Why context in communication is a necessary devil

Originally published in Brand Equity (The Economic Times), December 12. 2018.

Recently, a Tata Steel recruitment advertisement seeking candidates for their PR department was shared online on social media platforms. The advertisement had a flowchart design that made it mighty unique!

Interestingly, there were quite a few comments on it. One common thread was wondering how the salary mentioned (Rs.12,000 to Rs. 15,000 per year!) even made sense. Another was about the supposed age-discrimination since the advertisement stated that they were looking for people under the age of 35.

What these questions and outrage missed was the context. Before asking these questions, a better question would have been, ‘Which year is this advertisement from?’. Without that context, the questions seem perfectly valid.

But, when it was revealed that the advertisement was from the 1970s, those questions become pointless. Rs. 12,000, adjusted for inflation is a respectable Rs. 400,000, now!

One simple context—1970s—changes your entire perspective.

Here’s another example. Recently, when Audible launched in India, I noticed someone I follow tweeting about it as ‘just Rs.200 a month – wow!’. And someone corrected him: ‘Rs.200 for Audible subscription that gives you access to one book. If you want to listen to more books, each book is priced separately’. Again, context.

This context is usually called the ‘fine print’ in marketing communications. The most common example of such ‘fine print’ is on offers. For instance, a discount is applied to purchases of a certain value, or for the use of a certain brand of credit card. In both cases, what seems really attractive in the first glance appears less enticing after you have understood the complete context.

But beyond tiny ant-text fine print, there are many other areas in marketing that this context goes missing.

One of the most common examples is that of a campaign being translated from a TVC to print or a billboard. In many cases, the agency and the brand start with the TVC and assume that people who eventually see it in print and outdoor have already seen the TVC!

For example, two recent air conditioner advertisements used that route. Haier’s print advertisement featured a corny looking doctor-nurse couple who seemed completely out-of-character for the kind of profession they are in. Until you see the TVC, which has them acting out that corniness in context to the script that takes a dig at other air conditioner brand TVCs including Voltas’ Mr.Murthy series. In the print advertisement, all you see is the doctor-nurse duo, completely removed of any context!

Similarly, General air conditioner’s recent print advertisements had a Rajasthani-looking woman with stacked up pots on her head! Why the woman? And those pots? Bajaj Platina used a very similar approach, of a woman with stacked up pots on her head, to showcase their the bike’s suspension! Here, in the print advertisement, it hardly makes sense. When you see the TVC, though, the woman is featured in it, albeit with no meaning or context, and you realize that the print advertisement is a literal extension of the TVC!

Even the PharmEasy campaign falls in this zone. The TVC and radio ads use A.R.Rahman’s iconic song ‘Urvasi’ to rhyme with PharmEasy and help in brand recall in a crowded online medicine space in India. The print advertisement, based on the assumption that a reader is seeing them *after* seeing the brand’s communication in other media, has just a strange looking man making funny faces.

Imagine the power of these ads if they had not assumed that people reading it on print have previously seen their other communication on TV and radio? The crux of the advertisements may be very different, with that context!

But, perhaps no other space requires context as much as the news media, in current times. The very reason why fake news goes viral and has dangerous repercussions is because people don’t seek context. A sentence removed from a larger video becomes a weapon of hate. An excerpt from a larger story is used to stoke anger. A tweet from a shady/parody source becomes outrage fodder on national television.

Brands have fallen for this too, incidentally. Dove was in a worldwide crisis mode when it released a 3-second clip on Facebook which had a black woman turning white when she removes her shirt! Ironically, the full context was that a black woman turns into a white woman who the turns into an Asian woman. Because the second change was missed in the 3-second clip, the incomplete story looks outrageous!

The larger lesson from all this is fairly simple.

From the communicators’ point of view, Roman senator and historian Tacitus’ phrase, “Fingunt simul creduntque” is a helpful lesson. It means, “they believe what they imagine”. So, stop assuming things on behalf of your audience and tell your side of the story unequivocally for best results.

From the content consumers’ point of view, a Tamil proverb is extremely handy. It goes, “KaNNaal Paarpathum Poi, Kaadhaal Ketpadhum Poi. Theera Visaarippadhey Mei”. Meaning, “What you saw may be a lie. What you heard may be a lie. Go deeper to analyse and get to the truth”!