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Love For Sale

Money can buy you love. The cost this month: Rs 2,500 crore. Happy V-Day.

Love For Sale
Swapan Nayak
Love For Sale
Shiv Visvanathan, Social Scientist
"Our civilisation won’t wither away. It’s now like a Hindu festival. If you ask me, a commodified V-Day is better than the Shiv Sena."

Ashis Nandy, Sociologist
"Individuals are disoriented by rapid change in their lives. This is the effect of the market, which creates artificial wants in us."

Nirvik Singh, Grey Worldwide Advertising
"The net of Valentine’s Day is getting cast wider. It is moving down the upper middle class bracket."

Jagdeep Kapoor MD, Samsika
"We are moving from a parks stage, couples sitting together in public parks, to the sparks stage, showing love by buying things."

Welcome to the marketplace of mushy dreams. Rs 2,500 crore of it. When cash-down commercialism is at its potent best, no trinket, bauble or flimflam gewgaw escapes profitable pricing. Because soppiness as sales mantra does very well indeed. Such is the mad, mad world of Valentine’s Day, where the occasionally garish and the always mawkish command profit margins once available only to organised crime. 14th of February is when love makes the world go broke.

The reason: love inspires much more than great art, literature and music. It also spurs sales and marketing professionals, who realised long ago that love is never having to read a Shakespearean sonnet when you can buy your intended overpriced greeting cards that will never make the leap from bad to verse.

And it isn’t just those cards where they’ve found they can make out like bandits. Consider two products at widely separated price points. High-end confections made from Belgian chocolate go for Rs 1,000 a kilo at upmarket retailers like Belgique in Delhi. Yet cocoa-based goop that you can’t even eat (you slap it on your skin; it’s aromatherapeutic and should make your skin soft and glowing, they say) sells for Rs 600 for a 200-gram jar at the capital’s Pivot Point. It’s probably lovely, but do the math; this is serious money for chocolate, sorry, jam.

A wave of schlock-inspired commerce has been sweeping Indian towns every February for several years now. And it’s a wave that has steadily gathered strength over time. This is not a potency that has gone unnoticed. Politicians with a view to quick career progression have fastened on to Valentine’s Day as a smart way to make it onto talk shows on prime time TV without losing their mass base.

Just what is happening? What is Valentine’s Day? It’s the day for lovers. Love. That’s okay, you heard about that, right? So why has this date enraptured the hearts and cash registers of millions of Indians? Even serious researchers aren’t sure about the origin of this phenomenon. There are varying accounts of the tradition of Valentine’s Day and the history of its patron saint. One story traces it to the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, which involved much enthusiastic pairing off between young men and women. And yes, in case anybody from the moral police is interested, they did have the option of reconsidering their choice after a year.

The history doesn’t just involve sex; there was plenty of violence too. At least three different saints called Valentine are recognised as martyrs by the Catholic Church, itself no stranger to repression.

Who cares?

Seema Pandey, a graduate student at Sen Degree College, Kanpur, is sure that "the meaning of Valentine is ‘loving’". Her friend Richa Sharma adds, "It is also a day when you make up with your boyfriends, something like Holi."

And then there’s degree student Kushagra Pandey’s analysis. "Hume to pyar ka izhar karne ka mauka mila, baki cheezon se kya lena-dena? (We have a special day to express our love, how does anything else matter?)"

Who cares.

Burp now, and segue to a Kanpur market, to hear why florist Shakti Shadhan Das just loves February. "Through the week (leading to Feb 14) I have been selling red roses for double the original price. On Valentine’s Day I may sell them for three times that. And all my roses will surely be bought."

Though everyone’s profit margins aren’t quite as high, it’s no surprise that few advertisers can resist making Valentine’s Day last longer than 24 hours. Promotions typically start a few weeks earlier and end well after mid-February, making Valentine’s "Day" up to six weeks long in some cases. This is true even in some high-value product categories. This year, Fraser and Haws, a silver shop, began their Valentine’s promotions on February 4. Some of them will run through the month.

Abraham Thomas, vice president, advertising sales, at music channel MTV, explains why the commercial possibilities of Valentine’s Day are so compelling. He says that over the past four to five years, market research figures from surveys of young people have shown that love and romance are among the top five triggers for impulse purchase decisions.

Add to this the change in mindset among younger people ("the children of liberalisation"), who are more willing to spend money than their parents were, and you have an opportunity for advertisers. It does not hurt that the advertisers themselves find their own research confirms these trends.They are relevant to much more than makers of fluffy toys, keychains and cards. Which is why a wide range of advertisers is involved. For instance, this year eye-care firm Bausch & Lomb was an MTV sponsor, while Idea, the cell company, did the same for Channel [V].

Valentine’s Day is getting so big because, "It’s the only festival that’s meant for young people," says Riyaaz Amlani, chief executive of Mocha, a popular Bombay coffee shop that did V-Day promotions with jewellery and shoe companies. And young people now have bigger disposable incomes than they probably ever did, creating a natural soft point for advertisers to tap in to on occasions like Valentine’s Day.

It’s not often that a case made out by sociologist Ashis Nandy ends up at the same point as one made by an MTV executive, but this is exactly what happens with Valentine’s Day. As Nandy explains, the rapid changes the society has recently seen has created a degree of discomfort among the urban middle class: "There is disorientation caused by the quick changes in the marketplace and in people’s lives. It is not surprising that individuals feel inadequate in such a situation.We have a situation here now where young people measure the success of their romance with Valentine’s gifts. This is the effect of the market, which manipulates us, creating artificial wants and inadequacies everywhere."

His ideology may be diametrically opposed to Thomas’, but the end result is the same. As far as the market is concerned, a trigger to buy trinkets differs very little from the inadequacy that drives a young man to rate his love by the girth of the teddy bear he buys his girlfriend. Nor does it differ so much from the materialism that ensures she already knows the price.

