Advertising used to be fun. It was like a race to prove who was more imaginative, who had more brilliance, who'd be accepting a trophy at the awards functions during spring season. It was about provoking laughs and holding 50 million people's attention at the same time with your imagination playing out on screen. At the end of it they would all finally exhale or collapse in mirth after the killer punchline. And they'd never get tired of it. Years later people would recall the commercial and tell you how great it still was when they met you. It was about coming out with the greatest commercial of all time, of doing a '1984'; where product placement touched a deep vein of emotion and context.
So whatever happened to good advertising in India? Cadbury and the Times of India were remarkable advertisers once, and their messages resonated; Kuch khaas hai zindagi mein (There's something special about life) and A day in the life of India. They were Indian without resorting to circus antics that brands like Alpenlieben employ to connect with local audiences. To become uniquely Indian and appeal to as many people as possible, a peculiar, unfamiliar advertising language has surfaced. And because its creators come from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the language is of a cynical 19th-century Lucknow resident in Chor Bazaar. We know this resident. He wears garish clothes and safari suits. He chews paan and recites poetry. You've seen him in one ad, you've seen most of the Indian advertising industry.
Where are the great Indian advertisements? The ones that break through through the mire of reflective voiceovers and exaggerated situations? It is telling that some wonderful commercials have come from a company that depends on conversation, and that its commercials carry very few words and are almost always quiet. This is Hutch, or Orange before it, and they follow the most basic of advertising mantras - break out of the clutter - to give us ads that are the opposite of what ads are expected to be: in your face, intrusive, shocking. If it's a film, it's quiet. If it's in print, it'll have lots of white space, the equivalent of no noise. Even their ads aren't all ads. The telephone bill arrives in an envelope with a picture of a smiling face or a karaoke singer I'd imagine is lousy. This is where the company becomes almost human. No human I know is always shouting out loud and ready to have a party; Kishan Mulchandani does not count: I believe he is a Photoshop creation, the newspaper version of S1mOne.
Advertising was varied, not as varied as books or movies, but its range was wide enough for us to realise that its inspirations were from life outside the agency. The latest ads appear to have been thought up of in a cardbard box; Sehwag's mother has somehow become famous; Pappu's graduation has become an occasion to celebrate; A married couple reinvent themselves because - sigh - their favourite motorcycle has reinvented itself and now comes with, get this, stylish stickers. Print advertisements, always hallowed turf, in the past few years have followed the 'Cannes' format: clever visual, hidden logo, no words. It's like they're all creating magnetic poetry from the same five-word set.
Has advertising and advertisers become so insular that they no longer know what life outside the agency is like? Are the long hours and pressing deadlines taking toll of its practicioners, for whom life is advertising and advertising, life in a cubicle? It seems as if, in an effort to be more different superficially and make it to Cannes, they have forgetten what it's like to be human.