Monday 29 May 2017 News Updated at 09:05 AM IST
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Changing the way you live - Deccan Herald
Changing the way you live
Alok Ray
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Perhaps the quickest way to understand a society's culture is to study the advertisements. In fact, ads have a two-way link with society. Firstly, ads reflect the prevailing social mores and preferences of the people.

For example, the matrimonial ads in India at one time used to seek as groom in order of preference: doctors, engineers, chartered accountants and, as last resort, professors. Some were even more categorical in specifying that the bride's family would consider only doctors having degrees from UK and engineers from IITs. Then, over time, with the rising flow of Indian IT professionals abroad, such people working in USA, and Europe began to occupy the pride of place in the list.

For some families, apart from enjoying a better material standard of living, staying abroad had the further attraction that it would enable the bride to stay away from the in-law's family. More recently, with MBAs - particularly from the top IIMs - typically earning more than engineers, IIM MBAs have entered the list. Also, an increasing number of matrimonial ads are asking for working brides, instead of housewives, to supplement family income. At the same time, the proliferation of fairness cream ads testifies the premium that the Indian society, by and large, still places on fair skin.

It is also interesting to observe how the products promoted by the ads have changed over time. With rising affluence (and aspirations) of the new generation along with easier availability of bank loans for consumer products, the ads for simple consumer goods like basic soaps, detergents and tooth pastes are giving way to more upscale products like body perfumes, air conditioners, motor bikes, cars, LED TVs, smartphones, jewellery, diamonds, flats and villas.

Secondly, advertisers - through their ads and promotional campaigns - try to change the tastes, habits, choices and the aspirations of the public. They would make you believe that life is largely meaningless if you don't have a smart phone, shoes, watch, perfume, motorbike, car of a specific brand to distinguish you from the hoi polloi or to make a fashion statement for you.

Advertisers particularly target children as, apart from being more impressionable, they are having an increasing say in family purchase decisions in today's society. In addition, investing in changing their preferences is likely to yield higher returns as their life span is longer.

In this game of marketing and promotion, celebrities play a significant role. This is an age-old technique. Older people would remember seeing ads in newspapers and movie theatres (long before the advent of TVs) depicting film stars like Nargis or Madhubala using Lux soap every day. The same tradition is continuing, except that the range of products promoted by film stars and sports personalities has widened enormously. Even some state governments are employing such personalities as brand ambassadors for the purpose of attracting tourists or investments.

Why do companies pay enormous sums to hire the services of such celebrities to promote their brands? There are two possible reasons. One, the face of a celebrity attracts the viewer's attention immediately to the ad and the product stays in the mind of the viewer through association.

Second, the fact that a company can afford to pay the huge sum to the celebrity implies that the product must be a good one bringing a lot of revenue. That helps establish the quality of the product in the minds of prospective buyers.

Should celebrities be held accountable for the quality of the product or the service being advertised by them? True, it is not possible for an outsider to know fully about the quality (including any fraudulent claims made by the company).

Product quality

Yet, the celebrities - because of their celebrity status being used to sell the product or service to unsuspecting people - should exercise due diligence before endorsing. Since they are earning huge money, at least they should be made to pay some monetary penalty if they are found endorsing a product making false claims. That would make them more circumspect.

Do companies have to spend on ads to survive? In theory, if the products being sold by different firms are identical in quality and consumers also think so, then it does not pay for any firm to spend on ads. Since the identical products would sell at the same price, the extra cost incurred on ads cannot be recovered.

That is why we don't see ads for potatoes or tomatoes but find ads for different brands of potato chips and tomato ketchups (as these are not considered identical by consumers). At the other extreme, a monopolist - because he gets 100% market share by definition - cannot gain by spending on ads except when the ad helps expand the total market of the product by making more consumers aware of the product or an 'improved' variety of the product or by enhancing the image of the company by advertising its CSR activities.

Is so much spending on ad socially justified? Here a distinction needs to be made between ads to disseminate information and ads to take away sales from the competitors. The first type provides some useful service to the society. The second does not add any net social benefit. One firm's gain is cancelled by another firm's loss.

While ads at tax payer's expense aimed at changing social attitudes like open defecation, child marriage, demanding dowry etc are justified, wastage of national resources occurs when politicians use page-long ads to promote themselves under the pretext of informing the public about the laying of foundation stone for a project.

If providing information is the objective, a simple press note in the media or a smaller ad without the names and photos of the numerous ministers and politicians should do.

(The writer is former Professor of Economics, IIM-Calcutta)