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Vintage-advertising enthusiast Soumyadip Choudhury shares the pleasures of nostalgia
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Vintage-advertising enthusiast Soumyadip Choudhury shares the pleasures of nostalgia

If the product is good, what do they need to advertise it for?” is the dour sort of question most of us grew up hearing from our elders at home. Regardless of the offence it gave the older generation’s socialist sensibilities, and despite the nationalisation of private entities, advertising in India continued nonetheless to thrive, just as it had done ever since the Irishman James Augustus Hickey published Hickey’s Bengal Gazette, two-and-a-quarter centuries ago. As a six-year-old pouring over Indrajal comics, there’s no way I could have known, or cared, what ads were doing to help keep the price of Phantom, Bahadur and Mandrake in reach. Today, of course, I know better. Advertising gives me free-to-air channels, helps me run a personal space on the Internet for free, provides me with instant e-communication at no explicit cost and gets me newspapers at a price so low I can get a substantial part of it repaid by the raddiwallah.

Ads could sometimes resemble tracts; copywriters in 1965 expected to be read

Campa didn’t survive the MNC deluge

Nanda in a less celebrity-driven age; in small print, ‘Star of Teen Deviyan’Unabashedly, I am one of those people who hordes old magazines and newspaper clippings; under my bed hibernate cartons of half-century-old printed pulp, fraying edges providing tell-tale evidence of well-fed silverfish. Flipping through them, it’s the ads that still arrest: quaint, even rudimentary by today’s glossy standards, yet their appeal not just intact but enhanced by nostalgia’s natural preservatives. Ads, after all, tell stories history tellers might not have thought worth picking up on. In the early years of Indian advertising, till the 1930s, foreign manufacturers used the same advertising here as they did in their home countries. The first Lux-loving Indian film star was featured in 1941 (Leela Chitnis). The Hinglish that purists so despise had made its incursions into advertising lingo by the last quarter of the 19th century. Colour ads entered The Times of India in 1910. Kodak’s revolutionary, “You press the button. We do the rest” inspired this chilling spin-off from G. Edward’s & Co, a Calcutta-based taxidermist: “You shoot!! We do the rest,” to the near-extinction of the national animal.

Baby appeal has always worked for Pears’; as seen in 1910


The decades after Independence were no time for innuendo;
everything had to be self-explanatory
In the 1950s, in a nascent republic of young hope, advertisements told of how much Indian industry believed in the new India. Text and images conveyed impressions of progress. Escorts was making medical equipment from the time when Faridabad used to be part of Punjab and plastic ware entered kitchens before my mom did. It was also not the time for people to comprehend hidden meanings; everything had to be self-explanatory. Today’s “Daag acche lagte hain” Surf theme wouldn’t have worked back when black-and-white was all there was. A stain was dirty and couldn’t possibly make you feel good. Surf continued “washing the whitest” for decades, until someone realised that white was not the only colour in the wardrobe.

Colgate peddling flower power in 1925

The 60s Pond’s Dreamgirl: ‘traditional’ meets ‘modern

Milk of Magnesia: sounds inedible, but our grandparents swore by it

Duckback has weathered generations of school-goersIn 1964, the Surgeon General of the United States, Luther Leonidas Terry, submitted a report connecting cigarette smoking with lung cancer; in 1965, the Bank of India’s general manager, TD Kansara, started saving his ‘smoke money’ with the bank at 4 percent per annum, or so their ad claims. Contrary to this, a swadeshi-sounding ad by John Petrino & Co asked readers to “Support the Indian industry by smoking guaranteed Indian-made Nizam, Vazeer & Gold Tipped Nizam.”

The waterfall was Indian advertising’s watershed, when former Air-India hostess Karen Lunel appeared in a green two-piece bikini for Liril. The first in a series that later also brought us Preity Zinta, Liril gave Indian advertising the sex appeal of the semi-clad feminine form, which it has used ever since to sell aftershaves, cars, clothing and condoms. Believe it or not, in the 1970s and 80s, patently unfit male models featured in sanitary ware ads, now exclusively a female domain. The only thing with well-formed muscles back then was the MRF man.

Good for health and wallet: the bank’s general manager on quitting cigarettes

Widening horizons: the Air-India Maharaja advises a soon-to-be NRISomewhere down the line, creative directors also discovered that laughter is the best medicine and humour entered the world of advertising, most consistently through the Amul moppet who made her debut in the summer of 1967. When the country’s burgeoning population rates brought on a slew of government-sponsored family planning ads, Sylvester da Cunha and the team behind the Amul campaign took a shot at the forced sterilisations of the 1970s. With the arrival of the Pooja Bedi supernova, courtesy KamaSutra, a series of clothes-shedding (matched only by summertime load shedding) commenced. So much skin show called for lighter shades; Fair & Lovely, for years a feminine preserve, now has its masculine version in Fair & Handsome.

Older ads also point to the leisureliness of times past. Copywriters expected readers to pore over hundreds of words of grey matter — and readers did. The celebrity quotient was much lower as well. You did have an occasional Farukh Engineer applying Brylcreem or Kapil Dev with his “Palmolive da jawab nahin”. But in the main, actors and sportsmen were kept to what they did best, allowing professional models to earn a livelihood.

Pop memorabilia, as every culture studies department knows, holds an invaluable reflection of a society’s image of itself. Our advertising history isn’t on university syllabi yet, but when it makes it, I’ll be first to sign up for the course.

Writer’s blog:

Dec 09 , 2006

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