Kaushik Sriram, Rohini Ramachandran | IIM Bangalore
In this article, we explore the humour quotient in Indian advertising through the lens of certain television ad campaigns that have tickled the consumer funny bone in order to evaluate the effectiveness of such campaigns. We diverge from the traditionalist body of literature that brackets humour in advertising as risky and at best, as effective as other ads. Our contention is that an ad campaign built on humour stands out from the crowd and captures the consumer mindshare.
Introduction: When using humour to advertise a product, the main challenge for marketers is to link the advertisement to the underlying brand so as to translate consumer enjoyment to consumer purchase. This linkage is questioned by numerous researchers, they quoted the chief flaw of such a strategy is the distraction of the consumer from the brand. We diverge from this view – our contention is that the industry context and basis of competition is also critical to the nature of advertisements used. Our frame of analysis includes campaigns that are recognized for their innovative use of humour including Fevicol and Fewikwik, Happydent White, Vodafone Zoozoos, Idea Cellular, Frooti, Amaron and Axe.
Types of Humour:
Back in the 1960’s, a golden rule in advertising, propagated by the founder of Prentice-Hall, was to never mix humour and advertising. Today, with the proliferation of product offerings, humour is increasingly being looked upon not as a distraction that trivializes the product, but as an effective means of distinguishing the product from the crowd and drawing the attention of consumer. Humour can come in many forms and the choice of the appropriate type is highly dependent on the target audience, the cultural bias, the choice of advertising medium and the product itself. Some of the more popularly used forms are:
• Personification: This is where inanimate objects assume human characteristics and the inherent humour in observing such behaviour is used to highlight some quality or the desirability of the brand. One such example is Pepsi’s ‘Oye Bubbly’ campaign in which various objects such as the car stereo and the garage are shown coveting the Pepsi bottle.
• Exaggeration: Here certain attributes of the product are magnified out of proportion like the Fevikwik ads where the fisherman uses Fevikwik on a stick to catch fish, trumping the sophisticated fishing gear of the person next to him.
• Slapstick: This particular brand of humour deals with the ludicrous/exaggerated and presents situations where the humorous aspect of the ad, far from being subtle, strikes the viewer in the face, the Chlormint ads being a prime example of this.
Other forms include sarcasm, comparison, pun, understatement and irony. However, there is a strong cultural context for such advertisements. Individualistic cultures like the US and UK typically feature advertisements having one or two dominant characters while in more collectivistic cultures like Thailand, ads revolve around groups. Similarly, the degree of uncertainty avoidance and the amount of masculine dominance in the culture of a country are key factors in influencing the type of humour that can be successfully used in advertisements, with countries high on these two parameters tending to prefer slapstick or direct humour to subtle nuances and double entendres.
Analyzing the Indian advertising scenario keeping this cultural context in mind, certain key trends can be identified. Given the traditional family oriented culture of India, Indian advertisements, in the past, have mostly derived their humour from the interplay between multiple characters. Also humour has tended to be largely slapstic, based on filmy spoofs and ridiculous situations. This part can be attributed to the diversity of cultures and languages found in India. Humorous ads, therefore, must tread the thin line between keeping the cultural idioms of their target audience in mind and taking care not to offend the cultural sensibilities of any group. Slapstick offers an easy way out with situational humour having a broader reach while also ensuring that the punch line is not lost on the audience.
Evolution of Indian Humour:
Over the years, there has been a gradual evolution in the use of humour in Indian advertisements. The most obvious change has been the increasing use of humour with advertising agencies increasingly trying to grab the attention of consumers through their funny bone. In 1993, only 28% of commercials were humour-based. By 2001, at least 46% tried to incorporate some form of humour. And while in most countries, funny ads have largely been associated with low-involvement products, in India, even high-involvement products like televisions and insurance have tried their hands at humour.
A more subtle change that has been taking place is in the type of humour employed. From pure slapstick, ads are moving towards more intelligent comedy , with a more individualistic bent, be it the Vodafone Zoozoos, which cleverly depicted a variety of situations, each with some link to a feature offered by Vodafone, or the Fasttrack ‘Move on’ commercials, which perfectly captures the changing nature of Indian society today. India today is at a crossroads, between its traditional past and a more modern future, which perhaps explains the success of ads across the entire cultural spectrum – be it the group oriented Fevicol truck ad showing people stuffed into a truck, or the more individual oriented Fevikwik fisherman ad, from the slapstick Akai TV ads of old to the more subtle Camlin Marker ads, to the extent that even potentially controversial ads like the Axe series have found acceptance in India, which is viewed to be conservative.
