301 pages; Rs 599
There is no shortage of books on Indian advertising, but Nawabs, Nudes and Noodles stands out for offering a glimpse of the transformation of Indian society, its changing desires and needs over the past 50 years through the prism of a veteran ad professional, who has done and seen it all. Ambi Parameswaran certainly knows how to sell - the humour, the nuggets of information (did you know, for example, that all photo shoots involving babies have three stand-byes because there is no guarantee that the original choice will be in the mood to capture a particular smile or gurgle that the film-maker wants?) and numerous case studies make the book a riveting read. Its unusual title refers to the days when Nawabs (like Pataudi) modelled for suit-lengths, nudes used in advertising (for Tuffs shoes) led to a court case that ran for 14 years and the advent of two-minute noodles changed the food habits of several generations of Indians.
The book is not perfect: some campaigns are too recent and well-known; some appear multiple times under different chapters; and most of the research work that went behind the ads is from FCB Ulka, the agency Mr Parameswaran worked in till he retired recently. Sometimes, the author digresses into unrelated areas. It is also puzzling that the book has left out digital advertising. But given the overall rich insights, one is tempted to ignore these minor aberrations.
The book, an anecdotal account of how India has changed through the world of advertising, talks about patterns that have run parallel across different categories of products and services. Consider the giant leap advertising has taken on the changing role of Indian men. First came the ad for Ariel, which showed two men enjoying a quiet evening when something spills on the tablecloth. One of them removes the stain with the new detergent powder and sets the tablecloth back before his wife gets home. That followed a series of ads on men making coffee for their wives, or passing around soft drinks at a party. A few years later, men were not just making coffee, but cooking for their wives and making popcorn for their kids.
There are other similar patterns. For example, look at the way old age was depicted 30 years ago across bulbs, pills, potions and look at the way it is portrayed now across financial services, automotive, telecom, and so on. The stereotype of old age being synonymous with the end of financial independence has gone out of the window. One of the path-breaking ads in early 2000s was the SBI Life Insurance commercial that showed an old man gifting his wife a diamond. When the lady asks what she would do with diamonds at this age, the man replies - "Heere ko kya pata tumhari umar" (How would the diamonds know your age?).
Or take weddings, which have been a part of Indian ads for many decades, showing off the woman in her bridal finery to showcase products of various kinds. But ad film-makers have not been far behind in capturing the changing social consciousness. While the famous Pan Parag ad in the seventies was the first to break the stereotype around dowry (remember the groom's dad telling a nervous father of the bride to welcome guests only with Pan Parag), an ad in 2010 went many steps further by showcasing a dark-complexioned bride looking happy in a Tanishq commercial when her would-be husband picks up a little girl before completing the marriage ritual. The penny drops for the audience when they realise that the little girl is the daughter of the bride.
Then there are some hilarious tales of ads that were rejected by Doordarshan (DD) in the early eighties. An ad for Sweetex, an artificial sweetener brand, was rejected by DD on grounds of obscenity because it showed the model's navel in a close-up shot. Hindustan Lever, which was launching a fairness cream, was prevented from using the Hindi word for fair - nikhri, though it literally means "improved". For some strange reason, DD had no problem with that word. That was the time even sanitary napkins were not permitted to be advertised on prime time. Some companies were smart enough to use this phobia to their advantage. Mr Parameswaran talks about a 1993 ad that said "Nude models wanted." The ad copy was a work of art: "Figure: Chubby; hair: Preferably; Chin: Double; Eyes: brown; Skin: Peachy; Age: 8-12 months." It was rated as the ad of the decade by the advertising fraternity and did not invite the ire of either the courts or DD.
These are the kind of untold stories that make Nawabs … engrossing, not only for those who are connected to the world of advertising, but also those who want to have a memorable journey through brands, consumers and the fascinating world of advertising.