From Lalitaji to ...?

We all knew Lalitaji, with her trademark bindi, white and blue sarees and obsession with Surf. She’s been replaced years ago but by who exactly? Most women (and men) in Indian ads these days live in a cultural vacuum, with little that places them in any identifiable social context. A sign of progress or a disaster in waiting, in a country still obsessed with culture?
Shephali Bhatt

Circa 1984: A certain Lalitaji exulted about her son's half-pants scheduled to last another season thanks to her new detergent. Thus she advised, "Surf ki kharidaari mein hi samajhdaari hai." The saree she wore was indisputably white and you couldn't miss the red round bindi on her forehead. More than half a decade later: Mandira Bedi boasted of her son's academic and sport skills in an ad for Bournvita ending with, "Extra energy ke liye hai Bournvita." Advertising travelled from eastmancolour to the technicolour era by then, but the saree and bindi on the mother's forehead stayed intact. Enter the present day: The mother using Surf Excel wears trousers and the mother giving Bournvita to her child, races him wearing track pants. Not that Indian styles of dressing have completely gone off screen but the subtle visual attributes of a woman's attire that made her look Indian or placed her in a cultural context, are slowly receding. Minority religions seldom, if ever, had a role except in the montage films in Indian advertising. But now even the subtle traces of state identity like the Bengali Taant sari or a Benarasi silk to say nothing of hoary cultural cues such as tikas or a bindi have disappeared. And this in a country that quite literally wears its culture on its sleeve and loses no opportunity in showcasing it to the world at large. Case in point — when Prince Charles visited a village in Jodhpur (2010), he was welcomed with a small bindi/tika (red dot) on his forehead, as a symbol of respect. Pretty much every foreign visitor boasts of a dot or a garland — it's in fact part of the welcome package at several five star hotels. So where does all the culture go when it comes to advertising? Why do most of the women in ads look like they could pass off as Latin American or Caucasian simply because their appearance is devoid of any specifically Indian cultural cues? Sunil Kataria, COO - sales, marketing and SAARC at Godrej Consumer Products attributes this change to what he calls 'eve-o-lution'. He reasons that with female literacy rate going up by 25% in the last decade and more women joining the workforce, women's physical appearance is becoming more culture-agnostic. Which is why, Chennai, a city where women were predominantly presumed to be wearing sarees, sees a lot of them in salwar suits these days. "This new evolved appearance is getting reflected in today's advertising as well," says Kataria. And if any cultural dimensions have to be brought out in an ad, it's being conveyed through character nuances and not necessarily by latching onto the physical appearance of an archetypal Indian person. Alyque Padamsee, ad veteran and the brain behind Lalitaji is interestingly enough happy with

"These ads featuring your aspirational woman are aired during soap operas like Diya Aur Baati Hum which are watched by women in a million households. please note that what is culturally agnostic is essentially western. to most brands. Sameer Satpathy. "Large MNCs prefer their brands. so to speak. it doesn't make a difference if the woman in an ad looks Indian. "A lot of time goes into studying how women interpret modernity even in a conservative setup." he says. to have a consistent brand imagery across geographies. executive director at research agency. "It's time we dropped the bindi and the sindoor that are signs of our handcuffing to the past. Pattanaik is confident they'll get no TRPs. Centering a character in a particular cultural context could actually be counterproductive if it doesn't resonate in other regions. Social mores aside. For Satpathy. Soaring media costs and the pressure to optimise return on investment results in more pan-India roll out of campaigns. as long as the content of the ad resonates with the consumer and highlights the product benefit. chief belief officer at Future Group believes most of these companies are European to whom anything remotely cultural in the Indian context is seen as religious and they have stringent rules against such iconography in their ads across the globe. the consumer might not be traditional but is definitely culturally rooted and the aim is to make the ads relevant to them. money is also a factor. we're wondering as well. In that case. doesn't believe that wearing a mangalsutra contradicts a woman's modern outlook. especially in the personal care category. Which is why many marketers from Unilever to Micromax in most cases opt for a culture neutral 'aspirational' (as defined by Western) sensibility in their advertising. . International brands have an even bigger challenge which is to maximise the transferability of a campaign across as many regions as possible. Ipsos. Frankly. nothing is culture-agnostic. Financial independence has made women an important target group: a homemaker who's also a decision maker. Apparently. for instance.this change." A 2010 Ipsos study states that 34% of the time. Before you decide which side you'd want your brand to be on. He also counters the "new age woman" argument. are marketing teams in India talking to the consumer or to their bosses who are often in a different country or maybe even continent? There are still some brands that are comfortable being Indian and not universal. Devdutt Pattanaik. EVP and marketing head of consumer products at Marico. There are subtle changes in their dressing which keeps us from going too traditional in depicting women in Marico's ads. But that's also a culture. he notes. So. Advertisers have finally woken up to the newage Indian woman. Says Shubhranshu Das." he avers. Perhaps that explains why we have Southeast Asian women selling mobile handsets in some commercials these days! There's more to this than meets the eye. an ad for a brand can be aired 'as is' in the second country and perform strongly." If the aspirational look cut across to soap operas. Pattanaik is curious whether this shift is owing to a customer pull or borne out of corporate push alone.