Right from the Market:
Here we are illustrating the different types of humour that work in the Indian advertising context and also to measure the effectiveness of these campaigns along multiple dimensions: Amaron, Frooti, Axe and Max New York Life Insurance.
Amaron (Amara Raja) batteries: The iconic claymation advertisements with the catchy slogan of ‘Lasts Long Really Long...Ting Tong’ captured the imagination of the public and acted as clutter busters in 2002. The ‘Hare and Tortoise’ ad and the ‘Kumbhakarna ad’ were aired on Doordarshan and other satellite channelsand brought in tremendous brand awareness for Amaron batteries – a late entrant into the automotives battery space in 2000.
Interestingly however, the expected spurt in sales did not materialize. The product was a low involvement one with incumbent advertising focussing on the toughness and macho image of the car battery. The dominant player at that time, Exide, was well entrenched and Amaron did not manage to make a dent in their sales. The ad agency – O&M went back to the same claymation studio in 2004 to come up with a follow up, the ‘Pandu Mangal’ ad. The uniqueness of this ad was the universal nature of the humour – the bumbling cop in pursuit of a wily thief was instantly recognized and appreciated across all segments of people. We also theorize that the humour was well received as it relied on simple age-old themes and had powerful visual imagery. This ad consolidated Amaron as a powerful brand and was a platform for their explosive growth post-2006. In 2006 Amaron reverted to a stereotypical performance based campaignusing racing stars like Karun Chandok and Narain Karthikeyan. Our take is that the humour based advertising helped establish the brand awareness but did not add to the top line due to the low involvement of the car owners in the buying decision and the lack of product differentiation as the ‘Lasts Long’ promise held true de-facto in the business.
Frooti: The Digen Verma ad blitz that lasted for 15 days in February 2001 catapulted the brand into public imagination and generated a tremendous buzz across the country. The campaign was centred on a faceless college going guy called Digen Verma who is idolised by his friends, girls and even peons – in general everyone who knows him except for the stodgy old college professor. The teaser campaign combined with the new caption for Frooti – ‘Just Like That’ was aimed at repositioning Frooti from a kids drink to one for the youth. Hence, a rebellious theme was adopted in the campaign.
The last series of ads in this campaign show Digen ordering Frooti (of course Digen himself is not shown on screen) – this causes pandemonium across the country and everyone switches to Frooti immediately! This campaign was unique in the effective use of suspense(watch this space approach) and humour in engaging consumer attention through various innovative forms of media (messages telling Digen to remove his car from the parking lot were flashed in theatres, bus stops had posters asking if Digen would be on the next bus and so forth).
A look at the sales figures show a marginal increase in the year the campaign was aired followed by steady increase in sales – the market share decline was halted by thiscampaign though. Sceptics however claimed that the Digen Verma persona had become more famous and had marginalized the brand. Later, Frooti switched to their old theme of ‘Fresh and Juicy’ which did worse than the Digen Verma campaign – hence in comparison the use of a unique style of humour proved to be more effective for Frooti.
Axe: Our inclusion of Axe is a little controversial as its ads have straddled a thin line between sexism and naughtiness in terms of the humour. Its analysis is due to the unique nature of the advertising – the same campaigns are aired worldwide and there has been no attempt to tone down the humour or modify it in any way for India.
This dispels the notion that Indians are conservative in their humour – of course the marketing for Axe was backed up by a great product too. The Axe effect in terms of sales and market share has been spectacular to say the least. HUL (the parent company) replaced their old deodorant brand Denim with Axe due to its spectacular success.
Axe is by far the naughtiest brand in India and is targeted at the male aged 16-25. The ads highlight various situations where the guy, usually an ordinary next door neighbour kind of chap rather than a hunk, gets pursued by different women. Seduction is the dominant motif here, with the women making the first move – a bold idea for Indian audiences. Yet, it has captured the pulse of its target audience perfectly.
Max New York Life: When Max New York came out with their advertising featuring an overzealous dad with his young child as he exhorts the child to repeat words of increasing complexity, consumers sat up and took notice. The advertisement poked fun at Indians who have a propensity to push their children into various activities at a young age. Interestingly, the humour in the ad was well received – wry humour had worked on Indian screens after a long while! The ad demonstrated two things – one that Indians were willing to laugh at themselves and two, high involvement products could be advertised using humour.
The sales of new policies shot up from the slowdown in October – further the weighted new received premiums too shot up. The ad had worked its magic. Max New York followed it up with another humorous ad in Apr-2009, this time poking fun at the retired Indian male.
Thus, the use of humour, in products where consumer preferences play a vital role in selection, not only helps bring the brand into the consumer’s consideration set through increased brand awareness and recall but also appears to translate directly to an increase in sales.