Perhaps one’s earliest experiment with surrogate communications was several decades ago when one routinely enlisted a female friend to call the girlfriend on a landline as it was invariably her father who answered the phone.
After a point, while the female friend would identify herself as “Uncle, Neha (name changed to protect identity) here,” the father would holler, “Satbir ka phone hai.”
One saw a striking resemblance in alcohol ads years later when the first ‘apple juice’ ads started appearing. Not one for a moment believed that they were hawking apple juice or music CDs. Truth is, it caused much merriment.
Spirits and salts soared.
Unless you worked in an ad agency. While we guzzled spirits by the gallon, the mention of a booze account would see spirits sag.
Before you presented several rounds of scripts, you presented several rounds of what could be the surrogate.
Sell, don’t advertise
At one of my previous agencies (there are many), we won the mandate to launch a top booze brand in India. For a whole year before the launch, every few months the global team would come to our office and we had to open each meeting with what surrogate advertising meant.
We knew they felt it was not the right thing to do. Unethical event.
But that’s how it is.
It’s legal to sell alcohol in nearly every state in the country. But it’s not so to advertise it.
I read somewhere that states earned over Rs. 1,75,000 crore in excise duties from alcohol last year.
Warning or don’t, this figure will continue to rise.
The surrogate ATL budgets will be diverted to on-ground promotions. There will be more discounts. More buy-one-get-one frees. More merchandise. Longer, happier hours.
The agency’s loss
The only ones to lose will be agencies that will lose a decent-paying set of clients.
A crackdown on misleading advertising is a welcome step. Consumers’ interests must be protected so they are able to make informed decisions based on facts rather than false narratives and exaggerations.
Now, a lot of advertising uses creative liberties, exaggeration and metaphors.
Who can forget dentures chattering as a fridge door was opened? Or a barber using a particularly sour chewing gum to get a desired hairstyle? Shiny teeth lighting up a palace? Unbreakable eggs because the hen laid them in an empty adhesive container?
Some of these have gone on to become part of India’s rich storytelling tradition.
The consumer is smart. They know that an empty adhesive jar can have no effect on eggs. They laugh about it and the point about a powerful adhesive is made memorably.
Exaggeration and misleading can be argued to be different sides of the same coin.
Political advertising, throughout history, around the world, has sold hope. While a germicide’s efficacy or car’s mileage can be proven under test conditions, how do you measure hope?
More clarity, please
Brands must also be careful about how they talk to gullible children. Industries like edutech have to be especially mindful of what they promise to gullible parents.
There needs to be more clarity on Surrogate Advertising. Can Kingfisher, the airline, make a comeback? Will the Royal Challengers play in the next IPL? A few brands have created genuine top-notch properties in the fashion and music festival spaces. What happens to them? If large-scale, successful surrogates are allowed, what about smaller ones?
Best of all, why not allow honest alcohol advertising, with warnings, during a particular adult time band? After all, attractive alcohol shops are all over our public spaces.
While we wait for these answers, I will pick up this bottle of music CDs from a nearby thekaa. I hear there’s a free glass with it.
-The author is the founder of Thinkstr. Views expressed are personal.