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  • Writer's pictureKanhaiya Maheshwary

Surrogate Advertising in India - Brands in Disguise

How many times have you seen the "Men will be men" ads, and loved them? Probably several tens of times, and almost every time. And how many times have you actually brought the product it was apparently advertised for, i.e. Seagram's Imperial Blue music CDs? I'd care to guess 0. In fact, you might have never even seen those CDs at any music outlet like Planet M or Rhythm House. You might already know why - the answer is Surrogate Advertising.

Surrogate stands for substitute. Surrogate advertising is a type of advertising wherein an ad shows a certain product in place of another banned product (like cigarettes or alcohol).

Surrogate Advertising in India started out in the mid 90s when products like alcohol and cigarettes were banned as a result of the Cable Television Networks (Regulations) Act (1995) read along with the Cable Television Rules of 1994. Before that, there was a law which moderated cigarette ads, known as the Cigarettes (Regulation of Production, Supply and Distribution) Act,1975. But under this 1975 act, companies could still advertise cigarettes, albeit with a warning that it is injurious to health. However, the two acts of '94 and '95 really saw the regulators cracking down on these brands.

But advertisers are some of the most creative people in the world, and fortunately or unfortunately, they found a way out. Advertisers and marketers were of the opinion that since strong brand name is one of the vital factors influencing a purchasing decision, all they had to do was build a brand image, even if it meant promoting a different product. Thus started the entire saga of surrogate advertising of music cassettes, club soda, tee-shirts, and music CDs. And in various survey conducted by public activist groups who want surrogate advertising banned, the results have shown that an overwhelming majority understand what the surrogate ads are really meant to advertise.

Brand building through surrogate advertising

It is important to notice that the scope of surrogate advertising has broadened over the years and is no longer limited to just TV or print ads. It now includes sponsoring entertainment events and venues, and even sports teams. If you are wondering how surrogate advertising helps the brand with sales of its intended products, let me throw some light on it.

Usually, when it comes to surrogate ads, they promote a certain kind of 'fun' lifestyle.

Bacardi or Kingfisher's music CDs will show young people having a good time on the beach or on the top of a yacht while the music is playing. The audience already knows that the ad is for alcohol, and therefore there is a subconscious cue created in the mind that having a Bacardi or Kingfisher actually equates to a fun time. Similarly, if you check the events that they sponsor, they are all about a great experience. Royal Stag sponsoring movie festivals and short films, Bacardi sponsoring the NH7 Weekender (a very youth centric music festival), and Kingfisher releasing calendars featuring skimpily clad models and sponsoring IPL teams is a way to send out a message that consuming our product will be as much fun!

Once brands are successful in building such a brand image through advertising, then it is just a matter of time before people start seeking out their actual product. Because let's be honest - who doesn't want to have a fun, entertaining time?

Types of Surrogate Advertising

1. Product-Based

It is said that India's first surrogate advertisement was Bagpiper's "Khoon jamega rang jab mil bithenge 3 yaar - Aap, main, aur Bagpiper" (It will be a colorful time when the 3 of us sit together - me, you, and Bagpiper), featuring Jaggu Dada (Jackie Shroff) and Dharam Paaji (Dharmendra). The ad promoted a 'club soda'. Over the years, we have seen many such ads featuring either club soda or music CDs. Let's have a look at some of the good ones:

Ad: Seagram's Imperial Blue - "Men will be men"

Product: Packaged Drinking Water

The ad is an exaggerated humorous take on the stereotype that men tend to forget things such as anniversaries, but in this case, the lead (wonderfully played by Sumeet Raghavan even in a 60 second spot) forgets the name of his wife! Given that there's still a lot of gender stereotype prevalent in India when it comes to alcohol consumption, this ad was targeted to men.

Ad: Bagpiper's "Aap Main aur Bagpiper" featuring Akshay Kumar

Product: Club Soda

A very old, pixelated ad. Nonetheless, it shows Akshay "Khiladi" Kumar having fun with a group of people, playing 'surrogate' musical instruments. It ends with the iconic tagline, "khoon jamega rang...".

2. Event Based

Event based advertising basically consists of either starting and owning an entire event or an integral part of it, or simple being the primary sponsor. Let us have a look at how event based surrogacy has really taken over the Indian markets.

Bacardi NH-7 Weekender Music Festival

NH-7 Weekender is a series of live multi-city, multi-day music festivals sponsored by Bacardi. In the past, it has featured stalwarts like A.R Rahman, Megadeth, Steve Vai, and Anoushka Shankar, and has seen attendance in excess of 100,000. It is often described as one of the most memorable experiences by those who attend it. Certainly, Bacardi not only gains a lot of brand association but also goodwill for bringing such events to life.

Royal Stag MAMI (Mumbai Film Festival), and Mirchi Music Awards

Off-late, Royal Stag has steadfastly entered the movie and music business by associating with a prominent film festival and a music award show. It is trying to cater to the artistic minded segment, or ones who like to appreciate movies and music more after being a few pegs down.

Royal Stag's association with MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) as a sponsor came at a time when the Mumbai Film Festival was struggling for funds and was reportedly about to close down. Again, this association was one which earned Royal Stag a lot of goodwill from the artist community.

3. Sports Sponsorship

The singular name which comes to mind when we talk about Indian sports and an alcohol brand is Kingfisher. United Breweries (UB), the parent company of Kingfisher not only owns the Royal Challengers Bangalore franchisee (again, the name Royal Challengers is based on their alcoholic beverage Royal Challenge), but also sponsors other teams like the Mumbai Indians, Rajasthan Royals etc.

An ad featuring IPL superstars crooning the famous jingle "Oo la la la la ay o"

Alcohol brands sponsoring sporting events, teams, or players is not new. In fact, the world over, at least 30 alcohol brands spend over $700 million a year collectively in the form of various sports associations. Carlsberg was well known for sponsoring the UEFA Champions League, a deal which has now been taken over by Heineken (after the two alcohol brands merged in 2008).

If you are wondering why alcohol brands sponsor sporting events, it is to reach a slightly mature male audience which is generally neither a heavy consumer of digital advertising nor likely to respond to it as strongly if shown a surrogate ad. That's why these brands try to enter sporting discussions by being a part of the failures and successes of these teams just like the fans.

And while it may seem like the surrogate product is just used as a filler in the ad, brands actually have to produce a proof that they are manufacturing the product being shown in the ads. But, it has been fairly easy to jump this fence, that's why the the Govt. of India is apparently coming up with a ruling where brands have to prove that they are not only producing the product being advertised in sufficient quantities, but also that a significant chunk of their revenues are coming from the sales of those.

Personally, I believe that such crackdowns may impeded the revenues the Govt. earns from the taxes on these ads. Surrogate Ads reportedly contribute about INR 700 crores to the ad industry. My take on this would be that given the way technology is evolving, it is totally possible to show these ads only to adults by taking their consent that they are okay to see such pieces of communication, and are not accompanied by kids while consuming media. Even with surrogacy, research has shown that customers do know what the actual product in question is - so why not regulate it in a socially conscious manner? Times have changed, and we need to start thinking smarter if we are to find a balance between the harmful effects of such ads on the society and the potential way in which they can be served only to a certain audience. And of course, there needs to be strong guidelines regarding the language and visuals they can use.

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