Festivals legitimise consumption: Ambi Parameswaran

27 Feb,2014


In the world of advertising and brand management in India, Melarkode Ganesan Parameswaran needs no introduction. Or perhaps he does. For, the engineer from IIT Madras, MBA from IIM Kolkata and PhD from Mumbai University has been known in the industry as MG Parameswaran, and to friends and colleagues: Ambi. An author of six books – all serious brand- or case study-based, Mr Parameswaran completed his doctoral thesis in 2012 and did what many degree-holders aspire to do, but never get down to: convert the thesis into a bestselling book.


With For God’s Sake, Mr Parameswaran, now Advisor at DraftFCB Ulka (until recently CEO and Executive Director with the agency), has managed to strike a heady mix of an easy-to-read tome mixed with some heavy duty business fundamentals.


After the book’s launch in Mumbai on Tuesday, Mr Parameswaran took time off to take a few questions.


Your book is based on your PhD thesis. While it’s critical for one to choose a topic that’s unique, surely religion was, to use an oft-used phrase in your business, much out-of-the-box. How and why religion or religiosity, as you call it?

When you select a topic for PhD, you have to pick topics that are relatively new. I wanted to work on brands and castes, whether different brands have a caste typology. That was too out of whack, so my guide asked me to look at something on which there was at least some work happening in the academic world outside. I started looking again and found that religiosity was an area which was interesting and no real work had happened in India.


India has become an increasingly intolerant nation. It’s tough questioning or raising issues about religious customs and traditions. Did that impact your discourse?

Well when I started out I was wondering if Indian consumers would be open to talking about religious practices and beliefs. But the qualitative phase gave me enough confidence that we as Indians are quite open to talking about religion. In the US the religion question is not even asked in their Census. In India we are now digging even towards getting caste names. So it was not a problem getting consumers to talk.


And was it easy rejigging your PhD thesis into a book?

Well, it was a bit of a task. In fact except for the broad theoretical strokes I had to pretty much write afresh for the book. Fortunately, I had collected enough material for my PhD, so I had to go back to all those articles, books and monographs and look at them from a lay person and not an academic researcher. While the PhD took five years, writing the book took around five months, extra.


Your book cover says ‘An adman on the business of religion’? While business could be defined variously, do you find that religion has become a business?

Religion is very much woven into a lot of businesses in India. That was the theme of the book. I have intentionally stayed away from the hot topic of religion as business. There are some books that deal with that topic. Not mine.


In the book you write about how Ramayana and Mahabharata on Doordarshan were turning points for the boom in religiosity, but there were also films like ‘Jai Santoshi Maa’ and Shirdi Sai Baba that propelled a great following for both gods. How much of the current surge in religious following would you attribute to the media? And print too, with coverage to film folk walking to Siddhivinayak…

I think religion got into centrestage with Ramayana and DD. It has occupied centrestage ever since. In fact the first public sector enterprise to be named after a religious icon was Maruti Udyog. I feel as we Indians are experiencing a bit of prosperity, we are using our religious practices to buy an insurance for its longevity. The same is true with people walking to SiddhiVinayak or to Sabari Mala.


As an adman who has been working with growing brands and also watching successes and failures, is there a great ‘brand success story’ of any religion or religious movement in the last decade or two?

Not that I can think of. The last of the big religions belong to the Abrahamic era. However among the younger religions, Sikhism is named as the biggest by a recent Time survey.


Akshay Trittiya is one festival that’s come up from nowhere? Valentine’s Day has become a ‘shubh muhurat’ for weddings. Do you see opportunities for many more such since marketers would want to cash in on occasions to fuel consumption/purchase?

Absolutely. We will see the rise of more such festivals around us. In a sense, these festivals are legitimising consumption and making it perfectly okay. So more occasions the better, as a marketing man would say.


Any religious god, custom, belief you – as an adman – think is pretty cool from a branding point of view?

The rise of Shiva is cool. The way Hanuman and Ganesh got reincarnated as Bal Hanuman and Bal Ganesh are both great ideas.


A personal question: are you religious and superstitious yourself?

I am religious in the sense I do believe there is a GOD or a collective consciousness that keeps us going. I don’t think I am very superstitious at all. It is possible to be religious and not superstitious.


And did you acquire any belief or superstition while researching the thesis/book?

Not at all. But I lost faith in the quick fix Vaastu consultants.


Lastly: while you’ve been known as Ambi, on paper and officially it’s always been M G Parmeswaran. But now it’s Ambi Parmeswaran? Numerological reasons? Or just better branding in a B2C world?

Given the fact that “For God’s Sake” is aimed at the casual reader, my publisher wanted me to use a more reader friendly name, hence Ambi Parameswaran. My academic publishing continues happens under my formal name, M G Parameswaran.


