From Commodities to Brands: The Story of Indian Advertising

Advertising is communication regarding a product, service or cause to an audience to create awareness and generate engagement and or sales. For centuries, man has tried to create awareness and involvement amongst fellow men and Emperor Ashok set up rock and pillar edicts to spread the teachings of Buddha, which can be considered forerunners of today’s poster advertising.

While history records time with an academic rigour, advertising also records time in its own way. Tracing the history of advertising is akin to tracing the history of a society, because the two are intertwined in many ways.

In India, one can say that the first advertisers were the hawkers, calling out their wares in markets. Enterprising Indian manufacturers manufactured and named their products, and advertised them through largely word of mouth, such as Nobin Chandra Das, a Bengali confectioner who created and named a sweetmeat Rosogolla, creating a brand and gastronomic history. During the British era, British retailers promoted their products through catalogues and pamphlets. Print media ruled then and ads appeared in Hickey’s Bengal Gazette which was established in the 18th century and published in India. The history of advertising in India, in fact, goes hand in hand with the development of the press/newspapers and many will say that concrete advertising began with the paid for classified ads in newspapers. B. Dattaram and Co. is widely considered to be oldest Indian advertising agency, established in 1902. This was followed by others, notably TATA Publicity Corporation Limited incorporated on 13 June 1920. Their competitors then were largely foreign agencies.

The Movement from Commodities to Brands – A Fillip to Advertising

As companies evolved and expanded their markets, the need for differentiation from being a mere commodity to a brand began. Brands have unique names and visual identities comprising a logo/signage, a trademark that sets it apart from competing products. The first brand that captured the imagination of the people was Dalda, a hydrogenated oil launched by the Lever Brothers (now Hindustan Unilever in India) in India in 1937.  Lintas, their advertising agency launched a multi-media advertising campaign in 1939 using print ads and short films to promote the brand which was recognized by its distinctive green palm tree logo on yellow. Air India dominated the Indian advertising scene in the 1940s, and many consider its mascot, the ‘Maharaja’ as the first mascot for an Indian brand. Branding gave a huge fillip to the advertising industry, and soon agencies began mushrooming in India.

Society through the Advertising Lense

Advertising has reflected and led changes in society – Surf’s Lalitaji, the Liril Girl, the Complan Boy and the Complan Girl are part of advertising lore. The progressive independent woman was represented by actor Deepti Naval who endorsed Ms Cigarettes, specially launched for women smokers; advertisements combining a strong social message as seen in the Pan Parag advertisement featuring Shammi Kapur and Ashok Kumar on ‘Baratiyon ka swagat pan parag se kijiye’ highlighting the social ill of dowry; the Sunday Ho Ya Monday Roz Khao Anday campaign addressing the issue of protein deficiency in the country, or the more recent Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign are designed to also help change society.

Today advertising is a full-fledged industry comprising companies with goods and services to sell or a cause to promote; advertising agencies which create advertisements; media through which the advertisements are carried down to the target audience for whom this entire exercise is  undertaken. India is one of the fastest growing advertising markets in Asia, and may become a USD 1 trillion advertising market by 2022 driven by e-commerce and automotive advertising.  Large Groups such as WPP which own a number of advertising agencies such as Ogilvy, Wunderman Thomson, Grey (https://www.wpp.com/Contacts#tab-companies); Omnicom Group of which BBDO Worldwide is a subsidiary; Publicis with Leo Burnett and Saatchi and Saatchi (https://www.publicisgroupe.com/en/services/services-publicis-communications-en) also operate in India alongside several big and small Indian agencies such as RK Swamy, which later tied up with BBDO to become RK Swamy BBDO.

The industry has produced creative stalwarts such as Alyque Padamsee, the creator of Surf’s Lalitaji and the Liril Girl, and Piyush Pandey, best known for the Fevicol campaign, the Vodafone Zoo Zoos among others. The work of Indian advertising continues to win accolades both nationally and internationally at forums such as the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

In a world of free speech and an industry driven by creativity, which is difficult to regulate and control, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) was established in 1985 as a self-regulatory and voluntary organisation of the advertising industry. It was formed with the support of top companies from the key stakeholders: marketing, advertising and media companies. ASCI has developed a Code for Self-Regulation for Advertisers stating that advertisements need to be (a) truthful and honest (b) non-offensive to public (c) against harmful products/situations and (d) fair in competition with the aim of protecting the interests of consumers.  Any violation can be brought to their notice for redressal.

The platforms have changed – digital is gaining ground – and so have story telling formats, but the magic of advertising grows stronger with each passing year.

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