That is why Arpita Anand, a psychologist at Delhi’s Max Health Care, worries that the commercial aspect of V-Day has rendered serious emotions like love flippant: "Young people are more interested in wooing their partners with expensive gifts rather than exploring the relationship."

Of course this is also why the romantic money machine works so well. In fact, there are only a few people who don’t seem to cash in on the marketability of romance. Luckless restaurant owners have been finding out that only a small section of society that’s restricted to the major metros thinks nothing of spending Rs 6,000 on a candle-lit dinner for two. Meanwhile, for most Indian couples a restaurant is simply a great place to spend private time away from strict parents, nosey friends and all those killjoy policemen who seem to think that frightening lovers is a top job perk.

In Kanpur, the manager of Rita Food Products, a restaurant that has a lot of college-going clientele, grumbles that some couples will "spend half an hour over a bottle of cold drink." "And in most cases the girls pay," pipes up his waiter, Ram Charan. Vipul Kela, who runs Timbuktoo Restaurant in Meerut, agrees. "Ninety per cent of dating happens in restaurants," he claims. He complains that he finds catering to couples unprofitable: "They want to spend as much time as possible in your restaurant and pay as little as possible."

But the culture and society that pushes young lovers into unwelcoming eateries is undergoing remarkable changes. Not long ago, it was considered promiscuous across much of Indian society to say merely that you liked someone. Today even a not-so-swish town like Patna has plenty of Valentine’s Day-related banners that read: "Don’t be a last- minute lover, complete your love story here."

Ramesh Goel, who owns an Archies shop in the Bihar capital, says: "We do good business, with youngsters, couples and even elders thronging the shops. Perfumes, soft toys and cards are in hot demand." C.P. Sharma, who manages cultural shows in Patna, dangles another strong hint, when he says that many non-English-speaking people are responding to the occasion.

In other words, you do not have to be part of that favourite whipping boy of the rabble-rouser, the urban English elite, to derive value and enjoyment from Valentine’s Day. In fact for the real urban elite in Carmichael Road, Boat Club or Amrita Shergil Marg, V-Day celebrations are terribly passe, good only for some feeble and unfunny attempt at parody.

Nirvik Singh, South Asia chairman of advertising agency Grey Worldwide, says, "Clearly the net of Valentine’s Day is getting cast wider. It is moving down from the upper-middle-class bracket."

MTV’s Thomas also believes the demographic of people hooked on to Valentine’s Day is getting broader. For instance, it’s not just teens but 15-34-year-olds who call on MTV Loveline, a call-in show where the presenters solve romantic problems. The hosts also get letters not just from metros but also from a lot of smaller towns and, interestingly, in regional languages. Valentine’s Day gives a rather prudish and repressed society an excellent opportunity to express love and affection in a material way that wasn’t possible earlier. Amar Deb, Channel V’s creative director, says they get hundreds of letters each week from people wanting to participate in a show that involves declaring their love for someone, for the first time, on national television. When the show first started, three years ago, they would get one or two letters a week, he says.

Renuka Singh, sociologist at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, says this opportunity is both good and bad. "It is good because now youngsters have more freedom to express their love, and bad, because market forces try to make a fast buck out of it."

Marketers may recoil at that, but the fact is that the Valentine’s Day market is already tapping a wider cross-section of people rather than the usual metropolitan, upper-middle-class teenagers who are traditionally associated with it. For instance, Sunil Nair, a senior manager at Crossroads, a Bombay mall, says during Valentine’s Day they see more traffic, but it’s not just the teens and pre-teens who come. More than 65 per cent of the people who come in are married couples, above thirty, he says.

Jagdeep Kapoor, managing director of Samsika, a marketing consulting firm, goes even further. It’s not simply that the market is growing in size. It is also evolving. He says the success of Valentine’s Day suggests the coming of a more mature consumer market in India: "I think we are moving from the parks stage, where showing affection meant couples sitting together in public places like parks or at the beach—to the sparks stage, where they now need to show their love by buying things and doing things."

Movies like Baghban, where an aging Amitabh Bachchan sings a Valentine’s Day song, don’t hurt the growing acceptance of the festival either. V-Day classified advertising and greeting cards in Hindi and other languages are already very popular. In fact, Kapoor reckons that soon the greeting card market will grow faster in regional languages than in English.

A market that is evolving towards maturity also often develops a capacity to absorb other ideas and make them its own. This is what social scientist Shiv Visvanathan is talking about when he argues that "there is no danger of our civilisation withering away after being exposed to Valentine’s Day rituals. We Indians always adopt any phenomenon—even the effect of globalisation is not as acute as it’s made out to be—to our own situation. So I’m not worried about cultural or any other colonisation. Who says Valentine’s Day is a Western concept? I would go back to the old model of tolerance and say that it is a Hindu festival now. Of course there is some degree of commodification of love that is happening here, but if you ask me to choose between commodification and the Shiv Sena, I would choose commodification any day!"

After all, it doesn’t take much effort to consider the effect of Indian culture on even the most egregiously Western forms of commodification. One that takes only a little twist to go from latte to lassi. Or a single protesting bleat to flip a Big Mac into a McAloo Tikki. Don’t believe us? Just ask McDonald’s. When was the last time you did something for someone you love and didn’t care if the world thought it stupid? Just do it. It’s okay.

Hari Menon with Sanghamitra Chakraborty, Shobhita Dhar, Smita Mitra, Ishita Moitra, Pramila N. Phatarphekar, S. Anand in Chennai, Subodh Mishra in Patna, Sutapa Mukerjee in Lucknow and Saumya Roy in Mumbai

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