Thoughts on decline of English print advertising in India

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‘Those were the golden years’. Every generation says this when they get nostalgic about music, movies, advertising, TV shows…everything. For those who grew up on 70s rock or were in college during the 80s, the current crop of music would just be unfathomable noise. And I am sure the 70s music got a similar response from the previous generation. But there is one area where ‘those were the days’ can be said wistfully without any bias. And that is print advertising prior to the 2000s.

One rarely gets to see a well-written, well-crafted (‘clever’ as we used to say) print ad in India today. It does not spell doom for the industry – far from it. Advertising is meant to persuade the brand’s target audience and hence it makes sense to create them in languages which are commonly spoken and understood. English maybe spoken by 10% of India’s population (according to a report I read based on 2001 census). Even if the figure is higher today, I am assuming that it would reflect basic comprehension. The finesse and wit seen in some print ads would only be understood by the elite. In countries like Thailand, local language advertising rules. But nevertheless, one feels nostalgic about the days past.

If you grew up in advertising in the early 90s, as I did, not just the D&AD’s and One Shows, but even the regular newspapers & magazines too had good print ads. In India, most such ads were in English as the industry was dominated by English-speaking, West influenced copywriters in Mumbai (mostly from South Mumbai).

But what was so great about those print ads? What do I mean by a good print ad? Herewith some pointers:

– the ads had an idea
– the text was well crafted
– the headline (when used) or the combination of headline & visual was arresting
– there often was wit, play of words in the headline and that brought a smile
– the headline and body copy flowed well and brought alive the key features & benefits of the product
– the last line of the body copy usually had a nice link to to the headline, so that the story or the argument felt complete
– the ads charmed their way to your heart
– the ads were painstakingly executed

Ad for Porsche from Fallon McElligott. See the link between the headline and the last line of copy?
Classic ad from the late 80s. Agency: Enterprise.

Read more about Mohammed Khan and Enterprise here. Check out the ad created for the 10th anniversary of Enterprise – brilliantly written. 

Probably made in the 2000s but has the 90s flavour. Agency: Alok Nanda & Company

What changed?

TV happened: the rise of cable & satellite channels meant that advertisers chose to invest more in that medium and demanded ‘expertise’ from creative & media agencies in television advertising

The rise of Indian language advertising (in a good way): Hindi and other Indian language writers could write good TV scripts and dialogues for them. Demand for creative talent which could connect with the target audience in Indian languages went up. Which meant the South Bombay talent (which could only think & write in English) wasn’t so sought after

Clients became more demanding – everything was required yesterday due to market pressure. So no one had the time to iterate and ‘craft’ the work. The first idea was often the final idea

Agencies could not afford good (often expensive) talent: the 15% commission was replaced with retainer fee (as media planning & buying was hived off into specialist units). Agencies undercut each other and agreed to ridiculous fees which wafer thin margins

English copywriting talent did not find advertising to be lucrative. Television channels and later digital media houses became attractive options for copywriters & other creatives and they paid relatively better compared to ad agencies

UK is perhaps still the one country where copywriting as a craft thrives (check out some classics here) and one gets to see the occasional well-crafted print ad. I am not suggesting that print advertising is not thriving in India – far from it. But it is a pity that even in categories where clever print ads are possible (premium travel brands, for example) one mostly sees basic feature-as-headline type dull print ads. And so we resort to getting high on nostalgia. 

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