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Does advertising corrupt?

The sentiment against corruption has reached a feverish pitch in India. The middle class has taken to the streets and is raising the banner of revolt against a government and a bureaucracy that it perceives to be highly corrupt. In a sense, it is scary to see such anger. Right now, the movement is peaceful, but one never knows what will happen if there is an unfortunate turn of events or if Anna Hazare’s health takes a turn for the worse.

From the point of view of business houses, Anna Hazare is not just a crusader; he’s a symbol of the power of mass mobilisation. He has very few needs. His clothes are simple; he can go without food for days as we have seen now and still function. Quite a difference from the self-styled yogi Baba Ramdev, who looked weary, haggard and completely out of control just one day into his fast. Ramdev grew an empire out of his yoga lessons, but he obviously did not practice the same in his own life. His powers of endurance and in fact, his credibility as an anti-corruption crusader now ring as hollow as his pronouncements.

But Anna Hazare is not just the government’s but every advertiser’s nightmare. He cannot be swayed by inducements of the biggest cars or fancy houses. He cannot be tempted with the choicest wines or a box at the IPL. He’s incorruptible in the sense that everything we spend our life acquiring has no meaning for him. For the rest of us, living a dream modelled on the lifestyles of the rich and famous, Anna Hazare stands for everything that contradicts it. What he says has found the resonance that multi-million dollar media or social campaigns could not have achieved. For the last 9 days, his campaign has been covered in microscopic detail across every channel and newspaper. In a world where prime time TV is sold at Rs 2 lakhs every 10 seconds, and the solus position in newspapers at Rs 10-15 lakhs, the coverage he gets could easily be computed into several hundred crores.

We see this lounging in our luxury apartments, on our LED flat screens or flitting across our iPads and flashing on our smartphones or observe through the window of our luxury cars. In many ways, he is the very antithesis of our consumption culture. Where we are defined by what we own and lust for, rather than what we believe and work towards. Soothed by the advertising images of happy families where worry is a pimple in the mirror, not whether there’s a roof over our heads, we are lulled into a sense of false comfort and a cocoon that we never want to escape from.

But here’s someone who just broke our reverie – a man who has brought the country to its feet and the government to its knees with the power of his simplicity.

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Smart? Oh, please!

There was a time when smart meant intelligent people. But it’s now being used to promote meaningless drivel. Everything is now smart – from phones to cars to cards to electricity grids to washing machines. Put in some obscure bit of machine logic into a system or a device and we suddenly have miraculous machines with brains. The smartphone still lies there, waiting for your touch to do just about everything. But it has now morphed into a gadget that people lust after. Like the cliched dumb beauty without brains, all it has is sleek contours and a sexy interface. But it cannot tell pesky telemarketers to buzz off. Or go into silent mode automatically during a meeting. Or stop disturbing you when you’re trying to think. For doing all that you have to set it into specific modes, or download apps for just about every little benefit. From learning how to tie your shoelaces to navigating the city. It’s another matter altogether that any useful feature usually consumes the battery faster than a Woot sale. Like wi-fi or GPS navigation. Carrying a smartphone only makes you look smart. Just like arriving at a party with a beauty draped over your arm draws attention, but to sustain interest, you have to be able to make some conversation. Or move like a tornado on the dance floor.

IBM has now made ‘smart’ the focal point of its campaign. From smart cities – what are these, pray? Cities full of warm, interesting and considerate people? Far from it. All it means that there are a few million sensors that do specific dumb functions. In the old days, we used to have guys going around to switch on street lamps at dusk. Now you have sensors that sense the failing light and switch the lamps on automatically. Or sensors that open up the valves in the city’s water supply to send out more water. It’s an impressive technical achievement. But to label it smart is to take a gurgling one-year-old and pretend he’s Einstein.

Being in advertising, I plead guilty. How do you come up with a description of a feature that people can understand and relate to with their 2000 word vocabulary? The realm of what people know and are impressed by is pitifully narrow. It’s like the teenager using ‘awesome’ for everything from the latest brand of shoes to lipstick to bags to movies to pizza. Or ‘gross’ and ‘eww’ for everything undesirable. So you either have the highly technical descriptions that nobody understands, except for the scientists who created them – AMOLED displays or the Bravia engine, for example. Or, you have to hand it to Apple to reach into a high school textbook that labelled the diagram for the inside of the eye and pick out the retina for its own use. Why didn’t they use the cornea or the iris? Well, I suspect that some other tech company soon will, to differentiate its own offering from that of Apple.

