Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Advertisement as Text: A Case Study

Advertisement as Text: A Case Study

Barnali Saha

Research Scholar
University School Humanities and Social Sciences
GGSIPU, New Delhi

The word ‘advertisement’, derived from the Latin word ‘advertere’ meaning ‘to turn’ the attention is a persuasive form of marketing communication with the public with the intention of promoting or selling a product or a service. Though transient in quality, advertisements wield visual, verbal and non-verbal artifacts to craft texts the traces of which are often left behind in the society long after their demise. Therefore, far from being hackneyed discourses intended to sway the general masses, advertisements involve complex encryptions that both imitate as well as construct societal realities.

Like any other form of communication, advertising too initiates with an addresser intending to convey a message via a medium—print or audio-visual—to an addressee who decodes the message and completes the process. However, unlike informal verbal communication operating on a single level, advertisements are intended for a complex range of addressees and often include a whole array of messages targeting myriad groups of audience who must strive to decode the meanings embedded in the text of the advert.

The paper is a case study of five commercials, four audio-visual and one print advertisements, all featuring the Indian social scenario to examine how advertisements include a complex range of signifiers depicting and altering the pattern of cultural praxis. It also intends to examine how advertisements use popular social codes to convey a range of meanings, how they propel and sometimes break stereotypes, how they use images and sounds and wield the tool of language to deliver their message. It will further scrutinize how cultural change is reflected in an advertisement by studying the former versions of the first four commercials chosen for the case study.

The first commercial is a promotion of the Indian brand Emami’s men’s fairness cream called Fair and Handsome. This commercial is among the early advertisements of Fair and Handsome cream launched by Emami and casts its brand ambassador, Bollywood’s leading actor, Sharukh Khan. The ad begins with a young woman remonstrating with her wannabe-fair brother for exhausting her tube of fairness cream. Subsequently, Sharukh Khan arrives at the scene and reproaches the young man for using a ladies only fairness product despite being a man. A cast of extras too carry on with the upbraiding as the protagonist tries to flee from their midst, apparently in embarrassment. The sequence set to a jingle the lyrics of which proclaim that a man may not secretly apply fairness cream meant for soft and delicate womanly skin and instead use Fair and Handsome, a product especially designed to be imbibed into skin into the “rough and tough” skin of men and produce desired fairness in only four weeks.

Fair and Handsome ad 2007
Commentary: The text of the aforementioned commercial is imbued with a thick layer of inner meanings. The subject of beauty rituals, like application of creams and ointments, is often associated with women. Fairness creams, particularly, connotes an image of a female applying the unguent for the effect of whitening her complexion and thereby becoming an object of desire in the eyes of men. The idea of men applying a female-only cream is, therefore, in the prevalent patriarchal point of view, something to be detested and the person performing this sacrilege, upbraided and embarrassed. The terms of remonstration in the speech bubble and in the jingle suggest that a man who deigns to use a fairness cream meant for women is unmanly and effeminate. Nevertheless, Mr. Khan, the manly-man, the person whose fair skin perhaps the abashed protagonist covets, comes to the rescue of the disconcerted and erring male by proposing to solve his problem— his desire to gain fair skin and his shame at using a female-only product—by offering him a cream meant solely for the “rough and tough” skin of men, a cream that he may not be ashamed of using, a cream that is “non-girly”.

The ad most importantly suggests fairness to be desirable not only among women, who need to groom themselves to obtain a husband, but among men too who could go to any extent, even condescend to apply a female-only product, to become attractive like film stars. Nevertheless, the “rough and tough” male society must never approve of a man using female products to heighten his looks. It must, therefore, find a solution by which a male can retain his essential maleness and accentuate his looks. The solution it banks upon is a cream meant for the rough skin of men, a product that combines the goodness of women fairness creams with added ingredients that would heighten its effect on male skin and bring on the desired fairness, the ultimate resolution, in a manner of four short weeks.

