If the Happydent White television commercial was true to life, the possibilities surrounding a set of sparkling white teeth are endless. You could start by switching off the lights and switching on a smile instead. If that sounds rather surreal, it's only in keeping with the ad and its core message.
The lavish, 80-second ad begins with a man in a dhoti and turban cycling furiously. His front tyre falls into the river and he tries to hitch a ride from a passing car.
All very ordinary so far, with the chorus Muskura le, jagmaga le setting the theme, and then you notice that the car has two human headlamps. The driver doesn't stop and the man rushes on. Entering the palace grounds, he passes lamp-posts with men hanging where the bulbs should be.
Inside the palace, too, are men in place of light bulbs. The man reaches a balcony from where he swings onto a chandelier, to hang alongside other men. Below him is the dining table and the king ready to begin his meal.
Our man pops a piece of gum into his mouth and smiles, as the song reaches its crescendo: "tera dil roshan, tera man roshan" . All the "bulbs" in the human chandelier light up. The product is shown against a brightly-lit cityscape, and the voiceover announces, "Happydent White, chewing gum."
It's all just a bit too fantastic and McCannErickson admits it unabashedly. "We wanted a commercial that would astonish people and at the same time break the clutter," declares Prasoon Joshi, the ad agency's regional creative director, south and south east Asia.
The sentiment is echoed by Perfetti van Melle as well, the company behind Happydent. "The premise of the ad is a set of sparkling white teeth. We wanted to bring out this message in a manner that is not subtle, but at the same create an exaggeration that does not put off the audience," says Sameer Suneja, marketing head, Perfetti van Melle, India.
The larger-than-life theme - the idea of lighting up an entire fantasy world - is perhaps fitting, given that it also signals a seachange in positioning. Happydent is not a children's confectionery. It has staked a claim to the oral dental hygiene platform - and the communication centres on making dental hygiene a fun activity.
"In India, chewing gum is still looked on as a breath freshener. So the aim was to portray the product as something that gives healthy and white teeth. And this had to be done by making it seem interesting rather than therapeutic," explains Joshi.
That's particularly important, given the changing age profile of chewing gum users. Until even a few years ago, gum was included in children's confectionery, particularly those under 14 years. But the product has expanded its reach, and consumption of chewing gum is significantly higher among teenagers and young adults.
Perfetti has identified this change in its campaigns. Its last campaign, in 2004, showed a photo shoot in a typically non-urban setting. The rustic model is tiring of the shoot when the photographer pleads for one more shot.
He adjusts the face of the man standing beside him. At the photographer's command, the gum-chewing man smiles: his dazzling teeth provide the flash. "We wanted to extend the earlier, human flashlight commercial to a new level that would connect with the youth," says Suneja.
At the same time, the company didn't want to dwell too much on the "smile please" commercial. Chewing gum is a high impulse, low involvement product, so if Perfetti wanted to ensure its brand recall remained high, it needed to stand out dramatically.
Accordingly, a lot of thought and effort went into the making of this commercial. The ad was shot by well-known ad filmmaker Ram Madhvani in just eight days at Panvel, outside Mumbai, with around 20 traditional acrobats from Maharashtra and Kerala. Special sets were erected just for the film. "This helped us create the film in a more believable manner," says Joshi.
The ad was released last month on major TV channels and a second part is scheduled for the latter half of the year - no radio or print campaigns, though. Meanwhile, Perfetti is also pushing its other chewing gum brand, Protex Happydent.
A new commercial for the sugarless gum, made by ad agency Ogilvy, was aired at around the same time as the McCann ad for Happydent. Two similar brands, with similar names may seem like an invitation to confusion, but Perfetti's ensured there will be no overlap in ideation by keeping the agencies separate.
While the Protex ad also depends on exaggeration and humour, it leans heavily towards communicating product attributes.
"The brief to the agency was simple: we had to make the commercial informative and quirky at the same time," says Abhijit Avasthi, group creative director, Ogilvy & Mather. This campaign features a soldier explaining to a spy the advantages of strong teeth.
"The Protex ad is all about the gum's properties, done more obviously, unlike the subtlety of the Happydent commercial," says Suneja. Protex, too is a TV-led commercial, but unlike Happydent White, the brand will soon be featured on radio as well.
At present, Perfetti spends 10 to 12 per cent of its turnover annually on marketing. And while the company is playing safe with its marketing initiatives, it is going all out on the distribution front. Perfetti claims that Happydent is available at over 500,000 retail outlets across India, including both the traditional mom-and-pop stores and modern retail formats.
"Gum is a low involvement product, which is accessible to every section of the society. Thus, the focus is to have a strong brand presence to reach out to each and every consumer," says Suneja.
While Perfetti focuses on a strong brand presence, its competitor Wrigley is looking to expanding its product portfolio.
The company recently launched Orbit Winterfrost, a variant of its sugarfree gum. Wrigley, which has the first mover advantage, is paying extra attention to packaging - blister packs and bright colours make it more visible, a valuable attribute for impulse purchase product categories.
But there are similarities in the communication strategies - like Perfetti, Wrigley too focuses on the brighter smiles and strong teeth propositions. One of its ads, for Orbit, shows the gum working even on a cow.
Absurdity and a distinct style of rendition are factors that both companies say have worked for them. What catches your fancy, though: a cow or a human bulb?
Who did what
- Client: Perfetti van Melle, India
- Agency: McCann Erickson
- Creative: Prasoon Joshi
- Client servicing: Priyanka Sihota