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Indian TV commercials that dare

A woman, not a typical fair bride at that, is marrying again. Her daughter wants to be part of the proceedings. The groom picks up the girl on his lap and does the saat phera. The girl looks up to the man and asks “Daddy bulaaon?” (can I call you daddy?).


TheTanishq jewellery commercial, which shows a dusky mother getting married, explores the concept of remarriage and breaks stereotypes

A man walks into a marriage registrar’s office with his wife-to-be and shocks the registrar (incidentally a woman as well) by stating that he wants to take his wife’s surname after marriage.

A group of slum dwellers sport masks of Sachin Tendulkar to drink what they think is a rich man’s soft drink only to realise that one of the boys is Sachin himself, telling them that a cola knows no class barrier.

A woman finds out on her wedding day that her in-laws are harassing her parents for dowry. She does the unthinkable and calls off the marriage. 

Sadly such events, when they happen in real life, are so few and far between that they make headlines. These are exceptions and not yet the norm. Advertisements, as creative directors the world over would argue, only reflect what society dictates. But then there are times, when creative spark combines with another spark -- to break stereotypes and initiate a mindset change.

No wonder then that the recent Tanishq ad has created a storm across social media and drawing rooms with arguments equally divided. It deals with the concept of remarriage and also takes on one of India’s oldest trysts with racism -- the preference for wives, children and daughters-in-law who are “fair”.

Arun Iyer, national creative director of Lowe Lintas, the agency behind the television commercial (TVC), says the ad is just a reflection of what is happening in the society these days. “The brand has just come out with a new-age wedding collection for the contemporary woman. So we were looking at concepts that would represent this idea. After brainstorming, we chose the concept of remarriage. The ad has generated a lot of conversation as it makes a bold, progressive statement. As far as casting a dusky model was concerned, it wasn’t intentional. We were looking for somebody who could emote well so we chose model Priyanka Bose.”

Ad filmmaker Bharat Dabholkar agrees that the ad strikes a chord while reiterating that it reflects what is happening in society. “Advertisements take cues from films. Rarely do they take chances. The Tanishq commercial is very good but not a path breaker. In isolation, it may look new but it is just reflecting what our movies are showing.”

The recent history of Indian advertising is full of examples when commercials have broken stereotypes, created controversies, led to public outcry and, in many cases, opened our eyes to the folly of our ways.

Havell’s Hawa Badlegi Ad
One won’t have to jog the memory much to remember this series. The one that stands out is the ad that features a couple walking into the marriage registrar’s office. The registrar asks the couple their names and presumes that the wife will take on the husband’s name.


Rahul Da Cunha below) likes the Havell’s Hawa Badlegi ad that shows a man taking on his wife’s surname

But the man corrects her and says she will retain her maiden name and he will take on her surname. Recalling it as one of the ads that made us sit up and think, Rahul da Cunha, managing director and creative head, DaCunha Communications, says, “India is a chauvinistic country. Ad films and cinema only make it worse as they stick to stereotypes.

Rahul Da Cunha

This one, therefore, was a refreshing ad as it broke the norm of women changing their surnames to that of their husbands. The most common stereotype that I see is that if someone is dark-complexioned, he or she is inferior in some way. Also it is almost expected that in our country, women must always serve men. However, times are gradually changing as I’m seeing more equality in ads.”

Pepsi’s Yeh Dil Maange More and Tata Tea’s Jaago Re
A bunch of schoolboys from a slum indulge in revelry with cricket bats and huddle below a tree with their backs facing the camera. When they turn, all of them are wearing masks of ace cricketer Sachin Tendulkar.


Pepsi commercials progressive as the first one taps the political consciousness of the country and the second busts class differences

Then, one of their pals brings a Pepsi ice crate. All of them start drinking the soft drink before suddenly realising that the boy who got them the cola isn’t wearing a mask at all! He is Tendulkar himself. Ad guru and founder of Genesis Films, Prahlad Kakkar says, “This commercial, which I directed, broke two major stereotypes -- firstly that only rich people drink fizzy colas and secondly, only individuals who are slightly better off can dream big.