The paralanguage of the text is conspicuous as well. The protagonist is depicted as deliberately dark complexioned in contrast to the fashionable Bollywood actor, his embarrassment at using a female product suggest his dire situation.
The advertisement makes strong association between maleness and grooming. It suggest fairness to be the ultimate dream of a modern Indian man.

                               Fair and Handsome Ad 2013

The subsequent ad of Fair and Handsome, featured a few years later, demonstrates a distinct shift in its fairness agitprop. The ad recasts Shahrukh Khan, its brand ambassador, but instead of depicting an act of remonstration at a man using a ladies cream, the commercial features the “badshah” (emperor) of Bollywood’s journey from rags to riches with Fair and Handsome acting as his longstanding confidant in his perilous journey toward the zenith of the cinematic glitter-land. The ad begins with the star narrating his story of how he received nothing but best wishes from his predecessors, and yet, he wanted more from his life. In order to quench his insatiable thirst to succeed, to earn more respect, more fans, he relentlessly persevered and prepared himself for his daunting task of adopting acting as a career. It was Fair and Handsome that became his unswerving companion in his expedition to succeed.

Commentary: The subsequent Fair and Handsome commercial comes as a distinctly different rendition of Emami’s essential fairness agitprop of an abashed man using a female fairness product. Instances of an embarrassingly effeminate male performing a sacrilege of applying an unsuitable female product is conspicuous by its absence in the text of the second ad. Even the wish for a fair skin as the ultimate goal of a person wishing to be attractive is toned down as well. One wonders if the change in its original sexist and xenophobic vison is because of a heightened gender consciousness in Indian society or because of the flak the company received for promoting a racist culture in India. All the same, the ad does suggest fairness to be equivalent to success in featuring it as the “soulmate” (humsafar literally translated) of the emperor of Bollywood in his daunting journey from rags to riches. It was Fair and Handsome, the cream that gave something extra to the male toughened by life’s vicissitudes, which was a fit companion to the star. It is interesting to note that the cream is personified (it becomes humsafar) and equated with strength, passion of acting and kept on a similar footing with these two qualities that make-up the essential being of the czar of Bollywood. Fairness is here no longer the ultimate objective, it is success that one aspires for; nevertheless, in order to be successful one must be fair, one must have Fair and Handsome by one’s side, not as a throw-way option, but as a lifelong companion. As long as fairness is there, the actor will be the coveted star.

 Nestle Maggi Ad 2010

The second commercial is an advertisement to promote the whole wheat variety of Nestle’s already popular brand of two-minute noodles, Maggi. The ad begins with the old gentleman watching the signs of impending rainfall and craving a plate of fried delicacies. Listening to him, his wife instructs her son to ask bahu (son’s wife) to make something healthy and delicious. He, in turn asks his kids to convey the message. The elder daughter who is busy painting her nails further instructs her little brother to forward the instruction to their mother. The child is seen visiting his mother in the kitchen, his eyes glued to the portable video game he is holding, and relates the order to make something healthy, tasty and full of veggies. The woman then instantly decides to prepare Maggi Atta noodles full of health benefits and sends a bowl for the father-in-law. Every member of the family help themselves to a delicious spoonful of noodles and by the time the bowl reaches the old gentleman, he finds only a spoonful of noodles left for him.

Commentary: The text of the ad plays with the idea of a traditional happy Indian household and its ideal denizens: husband and wife, their two kids (one boy and one girl), and the husband’s older parents all living happily under one roof. It puts forward the stereotypical idea of a woman as a kitchen queen, the goddess of her household who could whip up delicious and healthy meals in a jiffy and never needs any help from her family members who are only happy to order their special gastronomical cravings and taste the delicacies. There are further suggestions of patriarchal ideology in the way the woman is positioned in the kitchen happily spending her time within the confines of her culinary space. The fact that none of the family members help the woman and while away time by playing video games, painting nails, exercising or, more exactly, partaking of activities that don’t involve real work, only furthers the patriarchal belief system the ad reflects. The happy jingle as well as the cheery faces eager to taste the noodle all try to hide the retrograde image of an Indian woman toiling in the kitchen, bearing the responsibility of her family while the people in question engage in frivolities of which she can never be a part. Maggi Atta noodles is put forward as the first choice of a responsible Indian housewife who has to take care of her family and must ensure their optimum nutritional and health needs. Therefore, Maggi, suggested as the counterpart of oily batter-fried crisps, is healthier option that everyone can enjoy.

