DO YOU remember this ad for an air-conditioner where a poor young girl fills up some cold air in the cup of her hand and runs across to the fields where her father is toiling in the hot sun to give him some relief? The magnanimity of the air-conditioned world is staggering, that it gives so freely of itself to the poor is deeply moving. We cannot help the poor, so let’s mock at them instead with our pretended sympathy. Let the brand gain by speaking emotionally. So what if the poor are twice exploited?
The traditional argument for advertising increasing the distance between haves and havenots is that it makes the latter aspire for a lifestyle beyond their reach and hence creates a set of false desires leading to people living beyond their means. The traditional argument need not be true. Advertising can play a powerful role if it creates a ladder of aspirations that inspires consumers to continuously move up in their lives. For this to happen, advertising must speak to all its potential consumers and give each constituency the respect it deserves.
And this is where advertising is failing today. While it is more inclusive than it was a few years ago, it is still focused narrowly on a very small group of people. For instance, when was the last time you saw a village in a commercial that was not out of a tourist brochure? Barring a few instances, advertising excludes large parts of India from its mental model of consumers. This is particularly true for rural India but also applies to a whole set of mass-market consumers at the lower end.
When it does depict them, it is most often as caricatures for the amusement of the rest of us. The implicit perspective is so metrooriented that Lucknow is seen as a small town and spoken down to. The ‘us versus them’ mindset is embedded deeply and conversations with ‘people like them’ are usually patronising, stereotypical or both. The worst cases mock the consumer, as in the example of the air-conditioner ad above. Advertising is part of a larger discourse that includes popular cinema and news media where the rich have become the centre of our universe. By being concerned largely with consumers rather than people, and that too consumers with deep pockets, we are eager to listen to their concerns and tend to ignore the rest. In a larger sense, of course, advertising is the infantry of an army that seeks to make our world a place where we measure our worth according to the things we buy. In an inherently unequal society like ours, this can only magnify the distance between those who have the means and those who do not. Potentially, advertising could give those lower down the economic ladder the incentive to push themselves harder in the name of consumption. That it has chosen not to do so, is a tragedy.