Connecting with the South in advertising

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I spent the first 20-odd years of my life in Chennai. Though I am not a Tamilian, I think I have a fair understanding of what makes them tick as an audience – be it the language or the ethos of Tamil culture. And as a Kannadiga with roots in South Canara living in Bangalore, I can bring in a pan-South perspective. My career in advertising took shape in Mumbai and the Mumbai-view of South as a market and its manifestations in advertising has always fascinated me. The genesis of this post is an old article in the Business Line by R Sridhar who wrote about the same topic.

It is impossible to club all the four southern states as ‘one market’. Historically this kind of stereotyping led to a lot of angst amongst the people, specially the Tamilians. When I grew up in Chennai, Hindi was not as hated as it was earlier, but there was a resentment. Doordarshan was the main TV channel then and they had a ‘National Feed’ late in the evening immediately after the local content. TV sets used to be promptly switched off then. The Government did try to be ‘inclusive’ but they achieved exactly the opposite. My memories of TV those days includes Philips Top 10, Superhit Muqabla, Chirahaar and Hum Log. No prizes for guessing, but the popular ones were the Tamil countdowns like Oliyum Oliyum. Superhit Muqabla used to have Hindi songs but the VJ intro’s would be in Tamil! Hilarious! No wonder that such efforts did not connect with the audience.

Advertising too paid lip service to ‘connecting with the audience’. Paradoxically, the acceptance of Hindi and a ‘national stimulus’ if I may call it that, happened after the launch of Sun TV and other regional channels. Today, it is quite common to see salwars among college-going women in Chennai and the garbs of the Tamil heroines are no different from the Hindi ones. Even in Chennai, thanks to the migrant work force from IT, Auto and BPO industries, Hindi is quite acceptable. The need to establish their own identity was fulfilled primarily through movies and later through regional channels. That’s why a Surya or Madhavan endorsing a brand is more powerful than SRK’s endorsement in the South.

The ad agencies are completely out-of-touch with the ground realities in the South. During the early ’90s ad agencies in Mumbai used to conceptualize a national campaign in English (mostly) or Hindi and then the script or copy would be passed on to a ‘Language Coordinator’. There used to be pigeon-hole marked with various languages: Oriya, Telugu, Tamil etc. The language writer would then come to the office, pick up the sheet marked to him and translate. No interaction with the origianl creator or the client servicing guy. No wonder the advertising left the audience cold.

The ones that were popular in the South were created by the local agencies. I remember an ad for Leo Coffee, featuring Arvind Swamy with a jingle composed by A R Rahman. The national brands thankfully realized that they need do more than just translate as witnessed in the Asian Paints Pongal ad. While a lot of progress has been made in this area the general outlook is ‘one size fits all’. How do you explain the Lays ad featuring Saif Ali Khan released during Diwali with ‘taash’ as the theme, dubbed in Tamil? Playing cards and gambling during Diwali is a concept which is so alien to the South.

It is impossible to make different set of commercials for the South, as costs are prohibitive. But care must be taken to develop concepts that don’t alienate this audience. Even with simple stuff like dubbing you send out signals that ‘hey you are not important to us’. The trend is to get one guy to dub for all languages and the effort shows. And when the model is moving her lips to ‘ghamoriyan?’ and the VO says ‘Verkuruva?’ there is an obvious mismatch and is bloody irritating.

The trouble with language writers in Mumbai is that they are usually not in touch with what’s happening back home. The lingo, the nuances etc., have to come from the mitthi. I came across this Author Bio written by Krish Ashok (he has an awesome blog going!) from Chennai. The author describes himself thus:

an anti-social, music loving philistine who is doing jalsa, showing jilpa, enjoying gilma, thinking about matter, vuttufying peter, sutthufying ooru and generally having gajabuja fun. Web 2.0, violin, guitar, balloon-wala flutes, pencil sketching, Terry Pratchett, Asterix, Chacha Chaudhry, Rajinikanth are some, not all, of his interests. Mixing things that don’t mix in ways not attempted before is also a source of everlasting passion for him. In addition to that, he loves the city of Chennai, its auto drivers and its very expressive language, Madras Bashai (a.k.a Tanglish)

I can bet that this kind of language is near impossible to get from a language writer in Mumbai. Or take a look at the Titan Sonata ad in Tamil, vastly better than plonking a Dhoni mouthing Tamil.

This is not to say that ads created by locals is the way to go. The formula of the local brands in Chennai is trite – typically song-dance routine followed by meaningless one-liners like ‘Soooperma!’ And then we still have a lot of creatives who think ‘Rajni spoof’ when it comes to a South-specific communication. We need to find the happy middle ground.

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  1. Hey, thanks for the link. I also find Hindi taglines fairly pointless in a Southern context. I can still not forget Krish Srikkanth struggling with the Reliance tagline and eventally settling for “Karlo duniya mutti main hai”.

  2. Cool. And the one from Pepsi: ‘Ullam ketkudhe buttermilk’ (for those who don’t understand Tamil, ‘more’ in Tamil is buttermilk. ‘Yeh dil maange more’ was a cry from the heart for buttermilk).

  3. One such disastrous effect was with “junoon” …. later it became generically called junoon tamizh …. where it was word by word translation…. like “chollumaa naan varean” instead of “naan vareannu chollumaa” ….. but it used to be fun to read these chembur / sion / matunga based tamil translators

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