Sunday, June 08, 2008

Madhukar Sabnavis: How mature is India?

Social influencers need to recognise India is a teenager.

A recent life insurance commercial shows a wife returning home and finding her husband sitting in the balcony ‘still'. She fears the worst only to realise in the end that he is resting and the advertisement ends with the message ‘dangers can happen anytime'

A mobile phone commercial shows a young teenager being harangued by his father. He shuts his father off by quietly listening to music on his phone.

In a mobile service commercial a young girl hoodwinks her parents to get permission to go out of town for a picnic with her boy friends. She gives her parents an impression that she may be swinging the wrong way.

All three commercials are interesting and engaging. The first one is provocative while the other two are both charming and entertaining. The life insurance ad touches upon the most basic need — protection in the case of eventuality. The mobile ads reflect what most of us have personally experienced in our youth — parents are people who have to be outsmarted. They are real. There is nothing particularly wrong in any of these executions .This is not a judgement on either their effectiveness to connect with the desired audience or actually make a sale. But it does beget the question: Is Indian society ready for such reality?

In the last decade, Indian society has seen some interesting changes. Much has been written about the austere, conservative, mild, satisfied, non-materialistic, idealistic, family-oriented, boisterous and emotional Indian giving way to the optimistic, confident, "can-do" spirited, competitive and almost "hedonistic" consumerist new Indian. However, alongside this, there are two other significant changes — and it's beyond the superficial western cultural invasion that many media talk about and that took place in the 90s.

First, this new Indian has given birth to "insecurity" in society. At a personal level, the high level of competition from school to college to work has created pressures from family and peers to perform like never before. The weakening of the physical family network — with the emergence of nuclear family and working parents, gives children (and even adults) fewer people to fall back on for managing emotional stress. The result is growing psychological loneliness. This is compounded by an environmental change. In the 60s and 70s, India, as a nation, faced known enemies. Today, with the growth of terrorism, the enemy is unknown — he could be anywhere, even next door! It's ironic that we talk about a more confident younger generation, but research shows that parents today are more scared of letting children go out freely. Mobiles have become a means to keep in touch with children as they go from school to vocational to tutorial classes — something earlier generations rarely worried about. India (and maybe the world too) has become a more unsafe place.

The second characteristic of the new India is "aggression". When aggressive energy is expressed as trying to be better or actually exploring new lands, it's positive. However, there is a "darker" side to it. Shoot-outs in schools, revenge and murder killings among the educated class are a reflection of this new-found aggression — an outcome of society's inability to cope with emotional stress in an intelligent and mature fashion. The recent Harbhajan-Sreesanth slapgate during the IPL may seem amusing to some or just a venting of sporting aggression to others, but it is also symptomatic of the dark side of the "aggressive" Indian. There is discussion currently on championing that, besides skill development and psychological preparation; cricketers need to be "trained" in managing themselves and their emotions on the field — it's a recognition that the new Indian we are so proud of needs to leashed!

The growth of the media has only compounded this "insecurity" and magnified "aggression". The rush for TRPs has triggered a proliferation of graphic descriptions of violent acts — often salacious, much like a low-brow murder mystery — which only subliminally spread a feeling of uncertainty. It may be facile to say that the media is giving people what they want — the real truth is that people may be natural voyeurs and enjoy it when given, but aren't really vicarious in nature — they don't seek to know gory details. "Positive" news turns the average viewer as much as "negative" news engages him. While such media coverage does help to raise the ante of the system and works towards bringing justice, it also has the other effect of spreading "paranoia" in society.

Economics is taking over society and culture. In the new world, companies are the new government, guiding society — shaping it with their products and messages. With their privatisation, the media too is another corporate. Businesses and brands need to be sensitive to the larger role they unconsciously play. We need to realise that though India has over 2,000 years of history and culture and 60 years of independence, we are a teenage country. A "doddering" old man of 44 was re-born as a child in 1991. We are like an average teenager coping with change — in our own circumstances and in a transformational world around us. Any social stimulus needs to be viewed in this context. Social influences, whether media editorial or advertising messages, need to evaluate whether they can play a more encouraging role rather than just a commercial one. Simultaneously, the situation provides brands — media or product — an opportunity to take on the role of advisors and guides that help people — consumers and citizens — cope with change and uncertainty.

In the recent IPL semi-final between Chennai Super Kings and Kings XI Punjab, Kumar Sangakarra walked because he thought he was out even though the umpire did not raise his finger. It was a great act of sportsmanship. Yet, there were enough youth who said Sangakarra was foolish; he should have played by the book rather than the spirit — there are other times he gets bad decisions, so this could have been his lucky moment.

The event by itself is small but is reflective of our times. Clearly, Indian culture and values, in the long term, will see society through this teenage tryst. However, social influencers need to be constantly aware of the impact of their actions on society today rather than fall back on the cushion of Indian cultural strengths that will see us through tomorrow. Maybe if the three ads quoted at the start of this piece are viewed with this filter, our perspective could change.

Something worth thinking about.

The views expressed are personal.

The author can be contacted at

Courtesy : Business Standard