City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Advertising Mirror?

Hema, Rekha, Jaya and Sushma. To a generation of Indians, these four names evoke instant memories. Part of an advertising jingle that burrowed its way into our consciousness and took up permanent residence there, these names represent a kind of time stamp compressing within them a picture of an era. Advertising has been, without our necessarily, thinking of it as such, an important part of our emotional landscape. Most of us would remember different times in our life through some memories of the advertising prevalent at the time.

There is something quite unique about advertising, particularly on television, as a mode of communication. It is a compressed, highly stylised form of storytelling that implants desire directly and intrusively into our everyday lives. By associating consumption with the deeper motivations that drive us, it serves as a theatre where desire is enacted using dramatic fragments from our lives.

Advertising, seen one way, is a lie that speaks the truth. It exaggerates, embellishes and reframes reality in order to speak to desires that we are often unable or unwilling to articulate. It connects the banal with the lofty, embedding higher orders of meaning into small everyday actions of little consequence.

The choice of a bar of a soap cannot make a material difference to our lives, but advertising makes us invest this action with consequence; we connect the soap with a self-image that we covet. Its power lies in its unerring recognition of our desires and vanities; the solution it provides is most often transparently symbolic in nature, but by speaking to that part of us that we often live in denial of, it sets us free, even if through an act of artful illusion.

At any point in time, the advertising of an era helps articulate and frame the yearnings that animate it. It thus becomes a document of the times, a map that brings to the surface aggregate desires that are often hidden from view.

For an earlier generation, entertainment was a scarce commodity, and advertising often filled in, sprinkling the dreary hours watching Doordarshan with some semblance of animated energy.

There are any number of advertising campaigns that resonated strongly and looking back, one can see how some of these played a key role in shaping the ways in which we imagined ourselves.

Hamara Bajaj and its evocation of the idea of an imagined middle class ’we’, VIP luggage with its ‘Kal bhi, Aaj bhi’ articulation of the idea of cultural continuity and timelessness of some cherished traditions, Nirma and its insistent and unapologetic announcement of the arrival of a new consuming class, Pepsi’s Yeh Dil Maange

More, that made perhaps the clearest statement about the hunger felt by the post-liberalisation generation, to name just a few. Over the years, advertising slogans have become popular parlance, and have been used as titles of films, such has been their significance in popular culture.

Of late, something seems to be changing in our relationship with advertising, and in its ability to speak to our deeper motivations with a startling flash of insight. The odd example notwithstanding, it is not that easy to think of campaigns that capture the spirit of a generation or of this era.

At one level, brands vie with each other to advertise their interest in all kinds of larger social issues- gender, sexual orientation, corruption, class discrimination, but at another, their ability to imprint themselves on the collective consciousness seems to be declining.

Part of the reason why this is happening lies in the changing nature of media. Unlike a time when all of us watched the same programmes, and had the same set of cultural references, today in the digital era, we are all exposed to different stimuli at different points in time. For the young in particular, television is not the medium of the future. Audiences are fragmenting in general, and the move towards greater personalisation changes the social character of mass advertising.

As a source of entertainment too, it is now a paler version of the kind of content we can find so easily digitally. The uniqueness of the advertising format, in terms of its ability to pluck out stories of all kinds in the names of selling products now faces competition in the form of video content that uses far more disruptive modes of storytelling.

In a larger sense too, social media is now the primary chronicler of the times; it documents our desires in our words and images that we cannot help but emit every minute of the day.

We have also changed as consumers. The top-down model of consumption is changing-today we catch the contagion of desire from each other; we don’t need the formalised ritual of someone exhorting us to do so quite as much. As consumers, we are growing in sophistication. Advertising is beginning to feel like a somewhat primitive form, full of easy-to-see-through contrivances.

As the world gets more data-driven, persuasion techniques will become far more personalised. The idea of collective and public manipulation of meaning, which is what advertising attempts today will give way to more stealthy and individualised methods. Almost invisibly, the world will come to us slanted specially just for us, thanks to the data we bleed every single moment of the day.

Is this any real loss? We did not ask to be advertised to, and it is hardly as if advertising has ceased to exist. The form in which it appears and the role that it plays has changed. But every time a common cultural currency goes out of circulation, something does change.

The less we have in common to talk about and even disagree about, the more we drift away into our little islands of crystallised belief and set opinions. Advertising is a collective mirror, not of reality certainly, but of the reality of our dreams and fantasies. Without a common pool of references, it can become increasingly difficult to understand where the other person is coming from.