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An Ode to the Chameleon Called Advertising


A planner’s attempt to unravel the most basic advertising question: Why?

An Ode to the Chameleon Called Advertising

Madhumita Chandrasekaran joined the Strategy team at Huskies in 2021 after relocating to Dublin from India. She previously served as the Associate Vice President of Strategy at Lowe Lintas, Delhi (Part of the MullenLowe Group) and has over 10 years of experience in advertising and marketing across tech, FMCG, durables and automobiles. She’s built award-winning brand strategies and campaigns for Google, Nestle, Absolut, Tata Motors, and Whirlpool. 

With a background in psychology and marketing, Madhumita brings an insightful and holistic business perspective to her planning. 

It's not always about selling.

Five years ago, my first boss in advertising asked me a question that I still find myself coming back to: Why do we advertise?

At the time, my first instinct said, “To sell.” Wasn’t it obvious? 

But not many people buy a car, for example, simply because they’re so moved by a commercial. Most car ads don’t even communicate anything distinct about the cars they’re selling.

These ads all operate the same way: glimmering shots of the car tearing through beautiful landscapes, with a driver (usually a man) in total control behind the wheel. If the car has distinct features, they are presented too quickly to fully register. It’s a shiny showcase for the brand, more than an attempt to sell a model.

So, in the car category, advertising must be there to show, not so much to sell. But that’s not the case across all categories.

Consider advertising for big consulting firms that you see on your travels. Their communication is not designed for ‘conversion’. They don’t want you to buy anything from them. Rather, they want to sell the idea of themselves as a cool, innovative brand. They want you to feel something about them; to feel like it might be a nice place to work, to feel like they might be a good business partner in the B2B world, or to feel like they might be a good bet for an investment. 

So, could the answer to the question of ‘why do we advertise?’ be, not to sell or to show but to feel?

Maybe. However, this past year, I moved from India to Ireland, and I discovered a new answer to this question. 

An insight into countries and culture

Nothing makes me feel more at home in a new place than watching TV. So, in my first weeks in Ireland, that's exactly what I did. In between episodes of ‘Border Control,’ I noticed the ads. And I realised how much I was learning. Not just about brands and products, but about the people of Ireland.

The Lenor Outdoorables ‘Where is the Sun?’ ad taught me how important weather is to everyday life in Ireland - and how obsessed locals are about seeking the sun. Ads for Paddy Power had me confused for a while, before I realised betting isn’t just legal, but an accepted pastime here. From the car ads, I learned that interest in electric energy is massive. From the Fairy Non-Bio ads, I learned that women are clearly still in charge of laundry here! (I’ve since learned that almost none of these ads are actually made here – but that’s a different conversation!).

Lenor Outdoorable - Where Is The Sun

But it wasn't just the ads that I saw that interested me. It was the ads I didn't see.

A month into my time in Ireland, I realised I had not seen any ads for biscuits or crisps or chocolates - that astounded me. In India, you can't go a single ad break without seeing at least one tempting goodie on screen. I soon learned Ireland’s FFSC law limits advertising in these categories to protect the dietary habits of children. 

Oreo Play Pledge

As someone who emigrated to Ireland, advertising has played a unique role of not showing, not selling, but rather telling. Telling me about the things that matter in this country, telling me about the ways of life here, telling me the ambitions and the values of this society.

A mirror to society

Can we understand what's happening in two countries by comparing their advertising?

No advertising for biscuits or chocolate in Ireland versus the constant advertising of the same in India; the open advertising of alcohol in the former versus limited advertising in the latter. What does that tell us? Both countries have clearly approached different categories with health in mind, but which is promoted, and which is limited tells us a lot about cultural priorities.

Indians can't imagine life without savoury and sweet treats – they’re a part of most meals in households. I would argue that the Irish can't think of life without widespread access to alcohol, either. And this is also reflected in the advertising.

The tone of advertising is also quite telling. Ireland loves to put out humorous, slice of life ads, while India relies on sentimental and aspirational stories. Doesn’t that tell us about the attitudes and perspectives among each population?

I developed an entirely new answer to my question: advertising tells.

A proactive approach

What would happen if we used this lens when we set out to create ads? If advertising tells me what's happening within a society, could it also manifest a better version of that society?

Consider more diverse representations of race, age, gender and bodies in advertising. Of different family types and issues and dreams and accents and hair. Advertising, and pop culture at large, is capable of not just reflecting but manifesting how society could be.

We’ve already begun to see that - think of brands like Dove and McCain slowly dismantling stereotypical definitions of beauty and family 

But with great power comes great responsibility. And I believe we have a responsibility as advertisers to try and realise a better world. It is critical that brands and individuals at an agency level pull their weight and consider the role of advertising in shaping the narrative when it comes to societal norms. 

So, what is the purpose of advertising?

On my journey to understanding the heart of advertising, I’ve travelled from sell, to show, to feel to tell, to this most new and exciting of places: to manifest.

So when you work on your next brief, ask yourself: What can we manifest? Our industry will be all the better for it.

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In The Company Of Huskies, Mon, 05 Dec 2022 09:18:32 GMT