Tradition of Great Advertising

Several years ago, in the course of being interviewed, I was intrigued by my interviewer, a short, rotund man; his big head perpetually perched a little to one side. Shunu Sen had the knack for engaging and enthralling people. We invariably succumbed to a potent concoction of wisdom, intellect, warmth and, not least of all, his wickedly, mischievous wit. Talent from within and outside Hindustan Lever revolved around him like planets orbiting a sun, an impression reinforced by the perpetual sight of groups of people flocked outside his room. Shunu’s weakness was time management — invariably, he got absorbed with his audience.

Then as the head of marketing at Hindustan Lever (now Hindustan Unilever), and widely regarded as India’s marketing guru, Shunu had an eye for great content, and an admiration for talent. Gifted associates from the best advertising agencies rewarded him with unforgettable work, including legendary campaigns for brands such as Surf (Lalitaji), Liril (“girl in the waterfall”), Rin (“zara sa Rin” [just a little Rin]) and Surf Ultra (“daag dhoonte reh jaaoge” [you’ll keep searching for the stain]).

Alyque Padamsee, who is as highly regarded in advertising as Shunu is in marketing, had this to say while speaking of the Liril TV commercial (print version shown in Exhibit 22.0): “It not only offers you freshness but offers you a sense of freedom. It is not just an ordinary bath. The ‘girl in the waterfall’ symbolizes that the bathing experience can be bindaas (‘carefree’ in Hindi). For the average Indian woman who is surrounded by chaos, in-laws, husband, children, the ten minutes in the shower are her own, where she can daydream. Now that was so compelling that the Liril ad remained unchanged for 25 years.” Liril’s sales skyrocketed when the ad was first aired, and the model, Karen Lunel, became an overnight celebrity.

The waterfall ad continues to prevail years after Shunu passed away. More than 40 years since the original, the Liril Girl continues to frolick under the waterfall (Exhibit 22.1).

Exhibit 22.1  The 2015 version of the Liril ad. (Courtesy Hindustan Unilever).

Over an era spanning three decades, Shunu played a defining role in the transformation of consumer marketing in India. He was also the single greatest influencer fuelling the dynamic and highly talented Indian advertising community of the 1980s and 1990s. Indian commercials are often clever, sometimes thought provoking, and mostly entertaining. There is undoubtedly some truth in the claim that at a time when a government channel monopolized the small screen, Indian children were drawn to television by entertaining advertisements.

Shunu’s legacy has prevailed. Those who knew him, admired him as much for his capacity to celebrate life in the face of adversity. He serves as an example of others like him and Padamsee, scattered around the world of marketing and advertising, who have contributed immensely to the tradition of great advertising.

While observing advertisements, from the past as well as present, do bear in mind that their purpose, at least for consumer products, has less to do with advocacy, and more to do with sustaining interest in the product and generating sales.

Judge them not through your own eyes but through the eyes of the target audience. Only the audiences’ tastes, preferences, culture and social norms are of relevance.

In this context, it was a bit of a risk to portray a scantily clad Liril girl on national TV, at the time when most Indians’ dress sense was very conservative.

The gamble paid off, partly because the ad became a talking point, cutting through the clutter and generating positive vibes from the segment of the population that the brand was targeting.

Great advertising is advertising that produces great results. Like the Surf, Rin and Liril ads mentioned above, these ads often exhibit a penetrating understanding of the target audience.

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