April 04, 2020
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1947: An Ad Story

As India became free, the ad world Indianised. A look at the state of the art during those heady days...

1947: An Ad Story

You wonder where the yellow went
When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent

1947. The popular toothpaste jingle blared on Radio Ceylon early every morning. Soon, hosts of other advertisements would bombard the genteel ultra-haves of the final years of the British Raj as they woke up, sipped their special Lipton or Brooke Bond tea before leaving for their offices and chambers.

When Gandhi was assassinated in January '48, The Hindu didn't front-page the news. Why? Because the front-pages those days were reserved for ads. Such was the unabashed, utility-based space that ads thrived in. No awkward queries on ethics, no doubts about function and relevance, no social advertising. It was a time when even Annie Besant could model for Godrej Soaps' hair oil and eau-de-cologne.

Yet, there was a strange disjunction between the momentous political events and the ad world. The months before independence, the upper echelons were still revelling in the intoxicating bonhomie of Bombay's social and cultural life. A walk through the labyrinth of advertising as it existed then reveals the underbelly of gaiety, splendour, celebration as a way of life. Large multinationals jostled each other, vying for attention. Will's Gold Flake beckoned the men, Carlton cigarettes the ladies. 'Player's please' became the catchphrase for athletes who didn't mind the odd good smoke.

Scotch brands peeped out of pages to tease the English weakness for a hard drink. The likes of White Horse, Johnnie Walker and Black and White tempted the followers of Bacchus, regularly advertised the arrival of shipments in leading dailies. For the others, there was always the likes of Three Feathers and Gilbey's whisky, Barclay's lager, Solan dry gin, Gordon's gin.

The Englishman's genetic fear of tropical ailments and then general hypochondria supported a whole industry of balms and liniments, expectorants and tonics. Phosphorine tonic could assure you general health, Nastroline's remedy helped control nasal bleeding and Pilicon could relieve you of piles. Scott's Emulsion, smelling heavily of cod liver oil, would fortify strength. Colds and coughs were smothered by a bevy of products from Vicks, Peps cough tablets and Glycodin syrup among others. 'When you are low/Eno...' went the Eno jingle as it competed with Andrews Liver Salts to abate bilious upsurges of overstuffed bellies and the aftermath of drunken evenings.

 Beauty too was a thriving industry. Indian brands like Bengal Chemicals offered "lasting beauty more than skin deep". Imported brands like Mona Lisa advertised "Les produits de beaute" (Beauty products) in French. Tata's Nirvan perfume and eau-de-cologne was popular and affordable. At the snob end came imported brands like Coty's, Elizabeth Arden, Lancome and Yardley.

 "Advertising volumes in 1947 would compare with those of today," estimates Brendan Pereira, chairman, Ad Palace and one of the original old timers of advertising. No headlines of Nehru's debates or Jinnah's belligerent stance affected the ad business. Big advertisers like the oil companies (Burmah Shell, Caltex and Standard Vaccuum) and car companies (General Motors, Ford) jostled for ad space in leading morning papers with Dunlop tyres, the Tea Board, ICI products, Kodak film or Favre-Leuba watches.

Competition was stiff. If Tata's eau-de-cologne was the popular choice, Coty's appealed to the snobbish end of the user spectrum. Shaeffer pens competed with Parker 51, Colgate with Beecham's Macleans toothpaste, the Rs 157 "extra rectangular West End patent Everbright Steel" watch with Favre-Leuba, Tata Air Lines with Birla's Bharat Airways, Lipton with Brooke Bond tea and Polson butter with Stafford butter.

As the ad business grew, art students vied to join the leading ad agencies, and to emulate the great ad men of the day. Like Subroto Sen Gupta of D.J. Keymer who would create several creative ripples before breaking away to form Clarion. Or Satyajit Ray, again with DJK, who would go on to become one of the country's finest filmmakers.

And while most ads came from England, the creative men were most often permitted to adapt the ad for local needs. Even if it often meant only changing the model. Lux would use filmstars and popular singers like Kanan Devi while the Pond's beauty was sari-clad.

Local companies were, however, not left behind. Against the bevy of foreign beverages stood large, regular "Tea is 100% swadeshi", Tea Board ads. If Quaker Oats and Ovaltine from overseas promised good health, locally-baked Parle Gluco promised a healthy snack from its regular solus position on the first page of the Times of India in Bombay. The dailies then appeared a curious mix of a typical Indian undercurrent and overtly western speak. Nanubhai Jewellers would display heavy bridal jewellery with Jantzen swimsuits advertised on the following page. Some foreign firms set up complete operations here like the huge Sewri factories of General Motors. Daily consumables would be imported to sate the taste of the rulers. Kellogg's corn-flakes, Milo milk powder, Kraft cheese, Marmite, Oxo Soup cubes, Scotch came across the seas for the white and the brown sahibs.

 As August 15, '47, arrived, the voices in the papers grew. But advertising couldn't care less. Advertising volumes were steady and would continue to be so till the year-end. After independence, the foreign companies were asked to either dilute their stake or move out. Some went away bag and baggage, some left back their brands and others stayed back to forge partnerships locally. Lever Brothers, who gave brands like Lux and Sunlight among others, stayed on after becoming Hindustan Lever Ltd. Brands like Forhan's, Eno, Vicks, Dettol, Will's would remain on shop shelves. Finlay's voiles would eventually go to the Tata group, Morris Minor would re-emerge as the Ambassador. The oil firms eventually went, as also did most cigarettes. Some products, like Marmite and Quaker oats, were never to be replaced in the Indian market.

In the spirit of freedom were born Indian brands like Amul which would prosper and signify India's growing milk production. Tata Airways went to become Air-India and its evergreen, all-Indian mascot, the Maharaja, was born in '46. In the throes of newly-found freedom, Indian companies like Tata Steel would grow and flourish. HLL would launch Liril and Lifebuoy.

In the following years, some big advertisers like Binny & Co faded away. Others like Shalimar Paints and Bata survived ups and downs. The leading agencies gradually got re-christened. J. Walter Thompson became Hindustan Thompson & Associates. Grant's went through a couple of hands before being bought over by Contract; a breakaway group from DJK led by Sen Gupta formed Clarion.

In the '90s, with the new liberalisation policy, some of the brands that went away started coming back to the Indian shores. Shell, Caltex oil companies, Rothman's cigarettes, Yardley, Coty's and other cosmetic brands, to name a few, have returned.

 Fifty years have passed since the Indian tricolour was raised by a people choked with a single emotion. But the original disjunction, in a sense, still exists. Witness the row over Lata Mangeshkar and the aborted Canada Dry bottle-opening ceremony during Parliament's special midnight session. "When our freedom fighters sacrificed their lives for swadeshi, how can a foreign soft drink firm use the central hall to advertise?" asked an honourable member. The world of brands and advertising has evolved as one of India's most dynamic entities. Yet, evolution sometimes seems to take you back to square one.

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