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Politicians as salesmen

Politicians are the ultimate salesmen. They sell abstract concepts like freedom and values, even if they don’t subscribe to or practice them. They know how to break it down in ways that people with little education or intelligence will understand and relate to. They can take stock of a situation and come up with effective ways of communicating it to their voters. Whether through analogies or native aphorisms, they constantly engage in planting thoughts they wish to convey. That it is the opposing party which is corrupt. That they have delivered on their promises.

It’s virtually impossible to get politicians into tight corners because they can frame things in a completely different way and wiggle out. When I met a business journalist a few years ago, he said advertising agencies have no clue as to how well politicians communicate with their constituencies. Agencies look at garish political posters and think politicians need a quick course in design. Far from it – they listen to the feedback at the ground level and the posters are a response to what the voter concerns are. There are times when the opponents get enough fodder and manage to turn the tables on them. In the recent elections in Tamil Nadu, the DMK did all it could to avoid being painted as a family run empire – because that’s what the AIADMK so successfully achieved, as borne out by the election results. Even paying the voters had no effect. People took the money and voted for the party they were convinced about. In the previous elections, the DMK came to power having projected the AIADMK as a corrupt, ostentatious party – when a huge wedding of the then Chief Minister’s foster son provided all the ammunition.

Agencies do market research to try and assess consumer preferences. Politicians have an ear to the ground at all times because they need to know what people’s day to day concerns are. Which is never as trivial as to which brand of soap or shampoo they need to buy next. Agencies stop at selling products and services. But politicians have a profound impact on the lives of the people who elect them. Between the two, agencies and politicians, there is an uneasy relationship when it comes to creating communication. In the last few elections, the major parties like the BJP and the Congress worked with some of the biggest agencies in the country. What emerged were concepts like ‘India Shining’ trying to project a nation that had emerged from the shadows and was firmly on the route to prosperity. The Congress hit back with ‘Aam aadmi ko ya mila?(What did the common man get?) implying that most of the country had lost out on the shine. But trying to package a country’s diverse and distinct needs under one umbrella to build a brand is like chasing a mirage since the image of the parties concerned keeps shifting.

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The Hyper Rabbits

There’s a fundamental difference in the way the US sees opportunity and the way India sees it. In India, when there are scores of unemployed with few skills, they are drafted into a government program like NREGA, which promises a minimum wage for a large part of the year, doing menial labour. The single biggest achievement of the program was that it dispensed the money directly into the bank account of the person doing the job since money on such welfare measures is siphoned off by the local politician and his cronies, as soon as it hits the Treasury on fictitious names. In India, we expect the government to come up with solutions. In the US, they come up with new business models – cloaked in new age jargon and Valley Speak.

Task Rabbit is a site where people who need errands to be run post their requirements and get responses from the thousands of ‘Task Rabbits’ or runners to execute. The persons providing the jobs put up the money they are willing to pay and the registered runners bid to execute. The site takes a cut out of the revenue. From plain vanilla courier jobs to helping assemble Ikea furniture, there are the unusual requests as well – a woman hired help to function as a human alarm clock every morning for a week. Or a job requiring office colleagues’ desks to be wrapped in cellophane. Initially released as an iPhone app, Task Rabbit was able to attract a large number of users because it made putting up a job and paying for it extremely easy. Jobs did not have to be described in words – a picture would do. Or you could record a description of the task. Ditto for payment. The credit card number did not need to be entered – just a photo of the card would suffice. The difference in the interface between the web and the iPhone is striking. And on Facebook, the Task Rabbit of the Month is prominently featured. So there are components of the web, mobile and social that have been well integrated and play up facets to leverage strengths according to the platform.

Task Rabbit sees itself as fulfilling local business needs and getting neighbours close to each other since most of the tasks require to be completed in the same neighbourhood. Moving, picking up laundry, setting up furniture and painting are all tasks that cannot be outsourced overseas. So how does this differ from the requests on Craigslist? For one, the site screens each of the people before it allows them to function as runners. Given the problems that a bed and board site – AirBNB faced recently with a guest trashing the host’s flat. Once a service gets popular, other headaches appear. That requires fresh solutions – but in the US, they won’t expect the government to come in and sort out the issue.

