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Advertising: Another turn of the wheel due?

By Ajit Balakrishnan
Last updated on: February 24, 2018 20:31 IST
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The world awaits a creative breakthrough for mobile phone ads, says Ajit Balakrishnan.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

Advertising in its many forms has long had an uneasy relationship with society.

On the one hand it provides the revenue that keeps alive all forms of media, be it newspapers and TV in an earlier era or Websites and mobile apps in our times.

On the other, society has always cast a sceptical eye on the way advertising is done, whether promoting fairness as a key dimension for good looks or the self-destructive products such as cigarettes it encourages us to use or political parties it encourages us to vote for.


It was Vance Packard's 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders that first cast the ways of advertising and it practitioners in a sinister light, like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring did to polluting chemical industries and Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed did to the auto industry.

Packard's book painted a frightening picture of psychologists and sociologists plotting with advertising industry executives to persuade the average citizen to buy and get addicted to products that s/he did not really need.

Other books have even questioned whether advertising works at all. Sergio Zyman's 2002 book, The End of Advertising as We Know It, made the case that by the turn of the 21st century, advertising practitioners had become so self-indulgent about the craft of advertising that they were overemphasising the art and entertainment aspects of advertising and neglecting its role in selling the product.

Al and Laura Ries in their 2002 book The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR took another stance: That claims made for the power and influence of the 30-second TV spot or the full-page print ad in newspapers and magazines were exaggerated and describes how Starbucks, The Body Shop, Walmart, Red Bull, and Zara have been built with virtually no advertising.

Their conclusion: Marketeers better rely on an unpaid form, public relations, to persuade journalists to write favourably about their products and the intangible values they stand for.

These differing views on whether advertising works, what forms of it work, whether any or all the manipulative skills attributed to it are real are probably best viewed as issues relating to the various turns of the advertising wheel.

The first turn, the very birth of it, in the United States of the 1950s and then spread to other countries was born out of the commoditisation of products at that time: If a dozen different manufacturers produced toothpastes that were identical in their chemical composition and thus their cleaning qualities what else can you do but try and differentiate your product on intangibles and the music qualities of your jingle?

Thus, 'You wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent'.

Another trigger for the turn of the advertising wheel is when a new technology creates a new media option: Colour printing presses became cheap in the 1970s which gave rise to 'The Magazine Boom'.

Pioneers such as India Today, Business India and Stardust captivated not just readers, but advertisers as well.

The next turn of the wheel brought TV to our home via cable -- this lowered entry barriers to TV broadcast -- you could focus yourselves on a region or on a language: Zee, TV 18, and Star led the way.

The rage was then 30-second TV commercials in Indian languages to run on these channels.

In every turn of the wheel, the advertising format of the earlier era has struggled hard to hold on.

Early magazine ads looked like newspapers ads -- heavy on copy and headlines. In turn, early TV ads looked like cinema ads, relying on mood and music and visual spectacle.

You realise then that it's no wonder that when the World Wide Web first appeared, the banner ad, descendant in creative style from the outdoor hoarding was the first creative format to appear and reigned in all of advertising for the first five years on the Internet.

Then, as the number of Web sites exploded and we were all wondering how to find the ones that most suited us, search engines appeared to help us do just that.

And, just as a popular new road full of vehicles attract multiple hoardings on either side of it, search engine folks thought up the idea of putting up ads roughly in the same subject as what we searched for: Put college admission ads next to sites that deal with college education.

They went one step further, a step that advertising entrepreneurs in the earlier turn of the wheel had not done: They said, pay us only of someone clicks on your ad.

Then, as the Web started to show its action-proneness (all you needed to do was a 'click'), creative formats from the 1950s when direct marketing held sway has held sway. It became a mantra that advertising had to be 'performance driven'.

Now, we are in the middle of another turn of the wheel: Almost all of us spend a good part of our waking hours staring at a mobile phone and creative directors throughout the world are currently struggling to come up with an ad format which works on a mobile phone.

What is making it difficult is that TV ads, created with the assumption that they will be viewed by a group of people (an 'audience'), have found themselves too loud and intrusive for the mobile phone era with its cultural mores of 'privacy' and 'personalisation'.

Parallelly, murmurs are rising in the marketing/advertising fraternity that clicks on such search ads have started fading out.

Maybe it is time that we pulled out that old marketing theory, also from the 1950s, about the process through which advertising works and the stages through which a consumer passes.

First, he needs to become 'Aware' of the existence of your brand, then you need to arouse an 'Interest' in it, then you need to induce a 'Desire' in him to possess it, then you need to make him 'Act' to buy it, and finally, he must 'Suggest' it to friends and relatives.

In other words, AIDAS.

The problem with search-only ads is that it caters only to those who have come past the Awareness, Interest and Desire stages and are ready for Action.

What creative format will work on a mobile phone to bring a consumer from Awareness past Interest, past Desire and be ready to Act?

Whoever can solve this puzzle has the key to untold riches.

Ajit Balakrishnan, chairman and founder of, is the author of The Wave Rider, A Chronicle of the Information Age. You can write to him at

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