Did you flinch?

A shot from the Vicks #Touch of Care film

For as long as we’ve known it, advertising defined saccharine happiness. We conjured a world that existed only in the rarefied environment of our television screens, billboards, newspapers, and magazines. Even pimples were aesthetic. Just one appeared precisely on a cheek, not the pustules of acne that young people have to endure. When children wallowed in dirty puddles, mothers waxed eloquent about how every bit of the dirt could be removed with (insert detergent name here). Not the horrified look and the inevitable spanking that would follow if it happened in the real world.

There was a predictable rhythm to demonstrating a problem, finding the solution, and making everything perfect again. Incredibly pretty girls with voluminous locks of luxuriant hair and glowing cheeks wore billowing dresses as they walked in warm sunshine and butterflies cavorted in dappled sunlight to the strains of soft, soothing music. Families drove in shiny cars on traffic-free roads with well-behaved children, neighbours smiled as they passed and everyone on earth was kind, humble and forgiving. Never mind what was happening in all the homes where these fantasies were being played out. It was the accepted norm that ads would cover the dirt under our expensive carpets, the gloss that would paint over our humdrum existence.

Why is this the norm?

A scene from a Sunsilk Shampoo commercial in 1982

Ads are what we want the world to be. There are no consequences, no nuances of emotion, nothing negative. It’s the world we can aspire to, even if we can’t live in it. And there’s no point in blaming advertisers for projecting a rose-tinted version of reality. If people saw models without makeup in a beauty cream ad, the product would gather dust on the supermarket shelf. We thrive on fantasy. We want the ripping muscles of the testosterone packed male models who would look good even if they were dressed in rags. We want the unreal brilliance of hair that is perfectly styled and coiffured. We want conversations to flow as smoothly and smartly as they do in the word perfect scripts. 

Our social media consumption confirms this. Look at the carefully constructed posts put up every day to project perfection. We’re obsessed with selfies because it allows us to portray a better, carefully controlled version of our own selves. The makeup videos on YouTube have millions of subscribers because people are not satisfied with the reality that confronts them in a mirror. We constantly seek affirmation of our looks, our jobs, and our success.

The changing face of Vicks

The early commercials for Vicks cough lozenges

How do you breathe novelty into a brand introduced in 1905? Practically everyone who’s had a cough or an irritated throat in India has popped a cough lozenge. The line ‘Gale mein khich-khich’ ran for decades. Solution: Vicks ki goli lo. Khich-khich door karo (Take a Vicks. Banish the irritation). It ran unchanged with cute young kids, mini celebs, high profile celebs… Fast forward to the social media age where ‘engagement’ is prized over everything else. Advertising has had a cathartic clash with the concept of attracting attention. Previously, you could buy it on TV and other media. Now, you have to earn it, every single time.

That realization has not percolated down the line.  The old world brand universe still assumes that people pay attention to advertising commercials and ‘product windows’ (the graphic-heavy sequences showing the wonder ingredient in the product transform everything from teeth to hair) within them. A declining percentage of viewers still do. Brands that have had a decades-old lead in the market can keep running until they are overtaken by smarter thinking. So Vicks has been well-advised to change before it was forced on them. To their credit, they took the step even though it would have been terrifying to turn their back on every established advertising principle.

No product pitch

No product benefits, no selling

It runs for over 3 minutes and the product is never mentioned until the final frame. Even there, its a shot with the hashtag #TouchOfCare. The film is intense but never descends into soppiness. At times, it’s hard to watch because we are forced to confront our attitude towards people who are ‘different’ from the norm. There’s no attempt made to bridge the social aspect of the film with the product. She does not cough even once.

This approach can only work for well-known brands with deep pockets to get the message out and create an association with their project of choice. In the early days of television, simply making women-centric ‘soaps’ would do the job. Audiences have now splintered into so many micro audiences that brands cannot get through to a sizeable percentage of them without spending a fortune. So, even the big spenders are reining in their budgets, appealing to a core segment and hoping that the effect translates to adjacent profiles as well. For products like chocolates, soft drinks, watches and shoes that address a vast audience spanning several ages and income segments, the going has become hazardous because there is no easy way to access customers long term with one strategy alone.

Should brands get on to the public service bandwagon?

A scene from a 2017 Vicks campaign

The answers get tougher with every new campaign launch. If Vicks was to stay the course in keeping the promise confined to product benefits, they would get almost no traction.  Making ads memorable or controversial doesn’t cut it anymore – we’re living in a world fueled by outrage over the smallest excuses and that makes it difficult for brands to be controversial ending up alienating the very people they want to appeal to. So, what are the options left? Making the world a better place.

Reality shows were the first to cash in on the commercialisation of emotional upheaval. Shows like Big Boss are packaged to ensure that conflict and skirting moral issues keeps audiences coming back every week. Vicks is making empathy the centerpiece of its communications strategy. With real-life stories about adoption, gender ambiguity and societal rejection of people living with difficult medical conditions. It makes for gripping narratives to be created and linked to the brand. Highlighting difficult societal issues gets attention and mainstreams the conversation to create a new set of fans favourably disposed towards the brand. The change seems to be working because brands persist with strategy that brings results. Maybe we won’t need to skip commercials in future – but then, linear TV programming still has to survive for that to happen! The cough lozenge market, however, still has legs with double-digit growth. 

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Author short bio: I head Ideascape, an agency that I started in 2004. I have over 35 years of experience building brands in businesses as diverse as payroll services, software, cycles, HR services, hospitals, hospitality and project management.

We’re a boutique creative agency but we provide the full range of branding services in partnership with several associates in digital marketing, web development, and event management. This blog is a collection of my experiences and my point of view on marketing and advertising

2 thoughts on “Did you flinch?”

  1. Gripping narratives, as you said Venu, baked into every action that the product or service takes will garner more eyeballs.

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