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What are all those copywriters doing?

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January 31, 2006 12:09 IST

I'm possibly the only one who doesn't get it. That supposed link between pointless advertising and products that sell.

It's a thought that cropped up for the tenth time this morning, when I came across an ad featuring Kajol. The actress was fronting a bizarre military-type squad bent on stopping a fat man from eating biscuits.

It's a thought that surfaces often. A month or so ago, there was Kajol, again -- is there a pattern of bad choices at work here? – with her husband, acting out some ridiculous pantomime to sell a mobile phone. She wore a kimono; he, a bad hairdo. The script was banal. The ad made no sense. And yet, they prattled on for one expensive minute of airtime after another.

I don't get it. Honestly. I understand most copywriters aren't very bright, considering they spend years trying to hawk everything under the sun. I know they aren't as familiar with the English language as they'd like to think they are. Stare at 70 per cent of all ads carefully, and the grammatical errors jump out at you. And yet, clients indulge these inane audio-visual and print exercises that -– dear sweet god -– supposedly help?

How on earth do they work?

There are all kinds of explanations, of course. On how brand recall is enhanced if there's something particularly annoying or memorable on your screen. How reinforcing the value of a product is easier when you have a celebrity endorse it, even if the ad itself makes no sense. How people like ads that don't challenge them in any way. How pointless ads can hold powerful subliminal messages.

But I refuse to accept it. For every 100 advertisements on television, there are barely 3 that come across as refreshing. These are the ones that do not propagate stereotypes. Ones that get to the point -– selling a product or service -– and do it with wit or honesty alone. Ones that appear to work just as well as the rest.

So, why the desperate need to create these expensive exercises in futility? Why have an ad featuring Cyrus Broacha running around screaming 'What it is?' to sell a biscuit? What does that mean anyway? Why have a bad actor like Rahul Dravid encourage me to buy electrical goods? Why create 27 ads featuring all kinds of women scrubbing clothes to make their husbands look better at their offices?

I can picture the copywriters now, sitting in their faded jeans and unwashed shirts, smoking cigarettes in foggy rooms, thinking hard about the next burst of creativity to come their way by accident. And then, one of them rousing himself or herself to create a line that reads 'Impossible is nothing', in the hope of selling more shoes. It must be a fabulous life. A life lived fruitfully in the pursuit of such inspiration.

It's we who are to blame, of course. We, the viewers, who indulge this inanity by failing to voice our complaints. Complaints are only reserved for television shows and suchlike, apparently.

In her best-selling book The Beauty Myth, the American feminist Naomi Wolf famously compared the contemporary ideal of beauty to the medieval torture device called the Iron Maiden, which enclosed victims in a spike-lined box shaped like a woman. Wolf pointed out how, like the Maiden, the ideal of beauty enforces conformity to a rigid shape. Both, ideal and device cause their victims a lot of suffering. According to the book, advertising's ideal was a 17-year-old tall model weighing less than 55 kilograms, with no wrinkles or blemishes.

That was in 1991. Fifteen years on, sadly, it continues to hold true.

Why do women in our ads need to be little other than wives, sexual objects, or male-dependant pipsqueaks hopeless at making their own decisions? A good product is a good product. And a good ad should manage to make this clear without resorting to inarticulate celebrities or tacky characters to get the point across. Not all women need to be submissive partners. Not all men and women need to have fabulous hair and cellulite-free bodies. And not everything needs to rely on the sexual.

But then, take away these prerogatives, and our copywriters would have to rely on wit alone. And they have long proved how unarmed they are for that sort of battle.

Maybe there's the reason they celebrate their little achievements by themselves, with their silver lions, gold walruses and platinum cows. Even insular communities need approval, after all. And the outside world is clearly uninterested in offering it to them.

Are we to be cursed forever, then, by ads that only try and outdo each other in insulting our own intelligence?

I have a few questions for those witty, overpaid copywriters: Whom are you advertising those products for? Do you know the people affected by the messages you send out? And when will you start taking your jobs seriously enough to try and make a difference?

Lindsay Pereira