The Mystery of the Missing Bindi


It was September 1994. Our agency DraftFCBUlka (then Ulka Advertising) had just completed a new advertising film for the soap brand Santoor. The new creative was set in an aerobics studio and featured the Santoor woman exercising to some lively music. The ad, which was being shot by the veteran ad film director PrahladKakkar, was going to be a breakthrough. All of us in the agency believed that it would work in the marketplace to resurrect the brand that had hit a plateau after seeing great growth for a few years. We had in fact bet the agency’s reputation on this ad with our long-term client Wipro. But I was very worried. I suddenly remembered that right through the film the Santoor woman was not shown sporting a bindi. In the story, she was a mother and her kid enters the scene with a loud ‘mummy’ squeal much to the surprise of onlookers. How could we have missed out on the bindi, I wondered. First thing next morning I called our film manager Monia Pinto and asked her if we could ‘rotoscope’ a bindi on the model PriyaKakkar’s forehead (rotoscopy is a technique whereby you insert a digital image into a real-life moving picture; it was relatively new and very expensive in the mid 1990s; the Hollywood film Who Framed Roger Rabbit had used this to great effect). Monia, the liberal that she is, pooh-poohed my worry. As did many of my other colleagues. The film was presented to the client, aired on television and became a landmark film in the history of brand Santoor. The Santoor woman, sans bindi, went on to play cricket, teach hula hoop to her kid and even made film stars dance to her tune over the next decade, helping make Santoor the third largest soap brand in the country. But the bindi thought stayed with me. The bindi is a part of Hindu culture and even has a strong tantric underpinning. Both men and women wear the bindi or bindu, which means drop or globule. It is supposed to be the sacred symbol of the universe, depicted as a dot or the zero. Applied between the eyebrows, it is purported to be the position of the sixth chakra, a place which is also the exit point of kundalini energy. Tantric literature abounds with explanations on the red bindu (symbolizing fire/blood) and white bindu (symbolizing semen). Married women also wear red vermilion or sindoor in the parting of their hair, which is first applied there by their husband on their wedding day, during the sindoordana ceremony. Only married women are allowed to wear the sindoor, according to Hindu custom. Interestingly, though Islam does not have a bindi or sindoor custom, most Muslim women in Bangladesh sport a bindi. Even in Pakistan, Muslim women at times wear designer bindis, quite ignoring the Hindu symbolism of the bindi.


Not too many people know all this socio-cultural background to the humble bindi. And the Indian advertising industry is populated by young men and women from upper-middle-class families. Most of them are what are called EMTs (or English Medium Types). The scenario is changing rapidly now with an increasing number of HMTs (Hindi Medium Types) joining the tribe, but the EMT orientation remains.These EMTs were told, in the early days of their training, to ensure that advertising did not hurt anyone’s sentiment, least of all the Indian woman’s. So all ads that showed married women had to show them with a mangalsutra and a bindi! (Professor Julien Cayla of the University of New South Wales discovered that Indian Muslim women, whom she has studied extensively, were almost immune to this religious symbolism in most Indian television advertising.) My curiosity was piqued and I wanted to see if Indian advertising had evolved from the ‘bindi–mangalsutra’ trap. Accessing advertising archive services, my colleagues and I managed to extract around a hundred television commercials for packaged consumer goods (soaps, toothpastes, shampoos, tea, etc.) from 1987, 1997 and 2007. We wanted to see whether the portrayal of Indian women had changed in the three decades under study. Using content analysis techniques, we analysed the ads across several dimensions such as role portrayed by women (spouse, mother, working woman, celebrity) and occupation and setting (home, workplace, shopping, etc.). In addition to these specific well documented international metrics, we also added a few of our own Indian metrics. These were the dress worn by the woman (sari, other Indian apparel, western apparel) and the presence or absence of the bindi and other religious symbols (mangalsutra).


From almost 75 per cent of women in ads in 1997 sporting a bindi, it was down to less than 30 per cent in 2007. (The next time you watch television, do check if you can spot an ad that shows a woman sporting a sari, a mangalsutra and a bindi. And reflect if these symbols trigger something in your mind. What do you think is the woman’s education level? What social class do you think she belongs to? What is her age? What would her outlook to innovative products and services be? What kind of mother would she be? As a wife, what would her big worries be?) We then turned our gaze towards print advertising. When Femina celebrated its fiftieth birthday a few years ago, we took the opportunity to revisit our hypothesis of the missing bindi. Our researchers spent several days at the Femina archives pulling out ads that portrayed women. We pulled out ten ads per year in a random but systematic process and in the end got to look at almost 500 ads that featured a picture of a woman over the five-decade period. These 500 ads were subjected to the same analysis as the television ads. We found that as against 3 per cent of ads portraying working women in the 1960s, the number had increased to 16 per cent in the new millennium. Once again, the sari and bindi stood out in our analysis. While 55 per cent of women shown in the ads from the 1960s were draped in a sari, the number was down to 9 per cent five decades later. What about the bindi? The dot had almost vanished-from 45 per cent to 5 per cent in the same period.


Excerpted from ‘For God’s Sake’ by Ambi Parameswaran.

Published with the permission of the author

Portfolio Penguin,

Pages 258, Rs 499 (hardback)




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