Maggi Mother's Day 2015

Compared with its older advertisement, Maggi’s 2015 commercial is intended not just as a promotion of its brand, but as a celebration of the eternal relation between mother and daughter. The commercial is an “ode to the most beautiful relationship in the world”. The ad is fashioned as a puppet show and features a mother-daughter duo. The mother leads her daughter into a room, her hands lovingly covering her child’s eyes, a beautiful yellow dress laid on a bed, a surprise gift to her daughter as she embarks on a new journey of life. Next, we see the daughter reminiscing and reliving a series of emotionally vivacious moments of togetherness where the mother is depicted as a guardian, a caregiver and a friend. She is seen lovingly feeding her daughter a nourishing bowl of Maggi. As the daughter unpacks her belongings at her new abode, her hostel, and shares a meal of quickly-made Maggi, she remembers her mother. The concluding section shows the daughter visiting her mother, who affectionately welcomes her child and serves her a bowl of Maggi as the jingle celebrating the interminable bond plays in the background. In the epilogue, we see the refracted doppelgangers of the puppets, the beloved human mother and daughter wielding the puppet-strings behind the scene. The commercial finishes with the dedication “for the person who knows everything about you”— a mother.

Commentary: Launched in the wake of severe criticism and ban for using large quantities of monosodium glutamate (MSG) and lead, this Maggi commercial is clearly intended to enhance the image of Maggi. In its aim to ameliorate the controversy and welcome truculent buyers who were aghast by the revelation that their coveted two-minute snack was marinated with chemicals destructive to their system back, Maggi turned to the notion of motherhood.

The text of the ad, the jingle, sung by Shankar Mahadevan, the singer whose track Maa from the popular movie Tarrein Zamein Par is an unequivocal popular favorite, strive to cast  away the stigma hurled at Maggi. It is interesting to note here that Maggi before 2015 never celebrated Mother’s day with a special ad. Although the notion of motherhood is intrinsic in its previous ads and Maggi has been generally portrayed as the primary snack-time choice for mothers, here the text narrates a different story. The notion of motherhood, the idea of a mother as a primary caregiver, as the sole protagonist upon whom the child’s mental and physical growth depends is the fundamental point in this ad. The lack of any male presence furthers the notion of powerful matriarchy, not intended to equalize gender bias, but as a buoy saving Maggi when the vox populi decreed its jettison from their daily menu. The ad unmistakably displays Maggi as the traditional snack that is integral in a mother-daughter relationship. In fact, Maggi acts here as the binding force between the mother and the daughter, something equivalent to a lifelong friend, the humsafar in the Fair and Handsome ad. The use of puppets to deliver the message represents the idea of fun and fantasy; and yet, the realistic features of the puppets as well the human mother-daughter duo featured in the final part, suggest the commercial’s message to be deeply ingrained in realism despite its features of fantasy and amusement.

Ariel India 2013

The Ariel India commercial also features the theme common in several washing powder advertisements: the Midas touch of a mother’s magical hand rubbing away the stains from clothes. In fact, it is interesting to note how the image of a mother is omnipresent and omnipotent in the advertising world. The use of motherly emotion to sell a product is a commercial manipulation that seems never to misses its point. Here again, like the Maggi ad, we see a mother-daughter pair; and yet, unlike the Maggi ad, that borders on the maudlin, the message here is straightforward. A daughter playing her musical instrument is consternated to find a mud stain on her T-shirt that the mother uses Ariel to tackle successfully. The mud stain gone, the mother and the daughter is relieved and the commercial ends with the duo give each other flying kisses.

