Pan-India advertising: lost in translation

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I find majority of ads meant for the southern markets lacking in that certain something – a connect, a feeling of familiarity…of speaking the same language (apnapan, as they say in Hindi). They seem to lack that. Example: a potato chips brand advertising their Diwali offer pack in TN with an ad featuring Saif Ali Khan and friends playing ‘taash‘ (playing cards) – a very North Indian phenomenon; something that would be abhorred in TN as a Diwali ritual. I have ranted about this and related issues in the past. See here and here.

It was all brought alive again, thanks to a Millward Brown event. As part of a day highlighting their research tools, they talked about ‘Ad Transference’ – the ability of an ad to ‘travel well’ in India, i.e. to be accepted across regions. They also outlined 3 things that help a brand ‘travel well‘: creating a unique brand space that delivers consistent brand cues or associations, idea of a “common shared culture” and insight or fundamental “human truths”. Couldn’t agree more. But very few brands have the same stature and value associations across India – only a handful perhaps. Most big brands have varying degrees of affinity across regions and hence their communication has to rely more on the ‘shared culture’ and delivering ‘human truths’ bits. Millward Brown explains these two:

Second is the idea of a “common shared culture”. Thus, ads based on Bollywood or cricket have the power to travel well, because they hold similar meaning across the country.

Third is the insight of fundamental “human truths”. These include finding a partner, spending time with family or helping the next generation to develop and thrive. Moulee cited the example of Surf’s ‘Daag Acche Hain’ campaign, where a brother fights with a mud puddle to appease his sister, who had fallen in the puddle.

At a conceptual level, this sounds right. Ads featuring celebrities or those rooted in universal insights should cut ice on a pan-India basis. Yet, very few of them resonate across all regions. You could blame it on India’s plethora of languages and regional nuances. But the real issue is that very few ads are rooted in an universal insight – an appeal that resonates across all regions. A parallel lies in dubbed films. Many Telugu & Tamil films get dubbed in Hindi and shown in B & C Centres or on non-prime time on TV Channels.You can figure out that hard core Hindi speaking states will find it difficult to connect with them. Yet ‘Roja‘ was a huge hit across India, despite being an obvious dub. The characters were hard core South Indian – for example, the one played by Janagaraj would have been laughed at in the North in a ‘regular’ dubbed film. The sentiment it evoked – of national integration and the timing – were the clinchers. In Indian advertising, very rarely do you find ads that cut across language barriers and appeal to all regions.

Even if we find an insight that has universal appeal, the practical issues of language, attire, dubbing etc. take over. An example that comes to mind is the brilliantly done Vodafone ‘Diwali’ ad – it portrayed a typical Indian family arguing about an everyday issue. The grandfather was the scene stealer in this film – he was so endearing. But the practical issue of not being able to cast the same guy differently for a South Indian version of the ad makes the ad appear ever so slightly ‘distant’ for the South Indian viewer. Some brands resort to shooting the same ad twice – one each for North & South (Vodafone – Irfaan Khan for North and Prakash Raj for South). So there are practical issues of costs & dubbing that result in a sub-optimal regional ad.

Agencies bring woes upon themselves by not paying attention to anything beyond Hindi. With roots in Karnataka, I grew up in Chennai, studied Tamil and yet was familiar with ‘North Indian’ sensibilities. I was fortunate to see ‘both sides of the coin’ as it were, growing up in advertising. I was in a position to evaluate an idea thought through in Hindi and then translated in Tamil. Unfortunately you can’t expect every ad exec to be familiar with more than 2 Indian languages. The job is left to the language coordinator who in turn is in touch with an army of language writers. Most of these writers are based in Mumbai and seem to be out of touch with the current nuances of their local language. Chances are, they left their home town right after college to come to Mumbai in search of a writing job in films. In my view, most of such writers do a translation and nothing more – they don’t attempt to bring the idea alive or create a connect. How else do you explain the dialogue mouthed by a 6-year old in a toothpaste ad? Looking at her brother’s teeth a little girl exclaims in Tamil, ‘Parchidaivu!’ (cavities). Now that’s a direct translation from the Hindi ‘Sadan!’. But no 6-year old will use a word like ‘Parchidaivu’ (more likely to be used in the Classical Tamil Conferences) – as @beastoftraal pointed out on Twitter. Such bookish translation has an effect on building that ‘connect’ with a regional audience. Once the script is translated, it is passed around in the client’s office for ‘inputs’. No harm, since it is given to everyday folk who have nothing to do with the process of ad creation (you know, Raman from Accounts speaks Tamil – let’s check with him; how about Naidu from Production – let’s show him the Telugu script). But instead of checking for overall comprehension and appeal, sometimes all possible inputs will be taken on board to create a bhelpuri.