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Does luck happen or do we make it?

His video at TED has been watched over 6 million times. His gentle, yet highly incisive analysis of how education systems need to evolve and handle the unique challenges that children face today has won converts from all across the world. His brand of wry humour portrays the frustrations that parents and students deal with on a daily basis. Dr. Ken Robinson is renowned for the work he has done in reforming education. And in his book ‘The Element‘ he provides numerous insights on how people can find out what they are best suited for. But what got me thinking were his views on the ‘luck factor’. There is an ongoing debate about successful people getting the right breaks at the right time – being lucky, versus talented individuals losing out because lady luck did not smile on them.

He describes luck more as an attitude rather than an event or circumstances. He recounts the example of John Wilson who was extremely unlucky to have a container explode in his face in the chemistry lab at school, blinding him. But Wilson saw his loss as a ‘confounded nuisance, not a crippling affliction’. He quickly learned Braille and became an accomplished rower, swimmer, actor, musician, and orator. He relied on an acute sense of hearing and what he called his ‘obstacle sense’ to keep him out of harm’s way. On a tour of Africa, he found rampant blindness in Ghana from insect bites that affected as much as 10% of the population. He accepted his own blindness as fate but he could not remain a mute witness to something that was eminently curable. He set up Sight Savers International and developed a preventive treatment that has all but eradicated the problem in the country. The organisation continues to do pioneering work in disadvantaged countries helping tens of millions of people in Africa and Asia. So, who’s the lucky person here? And where’s the luck?

Dr. Robinson’s own story is just as inspiring. A promising soccer player in childhood, he was laid low by polio, paralysed from the head down for several months before he recovered the use of his arms and his body gradually though his right leg remains completely paralysed. But he went to a special school where he came across one of the prominent educators of the time, Charles Stafford, who recognised his potential and mentored him. In the book, Dr. Robinson makes a very poignant statement – …” I do know that catching polio opened many more doors for me than the one it so firmly closed at the time” He goes on to say that ‘lucky’ people tend to maximise chance opportunities, listen to their intuition, expect to be lucky – so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, but most important of all, they have an attitude that allows them to turn bad luck to good.

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Is Beauty Symmetry?

In a striking Radiolab video titled Symmetry, a simple split screen forces us to contemplate opposites in the same frame. A cat licks its lips while a mouse busily paws its own face. Half of one screen is a close-up of a little girl’s face and the other half a boy’s. A newborn bawls lustily in one-half while life ebbs away in silence for an old timer in the other one. Two glasses with different shapes hold exactly the same level of water. A taxi navigates the traffic in an urban scene while a pickup truck hits the dirt trail. A little girl breaks into peals of laughter while a boy cries. We’ve seen the jump cut, where two scenes get linked as a narrative by simply following the other and creating a context. A well-fed boy eating an ice cream cone followed by a starving child in Somalia makes a villain out of the child eating ice cream. But here, seeing two stark and contrasting images right next to each other has a beautiful and an unsettling effect. Especially since they span two ends of the spectrum.

Why is symmetry so important to us? In this video from Discovery lies a possible explanation. The human foetus is designed to grow in equal halves around the central axis of the spine. But small genetic imperfections can cause changes in the alignment and create differences that manifest themselves in our features. In an experiment, a researcher made tiny modifications to the same face to make the subjects’ faces more symmetrical. She then placed the original and the modified ones next to each other as posters on a wall and asked college students to rate the better looking one, saying they were twins. Invariably, people chose the more symmetrical face, drawn unconsciously to it.

Denzel Washington, whose face follows perfectly symmetrical features is rated to be among the best looking actors. So is Aishwarya Rai. But there’s more to beauty than just perfect halves transposed on one another. The Radiolab video forces us to contemplate it. It puts not just features next to each other but the extremes of our emotions and our deepest desires. Comfort next to discomfort. Pleasure next to pain. Old age next to infancy. Death next to life. And that is the reason it resonates. Playing off one against the other. It’s that mixture of sweetness and sadness that makes us question what beauty and life are all about. Transient, yet permanent. And one without the other is incomplete.

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Are we losing our ability to listen?