Commentary: The Ariel washing powder advert is another example of a persuasive commercial that used the image of a mother to enhance the appeal of the product. The ad suggests the washing of clothes as a mother’s primary duty. Although it doesn’t adopt the blatant expression like the famous “As good as mom’s hand wash” tagline of Surf Excel, another washing detergent, the underlying meaning of the text does represent laundry to be a woman’s department.

                                                Surf Excel Ad

It is from her mother that the girl child inherits the tricks of laundry— the use of Ariel washing powder to clean stains—and implements them when the need arrives. One may wonder how a surfactant’s potency is accentuated when used by an ideal mother— one who knows her homemaking job well. But here the Ariel ad, like several other detergent powder ads, is quiet. The ad is satisfied to present a gendered view of society, one where a woman is a mother more than anything else, where her other qualities are conspicuous by their absence, and if present, are devalued in comparison to her homemaking skills.

Ariel Share the Load Campaign 2015

Ariel, however, decided to deconstruct the dated and gendered view of a patriarchal Indian household, a stereotype in the advertising world, when it launched its share the load campaign, a drive to sensitize the Indian men to the need to partake of the chores of the house. The narrator is the father of a young woman who watches his daughter as she tackles her official work and her domestic roles singlehanded while her spouse, unperturbed, demands food, drink and asks his wife to wash his shirt. The father feels helpless for instilling the gendered roles in his daughter and takes active steps to rectify the erroneous social gesture of household chores being gender specific by deciding to share laundry duties with his wife.

Commentary: The ad comes as a powerful voice and questions the gender roles that have passed on from one generation to the next without evolving. It questions the idea of a complete woman as a multitasking role-player, a domestic goddess as well as a career women and lays bare her desperation when she has to tackle both sides of her life without help from her spouse and her family members because she was brought up in an environment which taught her it’s a man job to tackle the outside world and he must always be a disinterested spectator when it comes to housework: a stereotype deserving abrogation in our social-media centered modern world where women are no longer domestic identities. The powerful tagline hook “why is laundry only a mother’s job” is intended as an embarrassing truth that needs to be tackled.

The commercial is addressed to the newer generation of Indian men and women, and Ariel, because of its progressive outlook, comes as a product designed for the modern Indian home where men and women share an equal footing. The commercial undoubtedly enhances the product’s image, it surprises us and persuades us to take a positive action. By propagating a unique point of view, the commercial makes sure it is in the news, and by extension, this leads to the product it is promoting to become popular as well.

Video 8 Catch Subzi Masala 2015

Not all commercials, however, likes to tread the unbeaten path to seize the reader’s attention. Many, like the Catch spice ad, abides by the stereotypical norms of society to sell its product. In this ad, we see Vidya Balan, Bollywood’s leading female actor, addressing the narratee. She tells us that when food at home becomes boring then people start making excuses to avoid the gastronomic fare. We view a range of cases where the cast— a young man, an office going adult, a middle aged man returned from work—indulge in the act of making excuses to avoid tasting bland home food. The problem, nevertheless, is deftly solved by Miss Balan, who asks the narratee to use Catch spice at home to introduce flavor to her boring cooking and that way win her family back. The trick works wonders as we see the disquiet dinner-haters returning to the table and tasting the delicacies cooked with Catch spice.

