The ‘Average’ Indian Automobile Commercial

While there have been rare gems, the majority of Indian car ads can do with a lot of improvement, contends Karan Rajpal, asking why a category that can be vibrant is getting away with mediocrity.

Karan RajpalUpdated: Thursday, January 26, 2023, 07:23 PM IST
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The ‘Average’ Indian Automobile Commercial |

The night is dark, perhaps just before dawn. City lights abound, with the road a ribbon stippling across the landscape. A note of music is quickly followed by the growl of an automobile engine. Headlights streak across the screen quickly, and a crescendo of music strikes its first notes. You see a car go across the screen in quick cutaways.

Your mind’s ability to see these visuals easily is not the beauty of this writer’s prose. It is the Average Indian Automobile Commercial!

High average order value, deep consideration by consumers before purchase, global brands and local behemoths chugging it out – whichever way you look at it, the car market is vibrant from any viewpoint. New model launches, feature-rich offerings and the usual rigmarole would make you believe everything is running to perfection. But when it comes to advertising, tropes, conventions and resistance to change wash over every car ad you see on TV

You will be able to recall a few classic Indian car commercials, but you would realise that when it comes to cars, your advertising-addled mind hasn’t stored as many of them compared to many other product categories. Are they systematically designed to be boring, or are there other forces at play?

THE AUTOMOBILE ADVERTISING AGENCY

Given the large amount of advertising pushed out, many car companies have in-house or specialist agencies in place. Mahindra worked with Interface for a fairly long while, Ford had a global relationship with WPP to form GTB, Hyundai and Kia work with Innocean. While there have been great ads from each of these agencies from time to time, looking at the overall output over the years may leave the average viewer high and dry. This also leaves my favorite brand refresh medium out of the question – new CMOs getting new agencies to flex their muscles. Perhaps if the mandarins allow, a fresh streak of partners may bring some much-needed refurbishment to these parts.

JO DIKHTA HAI, WOH BIKHTA HAI

Cars enjoy a unique place in the category hierarchy. Consumers are actually interested in them. The average Indian of a certain SEC can recount more technical specifications about a car than anything else the average Indian male mind remembers, outside of cricket stats maybe. It helps that cars are giant billboards for themselves. And aspiration guarantees you would instinctively know which car you’d buy if your budget keeps increasing by a few lakhs, segment by segment.

If the ads aren’t very communicative, where is this fount of information, or dare I say, knowledge?

Many leading business dailies have great automobile journalists. Add a thriving trade press and a burgeoning social media sub-culture focussed on cars, and the consumer perhaps doesn’t care for the actual communication material designed to attract them to cars. From the Hans brothers at Brotomotiv who bring a Pawn Stars type inherent viewability to car repairs (who would have thought!),to Mumbai-based Priyanka Kocchar who has a cult following on Instagram as @bikewithgirl,the opportunity to see aspects of automobile communications may already be well captured by mediums other than advertising

LACK OF A CAR ADVERTISING CULTURE

This aspect may be a little alienating, but here goes. From the beginning of the satellite TV era, many consumer categories received outsized creative love in India. From a smart housewife telling you which detergent to buy, to the beauty of unabashed dancing on a cricket field, multiple categories saw tremendous work over the years. For cars, the need to advertise various brands came slightly later than the launch of satellite TV, as the market only opened with Daewoo entering India in the early 2000s.

Mature car markets such as the US have had cult followings of automobiles and their advertising for decades. With fierce competition between the Americans, the Japanese and the Germans, most automobile brands had to figure out what they stood for. Today, the choice of a car can still work as a shorthand for the owner’s personality in the American market. The brands and their advertising moved communications and production design in lockstep, with each reinforcing the other.

In India, car brands have perhaps never had to think about the magic fantastic ads could do to their image. One can’t help but imagine what the Indian car advertising landscape would be like if campaigns like Tata Safari’s ‘Reclaim your Life’, Mahindra’s ‘Live Free Live Young’ or Tata Indica’s ‘More dreams per car’ hit the airwaves every other year.

When it comes to cars, I don’t think about the ICE vs EV debate, or if I should own a car or use cabs. I think about the storytelling and mythmaking Indian advertising has done for cars. And for me, the road, is still wide open.

(The author is Director-Marketing at EnableX, a Communications SaaS Company. He tweets at @ironymeter. Views expressed are personal.)

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