The lack of transparency and reliability makes it virtually impossible to consider long-term investments. Warren Buffett. Take the experience of Ikea. India must think long-term. Headwinds from New Delhi are contributing to the slowest growth rates in a decade. Bloomberg . gain fresh knowledge and create better-paying jobs for the future. a record current account deficit and a 7. Not content with the Swedish icon investing $2 billion. Executives fully expect to have to navigate India’s bad infrastructure. Today’s motivation for inviting more foreign money is to narrow the current-account deficit. Any major foreign investor cannot ignore the experience of Vodafone. The problem is an Indian government that won’t get out of its own way. Buffett isn’t alone. India moved to open important sectors such as defence. On July 17. They’re less keen on tripping over the fine print of vaguely written laws and local power brokers with agendas at odds with New Delhi. What should India do? Pass clear and strong investment laws that will survive the change of government and offer a code of conduct for state leaders.2 billion people pining for a taste of globalisation. 1. thanks to tax-policy changes. Manmohan Singh’s government passed a law allowing big retailers to open stores directly. So it surprised few when the genre’s guru. The goal should be to raise competitiveness. which is still wondering if it will take a multibillion-dollar loss on a deal. red tape and official corruption. then killing would-be investors with the details. Worse. constraints on whom goods can be purchased from. yet no one has. It’s time for the government to stop squandering India’s potential. the government played hardball. and underdeveloped industries ripe for turnarounds. Foreign-direct investment slid about 21% last fiscal. But the damage was done. The long debate over foreign-investment limits says it all. In September 2012. It tried to bar Ikea from selling food in stores. What’s scaring foreigners away? A rampant political dysfunction that has stopped India’s progress cold. Big Fizzle India has fallen into a self-destructive pattern of relenting on big issues. power and telecommunications to foreign investment.” Big fizzle is more like it. placed a bet on the world’s ninth-biggest economy. ArcelorMittal and Posco are pulling back on investments that they had announced with great fanfare. rigid and often unskilled labour markets. What did come as a surprise was last week’s decision by the billionaire’s Berkshire Hathaway to give up on India’s insurance market after just two years.9% plunge in the rupee this year. and the hairpulling need to negotiate separately with each of the states. as big inflows are likely to continue eluding India. the withdrawal came the same week India unveiled plans to open the economy as never before to FDI. political openness and more proactive leadership will do that — and get the Buffetts of the world to come to India and stay. Reasons are legion: too many prerequisites. the uncertainty is breeding a huge trust deficit. Adding to the drama. India must strengthen the rule of law as it applies to foreigners so they’ll trust their money is safe. a raft of regulations limiting franchise models and factory construction.Why Warren Buffett Bailed on India India has long been viewed as a value investor’s dream: rapid growth. India is proving that size doesn’t guarantee its inevitable rise. Walmart. Ikea stood its ground. It’s heralded as the nation’s “big bang. Finally. Only true economic reform. Headlinemaking disputes involving household names like Ikea. Walmart and Berkshire don’t help India’s image.