And then there are several concepts that make you wonder if they work as well in regional languages: KILB of Religare, Aamsutra of Slice and so many others. Another recent phenomenon is the practice of getting one dubbing artist to record in multiple languages. So it could be a Marathi, English or Hindi speaking voice artist who mugs up the jingle or dialogue and recites in Telugu or Tamil. It is an assault on the senses. It immediately sets up distance. So while agencies do spend time & effort in unearthing universal insights, if they paid a little more heed to some of the seemingly ‘less important’ stuff it will help a great deal in making the ad ‘travel well’.

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  1. I agree to most of this, as I want all my tvcs to reach out to the tg they are meant for. Being a Maharashtrian from Andhra with a Telugu speaking father and a kannada speaking mother has made me aware of the different milieu centric cultural divides that we have.
    However, there is one person in Mumbai who does all my languages (Manohar Nayak of Lingo) who makes a great difference.
    he was also on the cannes jury recently.
    Check out his 10 learnings on…

  2. Hi,

    I can so relate to this post! As a Kannadiga, whose parents lived in TN for generations, I could understand both Kannada and Tamil. I understood a lot of N Indian Sensibilities having done engg in MP. I find that most Ads are transliterated into South Indian Languages. E.g. I remember a min-truck ad where the central theme in Hindi was of Chhota Haathi. Had this been translated, it would have been "Aane Mari" in Kannada, but it was transliterated and was dubbed as "Chikka Aane".

    Recently, due to my professional association with an Indian FMCG Foods company, I was asked to proof read ads in Kannada. I found that this is done be people who's qualification is they know kannada. They just transliterate …. never translate ….. which is why we find a lot of bookish language for ads in Kannada and Tamil, where as in Hindi, they sound pretty fine.


  3. Spot on. Happens all the time.

    Everyone recognizes it. But like you said, we fail to take cognizance of the problem at the stage where the campaign idea is being cracked.

    Just one thing. How does one gauge 'ad transference'? Would the Greenply 'Sardar in a Tamil household' commercial ( be an example for an ad that has 'traveled' well?

    • MW studied a bunch of ads which did well in an earlier phase of research to conclude if they 'traveled well' or not. I guess the Greenply ad had an appeal beyond just the North as it was rooted in humour.

  4. Rekha Nigam Reply

    Lucky, looks like 'the more things change, the more they are the same.' This is exactly the phenomenon I had been fighting for years. Things won't change unless advertisers look at India as a 'Europe' of sorts – a kind of a federation of different cultures, languages, movie icons, musical references etc. So just as you would never imagine dubbing an Italian commercial into French, you shouldn't attempt it across the North and South states of America. Agencies also need to get together and launch a talent hunt for creative talent in the colleges of South India. That's the only way ads suffused with the flavors, smells and references of specific states will get made.

  5. Sriram Iyer Reply

    I think most campaigns are flawed at the conceptualization stage. The worst hit are those Hinglish ones. Sample the 'Be a little Dillogical' line for Lays, which plays on 'il' in Dil, which then forms 'Dil-logical', translate it into different languages and it loses its essence. I'd imagine the line (Be a little Dillogical) stays the same in the packaging across India- if it does, then there's flaw there too.

    The same goes with Kurkure -the Raj-ma ad- must have been a bouncer for most unaccustomed with Hindi cinema.

    But, some translations have been good too. I particularly liked the SBI life insurance ad ( The song is an old hindi number, but the translation in other regional languages were spot-on. Ditto with Cadbury's 'Pehli Tareek', again another old Hindi song.

    Just my 2 cents.

  6. Sachi Thomas Reply

    Completely agree with this post. It has happend to me in my 18 years of professional experience. Confusion happens even within the same language e.g., Arabic spoken in Saudi, lower gulf and Lebanon are different and leads to the use of a least common denominator concept (not the most effective, but the option which has the chance of the least damage).
    I guess the success lies in planning and preparation upfront. Is enough time, money and effort being spent in identifying relevant category, consumer, universal insights. Is this then translated in a simple easy to understand manner for everyone to understand.

  7. Shiv Moulee Reply

    Hi. Thanks. Very interesting. These are exactly the sort of thoughts I had when we were working on this piece. In fact, often I sometimes feel copywriters seem to think in English, write in Hindi and then dub in other languages!

    Whats critical to an ad's ability to travel is the fact that the thought is language neutral (universal insight etc.) but equally so is the final EXECUTION of that thought. Else we will always end up losing something in the translation…

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