A bubblegum-pink cupboard trembles to a tune by Daft Punk. Out struts one ruffled young woman checking the time, followed by a second, distractedly zipping up her hot pants. They exchange a glance that dashes any suspicion this is simply the culmination of an innocent game of hide and seek. The tagline flashes on screen: “Come out of the closet – move on.”
This television advertisement from Fastrack, which makes watches and accessories for India’s youth, led to raised eyebrows and voices across the country when it was first aired earlier this year. “People could love it or hate it but they couldn’t ignore it,” says Ronnie Talati, chief marketing officer for watches at parent company Titan.
It is just one example of a campaign from Titan, ultimately part of the Tata group, that challenges social conservatism in the country. A more recent ad from its jewellery label, Tanishq, depicts a wedding in which it is slowly revealed that the bride has a young daughter – thereby confronting weighty taboos around remarriage and single motherhood. Moreover, in order to challenge Indian ideals of beauty, the actress chosen to play the bride has a complexion that qualifies as “dusky” – a euphemistic phrase for dark skin in a country where only fair is deemed lovely.
The company hopes the ad will appeal to modern Indian women and help it eke out a niche in an industry dominated by small family businesses with loyal customers, who buy jewellery for weddings and other traditional celebrations. “When they [the agency] presented the concept to us I think the first words that came out of my mouth were that it’s a very bold and brave ad to do,” admits Deepika Tewari, head of marketing for Tanishq.
Many viewers took to social media to laud the campaign as a milestone. Naveen Jindal, the steel magnate and member of parliament, tweeted: “A dusky bride with a daughter in an ad? Well done @TanishqJewelry for breaking stereotypes with grace & power.”
Critics, however, say the ad is behind the times as these social issues are no longer taboo in India. They have also highlighted its similarity to an ad for Femina, a women’s magazine, that tackled the stigma around remarriage years ago.
Nonetheless, the quivering closet may be the modern day answer to the shaking shrub in old-school Bollywood films, where amorous scenes were veiled in cliché and the only physical contact that made it on screen was rape. That said, India’s tortuous social scruples have since been tested in more contemporary film and television. “If you look at Indian cinema or even TV serials, all these things have become part of the conversation,” says Bindu Sethi, chief strategy officer at JWT Mumbai.
Bollywood has covered everything from sperm donation to Lolita-style plots and India’s histrionic soap operas have dealt with marriage in many unconventional forms. However, people working in advertising believe the industry still has a role to play. “In Bollywood it’s pitched and presented in a way where people don’t take these things very seriously,” says Arun Iyer, national creative director with Lowe Lintas & Partners, the agency behind the Titan campaigns. “When a brand takes on a message like that and it’s putting its business at stake, the seriousness of it goes up.”
Mr Sethi adds: “I think large brands with marketers don’t do it for shock value, they do it to make a statement about what the brand thinks.”
But while Femina and Fastrack specifically target a young population, the question is whether such boldness would work for brands in more traditional businesses. “Advertising mustn’t be anything but the mirror of the moment,” says ad guru Swapan Seth, who co-founded Equus, a WPP company. “It takes courageous agencies and clients to catch the unconventional bull by its horns.”
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