AFSPA is a leftover from the Raj. maim and heap indignities on ordinary people. tell a tale. a tendency deplored by sections of the judiciary itself. not just its periphery Scrap the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). along with three others. be labelled extra-judicial killings and other violations of fundamental rights. of degradation of Indian democracy. Sure enough. instead. under the cover of a law that gives them absolute impunity. rape. designed to place the stamp of the law on what would. Learned judges. There is no institutional mechanism in place to check their behaviour. A relatively lazy and incompetent media that fails to put in the hard work needed to understand reality in its complexity and plumps. The armed forces have been steadfast in their resistance to any proposal to repeal this law that gives them the power of life and death over ordinary citizens in areas brought under the Act’s purview. in all normal circumstances. Democracy Under Threat Constitutional bodies like the Comptroller and Auditor General that hunt for populist glory rather than serve out their assigned job of providing inputs to committees of Parliament that would hold the executive to account. it is something that weakens India’s democratic core. and when policemen can bump off whom they like in staged encounters. The continuing revelations on how Ishrat Jahan was killed in cold blood. just about anyone. besides activists. former policemen and liberal academics. Save India The Armed Forces Special Powers Act is a problem for India’s democratic core. for the shortcut of zeroing in on one. any one. are we really a democracy? Does the political system that tolerates such cold-blooded murder of people by agencies of the state have any right to present itself to the world as its largest democracy? . with no questions asked. When our armed forces can kill. it is pointless to blame the armed forces or the politicians alone in this regard. The short point: AFSPA is not a problem that affects the periphery alone. Civil servants who find easy refuge in institutionalised absence of accountability. Men in uniform can kill off anyone. Equally at fault are other actors. A middle class guided by a narrow vision of its own selfinterest.Scrap AFSPA. have repeatedly recommended that this particular colonial derelict be scrapped altogether or altered drastically to bring it in line with the framework of a functional democracy. torture. sensational dimension of the problem to be reported. among other things. in a joint operation by the Gujarat police and the Intelligence Bureau. And the inability of the country’s civilian leadership to override the resistance of the armed forces is part and parcel of the overall weakening of political authority that today threatens to unravel India’s democratic state. save vigilance of the courts. not only to resolve the conflicts in Jammu and Kashmir and the north-east but also as part of reversing an ongoing weakening of the country’s democratic institutions. And the courts that take blithe advantage of missing specific constitutional restraint to foray into areas far beyond their competence and comprehension. provided they take the trouble to fabricate a charge of threatening the authority and integrity of the Indian state.

as in the infamous Delhi rape of December 2012. multiple group identities of caste. What Holds India Together Liberal democracy is what allows India to be. If democracy comes unstuck. Let us stop the pretence that AFSPA is all about the periphery. currently under assault from diverse quarters. in conjunction with other processes. Let us scrap AFSPA. but not as a cohesive nation-state. The law. How India can Unravel And. it has not. of which AFSPA represents one. Trying anything else would cause extreme disruption. region. transparent decision-making is the only way all of the country’s diverse groups can feel they are getting their legitimate due within the larger collective and that the advance of the larger collective is indeed to their own advantage. . so will India. like suggesting that someone is a little pregnant. transparent decision-making is democracy. religion. Doesn’t this claim run counter to our historical experience? After all. is bleeding the core of India’s already anaemic democracy. With its enormous diversity. for its myriad. That would be like worrying about the chastity of a rape victim assaulted savagely enough to bring out her entrails. as some group or the other seeks noninstitutional means to right a deemed wrong.This is not a debate in political classification or about the foolishness of seeking a middle ground in binary choices. India has existed as a place of shared culture and history and intertwined belief systems. hasn’t it? No. India has existed for millennia without the aid of democracy. diverse and often mutually antagonistic constituents to cohere together as a nation. India is still a functional entity only because its organising principle is democracy. ethnicity and language. That is a strictly modern phenomenon. Institutional means of shared. And that institutional framework of shared. India needs democracy as its operating framework.