Julian Treasure spoke at TED and one of the things he said made immense sense …” we are moving from an era of conversations to personal broadcasting” So true, isn’t it? We want the world to listen to what we are saying but we aren’t tuned into what the world’s response is. We have given up our silences for the continued presence of music or traffic or TV or the other distractions of urban life. It requires a trip to a hill station or a resort to actually experience the tranquility of silence. We’ve grown so used to the cacophony that we miss its absence. And most of the sounds we hear every day is man made. The doorbell. The ticking of the clock. The scrape of a chair against the floor. The clang of a steel vessel in the kitchen. The car horn. The air conditioner. The whirring of the fan. The whistle of the cooker. The slamming of a door. We hear gurgling brooks and birds only as background noises in pastoral films. I see young people sitting opposite each other in restaurants and they aren’t speaking to each other. They are either looking at their mobile screens or talking to someone else on the phone. What happened to those long, languorous conversations where you got to know your friends better in person and listened to one another. The other place that young people adore is the dance floor and trance music. No conversations – just movement and noise

Some of the exercises he suggests are interesting. Keeping completely silent for at least 3 minutes in a day, for example. This can be unnerving. Try this simple act of focusing on your breathing. Be aware of it. Feel the air enter your nostrils and go all the way down to your lungs. Now feel your chest expand and experience the air filling your lungs and providing the oxygen that circulates around your body. It keeps you alive, remember. Then let the air escape, slowly whooshing out of your body and your chest deflating. See if you can remain focused on this for more than 10 seconds without your mind wandering over what you need to do during the day, the problems that you have with money and relationships or with your boss. Hard to do? Right. We have absolutely no idea of how difficult it is to pay attention and concentrate. We use the word glibly but concentration means doing something without distractions. And in today’s world. multitasking is the way to go. Which means you never really concentrate on just one thing. We like the feeling of doing a lot of things without doing just one thing really well.

I don’t agree with the point that Treasure makes about teaching listening in schools. No one listens when they are bored. And teachers and parents tell their children a hundred times a day to ‘Listen’. So they don’t. But they learn only when they listen. Oh, well.

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Everything is ‘Breaking News’

There’s an ad for a radio station in Chennai imploring listeners to ‘Like’ them on Facebook. It starts off with a weird guy’s voice ‘I am making a sandwich’ (Keyboard sounds) ‘I am eating a sandwich’ (Keyboard sounds) ‘I think I used too much spicy brown mustard'( burp) ‘I burped’. Then a voice over comes on and announces – Addicted to updates? Then… ” giving details of how to locate the station on Facebook.

It’s exactly what happens on all the news channels all through the 24 hour cycle. There’s no breaking news, only ‘breaking wind’. A thick red band runs at the bottom of the screen mouthing inanities all the time. Today, it’s on the 2G scam and the Jan Lokpal bill. There is nothing new about the positions of the ruling party or the politicians on either side of the divide. Later on, at prime time in the evening, telegenic, controversial and highly articulate individuals will gather around to analyse the day’s events. Each channel has its set of celebrities and a pecking order. Barkha Dutt of NDTV has her pet Minister Kapil Sibal for her ‘Exclusives’. Rajdeep Sardesai, by virtue of the fact that he’s an ex-cricketers son, gets the sports biggies more often on his channel. The loudmouths come on Times Now, trying to shout each other down from their locations in different cities. If they were seated in the studio, they would probably bash each other up. Otherwise, they spend an hour wired up to say a few sentences. But no one ever dares to ignore the TV monster. They know that it will make or break their careers. If they aren’t on TV, no one even knows who they are. During the high impact budget and election coverage, political heavyweights channel hop with surprising alacrity. They distribute themselves across the spectrum and say the same things at different times on different channels. Of course, the viewer has a choice – the mother in law and daughter in law sagas that play out in different names and costumes but the same basic plotlines.

News does not break. It flows from one set of circumstances to the next. The only time it breaks is a catastrophe like the Japanese tsunami. From the time CNN invented the 24-hour news format to cover the Gulf War and now Twitter to provide ‘real-time’ updates, the concept of news seems to be undergoing a fundamental change. But look below the surface and you will see that reading the news the next day gives you a better perspective on what really happened. Like the guy making, eating and burping his sandwich, we have got used to examining the minutiae of daily living and making sense of it. A lot like looking at a flowing river and trying to understand the drops rather than the undercurrents that define the flow.