course their instincts are roped in by positive social perception about buying something for a “good value” aka cheaply. There is little doubt in my mind that the most successful advertisements will make both pitches. Similarly, the most successful advertisements would also pitch to both its modern commercial aspirational soul, and its traditional religious - changing yet rooted - soul.

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