Commentary: The Catch spice commercial is another example acquainting us with the idea that advertising affects the way we construct our identity. The ad plays around the stereotype that it’s the woman’s duty to cook for her family, while the family, regardless of her feelings, may denounce the dishes she cooks when her food, and she, by extension, becomes boring. The expression “boring” is significant in the ad. Narrated by the vivacious actor effortlessly managing her way in the kitchen, Vidya Balan is anything but dreary in the ad, while the other female case, the cooks, in this ad are either invisible or are lacking personality, like the woman whose middle-aged husband makes an excuses of having had dinner with an office client to avoid her home cooked meal. The woman’s unprotesting dismayed face betrays her inner sentiments, but, it’s interesting, that she doesn’t talk back and simply accepts her failure and tries to spruce up her cooking by adding Catch spice. The effect is immediate as we see her displaying herself in a more confident way dressed not in nondescript monotone but in white, resembling the white of her husband’s shirt, suggesting equal footing at home. The paralanguage in the ad also suggest its men who get to deny food they find boring and it is women who must learn the tricks of the trade from effervescent movie persona and implement them to add attraction to their selves and to their cooking. The ad plays around the idea that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and if a man finds a woman’s cooking unattractive, he, by extension, considers the woman cooking it, unequivocally dreary. And a man wants nothing to do with a dreary woman. The ad plays with the insecurities of an Indian homemaker who is often forced to feel inferior and is hardly appreciated for her hours of unpaid labor. The ad furthers this stereotype to sell its branded product. Here again, like many other commercials, we see a product solving a baffling problem: how to avoid being a boring woman? The answer is easy: use Catch spice and accentuate your cooking, and, by extension, become a confident and attractive woman.

Video 9 Catch Hing Ad 2016

The commercial of Catch Hing spice launched afresh resembles its predecessor in content. It features Vidya Balan, its brand ambassador, as the same vivacious woman who is ready to solve all cooking dilemmas an Indian woman encounters. The ad casts a group of woman all tempering the truth in a frivolous and gossipy way. Vidya Balan tells that everybody tempers truth, but real tempering is done by Catch Hing which heightens the flavor of a dish and accentuates its temperate appeal.

Commentary: The text of the commercial preserves the idea that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. It further adds, that it’s women who gossip in the most frivolous manner tempering with truth in a masterful way, adding such color to an original incident—a young woman accidentally dropping a glass of water on her mother-in-law—that it takes on a bizarre and outlandish shape. The discourse is intented to be funny and meant for an Indian woman who watches television soaps that stretch truth to an unbelievable extent. It doesn’t use any vague symbols but reaches its point straightforwardly: all women love tempering with truth, but a spice is better at tempering than most of them.

Figure 10  Print Ad Razor Slim

Commentary: The Razor Slim capsule ad is an example that shows that despite their differences both audio visual and print media commercials have equal impact. This ad targets the insecurities of an overweight individual with the carefully placed headline “The Amazing New Breakthrough in Natural Weight Loss” the narrowing of the letters suggest the loss of adipose, the inevitable result of consuming the slimming capsules. The word “New” suggest the modern roots of the product, the innovative scientific technique that went on to formulate this natural breakthrough slimming formula. And yet, the product is completely organic, being Ayurvedic in nature. The ad deftly plays with an Indian citizen’s obsession with Ayurvedic products and her general disinclination to consume Allopathy drugs given their unnatural lineage in a scientific laboratory. The ad therefore suggests a smart admixture of the old and the new: a new formula with traditional and modern characteristics acting together.  

The before and after images are cleverly placed and reminiscent of the way we read an English text from left to right. The picture of the left suggest former flatulence while the later image depicts the amazing slimming results produced after taking Razor capsules. Further, the image of a woman’s toned body, a tape measure calculating the slight number of her waistline boost the idea of positive weight loss. Finally, the words of endorsement from doctors with exceptional medical records is used to appease the buyer of the safety of the capsules as well as its inevitable effects. It suggests that the formula is clinically proven and is both safe and effective.

The case study of the series of commercials suggest that advertising is a popular form of public communication that uses various devices like stereotyping, clever use of layout, symbols, text, sound, etc., to convey its message to its target audience, and in this process of communication, it alters, constructs and deconstructs several societal realities. Advertising is thus an extremely potent form of complex communication that affects the way we build our identities, we visualize our world and become conscious of cultural environment.  

Copyright: Creative Commons License
Advertisement as Text: A Case Study by Barnali Saha is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at

No comments: