Asia in Focus

The world’s best advertising man

The global advertising industry can take legitimate pride in producing remarkable work over the last many decades. Faced with a myriad challenges – a mind-boggling pastiche of languages, customs and cultures – the world’s advertising men have managed to produce work that has truly impacted the marketplace. And, in spite of the many challenges, they can take pride in having designed and crafted work that is entertaining and sophisticated.

So who would our choice be for the world’s best advertising man ever? Who would we crown as the person who has been truly innovative and path-breaking? Who is the world’s best ad man?

Here is a choice that may appear surprising – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

This may seem a very quirky choice but perhaps we need to see the man (and the movement he led), without the halo around him as we usually do. Let’s judge him by his words, deeds, and last of all, by the bottom-line… the results that he produced.

I have great reverence for the Mahatma, but here I will refer to him as just plain Mr. Gandhi – just so we keep him in perspective and judge him in the context of the subject at hand.

Mr. M. K. Gandhi sold the concept of freedom itself to the Indian people. The sub-continent had always been ruled by a long series of conquerors; the British were only the last in that line of rulers. For the ordinary Indian, life in Indian society had always been feudal – at the local level, there were the zamindars who were the emperors of their particular fiefdom; at a larger level, the caste system enslaved much of the population.

In this society, steeped in an age-old feudalism, Mr. Gandhi was able to sell the concept of freedom to a people who had never known it or enjoyed it before.

Let’s observe how he did this. In advertising, we have learnt that you take the customer from the old and the familiar, to the new and the unknown.

For a task that must have seemed overwhelming, he used the one medium that was compelling and irresistible to the disparate elements of the eclectic nation that was India. Across regions, across cultures, he realized there was one binding force that kept the country together – its religion.

Today, we see such blatant misuse of religion that it is almost difficult for us to conceive that religion can be used without it being abused. But the sublime thinker that he was, he did this ever so skillfully, beginning his political meetings – he referred to them as prayer meetings – with readings from the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagwad Gita.

His political methods were radical and revolutionaryno one anywhere in the world had ever used them before – and yet satyagraha, ahimsa, and the entire concept of non-violent struggle were deeply rooted in the culture of the land. Poets, philosophers and religious savants had paved the way for Gandhi’s thoughts many centuries earlier. So the use of these concepts in a political struggle – path breaking though the idea was – found an immediate resonance with his target audience. His methods succeeded because he kept close to the heartbeat of his people – as any good marketing person should do.

The mascot of the campaign was the man himself. The visual mnemonic of the ‘half naked fakir’ was at once unusual and immediately memorable; nothing could be more visually striking. No leader of the time had looked that way before (Nehru was always rather natty).

And yet, though the mascot was striking and memorable, it was not an alien symbol to the Indians by any means. The Indian target audience could recognize and identify with the mascot instantly. Just as the Air India maharajah worked because he evolved from the Indian landscape, Gandhi as a visual mascot came from deep within too – Indians have been taught to revere and respect ascetics for centuries.

This mascot was also constant – once Gandhi shed his waistcoat and jacket for the loin cloth, he was never seen in any other garb. Not even in England, where it was bitterly cold and not even when he went up to meet the king. (Advertising agencies who want to change their mascots ever so often, need to take a leaf from his book.)

Marketers could also take notes on maintaining a consistent positioning in the consumer’s mind from him. While Gandhi’s words and actions may have had minor inconsistencies (he admitted to them himself), the essence of the man and the philosophy remained resolutely the same.

I look on the chakra as the logo, a potent visual symbol, of the freedom movement. So simple and yet so powerful, that it seemed more than ready to take on the might of an evil empire. Even to the world media, these symbols emphasized the David versus Goliath struggle that was raging across the sub-continent. That this David refused to even pick up his sling to fight made the struggle far more dramatic – and made for great copy in newspapers across the globe.

Gandhi was aware of the power of the world press and used it to startling effect. His charisma and charm captivated journalists and photographers alike (Margaret Bourke-White of Life was a particular fan) and their personal feelings for him are clearly evident – he was probably the most highly photographed man of his time.

As slogans go, how would one rate the clarion call that was the baseline of the movement‘Quit India’…? I am sure even my friends who are wonderful copywriters will agree that this is one of the best lines to come out of the advertising world. I am not sure if our writers today could have come up with a better one. ‘Quit India’ is short, memorable, and more than that, is a rousing call to action.

What more could any marketing or advertising man want?

I have always believed that advertising should not be about advertising – we need to draw from the everyday things around us. Perhaps we do not need to look to the Cannes advertising festival for inspiration to learn how to market. Perhaps our marketing students need to put aside their Kotlers for a time.

Maybe, it’s time that we go back and read a little-known book in marketing & advertising – ‘My Experiments with Truth’ by Mr. M.K. Gandhi. I hope, one day, his life and his work will be compulsory reading for the young in our management institutions… as they truly deserve to be.

What better way to understand that advertising is never about advertising – it is about life itself.

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