Ad guru Prahlad Kakkar (below) finds the Tata Tea Jaago Re

It drives home the fact that everyone can dream big and strive to fulfill their aspirations.” Kakkar also recalls the Tata Tea Jaago Re campaign that showed a politician doing the rounds of homes asking people to vote for him. A young man invites him for tea and then asks him about his qualifications and work experience. When the politico’s secretary chips in that he has been in the business for 25 years, the man says that by ‘work experience’, he meant what work he has done for his voters. “This was one of the first ads that highlighted the common man’s unhappiness with the political system,” he remembers.

Ad guru Prahlad Kakkar

Kakkar says it saddens him to admit that even today Indians are obsessed with fair skin and genuinely believe that only city-bred people are intelligent and smart. “India is a country full of stereotypes. We are obsessed with fair skin, we like to cast only fair women in our movies but the fact remains that we are not a fair country. A majority of us are of wheatish complexion. Also we like to believe that all villagers are gawaar (stupid) and city-bred people are smart. The advertising field is perceived as a business of selling products and not changing minds and mindsets. That should change and we should touch upon topics that are not ‘approved’ by everybody but issues we believe are right.”

The Pond’s TVC
One of the earliest ads that took on issues such as dowry and women being looked upon as liabilities, were the Pond’s ads. Remember the one where just as she is about to get married, the bride realises that her in-laws are harassing her parents for dowry, and calls off the wedding.


Sumanto Chattopadhyay (below) finds the Pond’s commercial progressive as it shows a girl calling off her marriage after her would-be in-laws demand dowry

The commercial was topical, inspired by the real-life case of Nisha Sharma, a woman who had called in the police on her would-be in-laws when they demanded dowry just as she was about to tie the knot. In another Pond’s commercial, a girl goes for her first job interview. She is upset when she finds out that her father has used his connections to help her get the job. So she suppresses her father’s name at the interview. She wants to get the job on her own merit. Of course she wows the interviewer with her poise and confidence and gets the job. Only then does she reveal who her father is.

Sumanto Chattopadhyay

“The first commercial resonated with a society weary of the terrible practice of dowry. And in a culture where using connections and pulling strings is a way of life, the story of the plucky young girl, in the second commercial, busted stereotypes and struck a chord with viewers,” recalls Executive Creative Director, South Asia, Ogilvy Mumbai, Sumanto Chattopadhyay. Indian women, he argues, are typically portrayed as housewives and mothers in commercials. “Her life is dedicated to her home, husband and children. If the woman has one child, it’s a boy. Her happiness is entirely dependent on their health and happiness and she has no life of her own. Sometimes her parents-in-law are in the picture, in which case she is also portrayed as the subservient bahu. Very rarely is the stereotype broken to show an independent woman with desires and dreams of her own,” he adds.

Chattopadhyay feels the root of many of problems faced by women in India is because the son is considered the kulapradeep, the future. He is heir to the family name and the family fortune. He is the provider for and protector. “But what if we suddenly change this stereotype? Change the ads, the movies, the customs, the culture, the society, the laws, everything, to say that from tomorrow it is the girl who carries on the family name. I think it would shake up our world and perhaps, when things settle, the world would be a better place,” he elaborates.

HDFC Standard Life ad
Surprisingly, the one common thread in most path-breaking commercials is that they deal with women’s empowerment. Think back to the HDFC ad where a small girl is looking at a photograph of an astronaut. She tells her father that she would like to go to this place (space) and asks if she could go by plane.


Sociologist Nandini Sardesai (below) finds the HDFC ad, which shows a father planning to save money for his daughter, progressive

Her father, who is sitting on a sofa, replies that she would have to go in a rocket. She quips that it would be an expensive affair and suggests a plan wherein they ask her maternal uncle to finance her trip, as he is very rich. The father replies that he has a better plan wherein he would save money for her till she grows up and she could fulfill her dream.

Sociologist and a member of the Consumer Complaints Council of the Advertising Standards Council of India, Nandini Sardesai says, “This ad is a far cry from other TVCs that show parents fussing on their sons or saving money for his education. As a country, we are obsessed with two things -- fair skin and patriarchy. Earlier, ad films would show a girl not getting a groom or a job because she is dark. Her success or failure depended on her complexion. Ad filmmakers need to be more accountable. They have tremendous influence on masses so they need to show women in the right light.”

No wonder then that the ad world is shaking up the real world with commercials that beseech us to respect people irrespective of race, gender and class.  

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