Ethnic and regional advertising: the digital opportunity

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If you worked in an ad agency in the early 90s, like I did, you are sure to have come across the pigeon holes allotted to language translators. The way it worked was the text of a print ad, radio or TV script will be first conceived by an English copywriter. Based on the media plan, the print out of the text will then be placed in each pigeon hole allotted to various languages: Hindi, Tamil, Oriya and such like. A freelance language copywriter would then pick up the print out and translate the text into a regional language. All this would happen with virtually no interaction with the original creator of the ad. Sometimes an ad originally conceived in Hindi will go through the same process. The pitfalls of such an approach is obvious.

Needless to say, in a large and diverse such as India, every language and region has its own nuances, idioms, literature and unique popular culture. As someone with roots in Udupi and grew up in Chennai (I speak Hindi, Kannada, Tulu, Tamil fluently and a smattering of Bengali thanks to a stint in Bangladesh) I remember cringing at some of the translation and ‘adaptation’ howlers in regional language advertising. Aside from poor dubbing and lip sync issues there were many examples of ideas which were totally alien to the audience being addressed. A chips brand ran an ad during Diwali in a Tamil channel, where the protagonist (a Hindi film star) plays cards – a practice unrelatable to the average Tamilian, as part of Deepavali celebrations. By slapping on a regional dub, the agency and client would have ticked off the ‘language edits’ box but sure to have lost an audience. Many such examples abound in advertising, even today. The Swachch Bharat campaign’s ‘Jahan soch, vahaan shauchalay’ is translated in Tamil literally alright but nowhere near the original concept.

Ad agencies still pay lip service to local connect by slapping vibhuti on a slightly dark-skinned man to pass off for ‘pan South India’ advertising.

In the US, Hispanic and African-American communities are seen as entities which need to be addressed separately from the ‘national’ messaging. Several ad agencies there have specialist units which cater to such markets. In India, I remember Ogilvy attempted to create a separate identity with Ogilvy Dakshin (not sure how successful it is today) catering to the Southern market. Regional agencies have been around for decades, relying largely on local retail brands and corporate houses for business. I have come across work from The Local Network (which focuses on Kerala) and OPN Advertising in Chennai (which has created work for Chennai Super Kings and the TN Election Commission) recently and would say the work is as good as what a ‘national’ agency would produce. Ironically, when local brands grow big and have national ambitions, they sometimes look to national ad agency brands to create advertising with a pan-India appeal.

I realise that it is not always possible to create something which ‘connects’ with all Indians both in terms of idea and execution. Also it is impossible to tweak every piece of communication in mass media to regional or ethnic preferences. Even when a campaign is aimed at a regional market there are cost, logistics and creative constraints. Of course, things have changed in advertising since the ‘90s. Copywriters from small town India who perhaps didn’t study in English medium convent schools can make it big in advertising today. We now have original creative work in Hindi and not English. Ads with a distinct Southern flavour (Times of India and IPL for example) are also seen on national television, with perhaps ‘Kolaveri Di’ being the turning point. Many big advertisers (especially in consumer goods) create specially commissioned ads for brands which generate a lot of revenue from regional markets (e.g Hamam in TN). Festival led thematic advertising (e.g. Asian Paints’ Pongal ad) have also made a mark. But such examples are few and far between. However, a large majority of the advertising is still one-size-fits all with very basic attempts at regional appeal (lip sync and costumes).

The advent of digital media and the popularity of YouTube videos has given a new platform and an opportunity to connect with regional audiences. In my view, the companies who have seized this opportunity are the new age digital media companies like Culture Machine (who own properties like Put Chutney among others). They have created online content aimed specifically at a geography and have a scope to ‘connect’ with local tastes and nuances.

Advertisers and ad agencies, on the other hand, still come with a mass media approach to digital. It shows in the way ‘going digital’ is equated with long format TV ads aimed at a national audience. While it may be practical and financially prudent to create mass media content which national appeal coupled with basic regional ‘connect’ as the lowest common denominator to work with, the digital platform offers a more flexible canvas. Do ad agencies see it that way?

This post first appeared in Marketing Buzzar.

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