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Speaking In Slogans

Speaking In Slogans

April 11, 2011

Advertising is everywhere, so I drank the Kool-Aid for a while - with curious results.

I spoke in a different language to my friends during the World Cup. At first, my new phrases brought double takes and wide grins, but they pretty quickly got used to my new verbal madness and started to ignore me.

Can't blame them. What revamped my speech wasn't the language of cricket – silly mid-off, uneven bounce, late cuts and all – which would be ridiculous enough. No: it was the language of advertising.

“Oho! Suzuki Slingshot!”

“Yes sir. I'll get Idea, sir.” -”Good idea. :)”

“It's good to change colours.”

“The road is full of idiots.”

“Wow. What a bathroom.” -my personal favourite

(They're not much on paper, but trust me, hear them enough times and they become poetry.)

In a country where almost every one of the millions of slum households (let alone the vast swathes of middle-class India) has a satellite dish porting images into that glowing box in the corner, I'm quite likely in the minority. I certainly was amongst my friends and colleagues, who always seem to have their fingers on the pulse when it comes to the instant satisfaction machine that is modern television. They have in the past asked me enthusiastic questions like, “Do you like ZooZoo??” – to which I could only shake my head and exit as shamefully as possible.

It's been years since I was last a regular TV viewer. Objectively, I would say I've simply replaced TV with the Internet; in fact, I now spend more time online than doing anything else, even sleeping. However, there is a key difference often noted between these two platforms. On the Internet, you are effectively the master of your own destiny. You choose where you want to click, what you want to look at, whom you want to interact with, etc (though Google and Facebook might have something to say about that). On TV, even with hundreds of channels available in the satellite age, you have little more control than pressing the up and down channel buttons. You are a passive consumer.

In this way, TV is so much faster, more compressed, and more insidious as a pop culture machine than the Internet, largely due to that constant repetition of advertising messages. And during a major event like the Cricket World Cup, the specific advertising messages that bankroll the competition get pride of place at the end of every over, upon every wicket, during drinks breaks, and even in sidebars inserted during the action. On top of that, the turf and boundary are covered in slogans and logos. In the eyes of television and advertising execs, a cricket viewer is not a cricket lover but a constant consumer of ads.

I became one of those consumers during the World Cup. And how. Now I knew what 'ZooZoo' meant, and the many faces of Saif Ali Khan. After my years in the TV-less wilderness, exposure to this brave new world made me a bit giddy, and I became a walking endorsement for the Official Sponsors of ICC World Cup 2011. I distanced myself from those sponsors with a mocking tone, of course, but the fact is that I was still parroting the efforts of their respective marketing departments.

I have another excuse, though, and that's the fact that the ads I was being saturated with were for a completely different demographic than I was used to. I learned that in India, happy families can sell anything, and so can scantily clad women – even though they're so frowned-upon in this society. That's the other thing about TV advertising as opposed to Internet advertising: it's so much more demographically specific, and it both feeds off and informs the pop culture of the demographic it's intended for. My Facebook News Feed, on the other hand, is populated by people in several countries around the world who have varied interests and are well-informed. Things get repeated if several people find them exceptional in some way, otherwise they fall off the page. On TV, that peer review doesn't exist. The men in boardrooms decide what you get, and then you consume it helplessly – hence the scantily clad women.

To be honest, I became much more aware of my advertising obsession after it was over. When the World Cup finished with Dhoni's towering six, with it went my reason for watching TV, and I was suddenly back in a world that seemed so quiet without catchy jingles or addictive slogans. I noticed how much more varied my thoughts became as my jokes about Steve Waugh's and Virender Sehwag's respective acting abilities ceased to have relevance. I could get back to ideas that were wider in scope and explored at greater length than the 10-30 seconds of a TV commercial. Ideas like those explored in Design Observer, and in WSJ's India Real Time. Just as quickly as I got into India's television pop culture loop, I dropped out of it – without any real hangover.

That lack of lasting impact is testament to the nature of television's power: for it to retain its stranglehold, it needs to be a constant presence in your life. I'm still undecided as to whether my satirical repetition of advertising slogans constitutes buying into the system or setting myself apart from it; an unwitting member of it, or an objective critic. I do know, however, that I have little interest in those slogans now that I don't hear them fifty times a day. Apart from the many noisy government candidates touring the neighbourhood in speaker-filled taxis at the moment – it is election season, after all – I have peace, and the option to choose. (I think I'll choose Facebook.) 

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