HDFC Life’s ‘The Missing Dulha’ ad campaign has an ingenious idea!

Update: Tata Sky did the same back in 2015, in a series of 13 interconnected ad films based on the same story, plot, and protagonists. Agency: Ogilvy. Playlist at the end of this post.

HDFC Life’s new campaign titled ‘The Missing Dulha’ is definitely really interesting. It may probably be the first ad campaign by a brand that wants you to binge-watch a series of 10 interconnected ads!

Why should only Netflix drop multiple episodes that you can binge-watch? Why not a brand, with its ads too?

Usually, brands don’t create sequential advertising. At best, there may be a teaser and a reveal – that’s the extent of sequence in advertising.

Even when brands do multiple ads within the same campaign, they are different narratives that arrive at the same end (buy this product) and between the ads, there’s hardly any connection. Or, at best, the same protagonist is seen in all the different ads, but they are independent stories on their own, otherwise.

HDFC Life’s attempt is truly unique any way you see it.

There are 10 ads!
The characters in all 10 ads inhabit the same, common universe and plot.
Each ad also ends in a cliffhanger of sorts that leads to the next ad.
All 10 ads are about the same central issue – the groom is missing.

Beyond the story, all 10 ads have a common narrative device – one of the characters breaks the 4th wall (See, for context, my earlier LinkedIn post) by speaking directly to us, the viewing public.

Watch the 10 ads in this YouTube playlist (each episode starts playing as the previous one ends):

When I started watching the first ad film, I found it interesting enough to continue watching till the end simply to know what happened to the so-called missing groom.

So, purely from the point of view of sheer novelty, and sustaining interest (to some extent; more on this later in this post), the ad does get the basics right.

But, there are issues beyond the larger inventive narrative device of making a series of interlinked films.

The first issue is the weak script.

The following paragraph includes spoilers, so please watch the ads before you read further.

When it is announced that the groom has run away, towards the end of the first ad, it works like a nice context setter for us to stay on with the story even though there is more annoyance on everyone’s faces than worry… almost as if they expected this to happen.

Yes, the father of the groom does explain the reason for his disappointment (over ‘worry’) in the 2nd film, but it comes across as a flimsy, comical excuse. This is the point when the series’ tone gets set – that these ads are to be taken lightly and not seriously at all. If the tone was set in the first film, it may have been easier to understand (or overlook) the annoyed expressions at the end of the first film.

Next, some of the films end in a very bland way that hardly makes one look forward to ‘What’s going to happen next?’. This is crucial for sequential storytelling because of the need to sustain interest episode after episode.

For instance, at the end of the 3rd film, the phone rings and the father of the groom asks the phone to be answered.

The power cut at the end of the 6th film too is a relatively weak cliffhanger, if we can call it that.

Similarly, at the end of the 7th film, a guy just announces, ‘Shaadi canceled’, with no rhyme or reason even as the people around him are anxiously debating what to do next.

And at the end of the 9th film, the same guy announces, ‘Arrey, this is not the groom at all’. This comes across as an extremely frivolous reason to drag it to the 10th film.

But yes, some of the connectors work quite well:

  • the 2nd film’s end: Groom’s father says, ‘I know why he ran away’
  • the 4th film’s end: A relative shouting, ‘Got it’
  • the 5th film’s end: A ‘Hands up’ call out!
  • the 8th film’s end: ‘Dulha mil gaya!’

The larger problem is not with the cliffhangers but the link to those cliffhangers in the subsequent films.

So, even if the groom’s father emphatically announces he knows why his son ran away at the end of the 2nd film, the explanation for that (expensive mantap) falls flat, even if it works very well as a segue for the mantap contractor to explain why we need to buy insurance early in life.

The ‘Got it’ at the end of the 4th film, the ‘Hands up’ at the end of the 5th film, and the ‘This is not the groom at all’ remark at the end of the 9th film are all monumentally pointless misdirections, as we realize in the subsequent films. They make it seem like how Netflix handles some of its shows – you see it has 8 episodes and you know they are going to go into multiple flashbacks to drag the plot. You see 4-6 episodes and you are reasonably sure the narrative will be tight 🙂

So, in HDFC Life’s case, the chosen form (“Let’s do a 10-episode ad series and release it all together!”) takes precedence over narrative and brand-related necessities or priorities.

A related problem arises because of this awkward prioritization of form over content: the product/service plugs seem forced.

So, the good plugs include:

  • the 15% discount if you buy HDFC Life Guaranteed Income Insurance Plan on HDFC Life’s own website linked to the sherwani bought on discount in the 1st film,
  • the Rs. 26 per day for a ‘1 Crore Life Insurance’ is a good enough segue from marigold flowers being available at Rs. 26 per kg in the 2nd film,
  • my favorite one: the ‘buy insurance early’ plug that sells the concept more than any specific product with a good link to booking the mantap early and saving money in the process in the 3rd film
  • the option to increase of decrease life cover, using the example of more people coming to the wedding in the 4th film
  • the smart exit plan connected to the ask for the advance paid for the mantap, in the 8th film

The retirement planning in the 5th film arises out of the already forced ‘Mil gaya’ callout in the earlier film’s end, while the children’s future planning in the 6th film is linked to the already forced entry of a kid with a toy gun. The emergency riders linked to the power cut in the 7th film is even more flimsy, while the lack of lehenga alternation leading to the product plug of asking us to check the ‘ideal life cover value’ doesn’t flow smoothly either.

The final film is a broad brand plug that falls broadly flat too.

Since it is 5:5, I’d give this a pass based purely on the effort expended to think of the narrative innovation in the first place 🙂

But there’s no doubt that the overall premise seems more theatrical than engaging, most times.

How would this sequential narrative work on TV, I wondered, after watching it all back-to-back?

On YouTube, it works fairly well, depending on how compelled you are to continue watching, episode after episode. On Instagram too, you could perhaps keep swiping to see one after the other.

But on TV?

One really interesting approach could be to play the ads one after the other in subsequent breaks during a live cricket match. You may wonder: what if I haven’t seen the first 3 ads and see only the 4th ad directly as a start? Yes, that does pose a problem in terms of continuity.

This is where the series demanded a lot more thought in terms of writing.

Take the new Netflix show called ‘Kaleidoscope’ for instance. It was billed as a series that you can watch in any order! But to achieve that effect and realize this gimmicky idea, the writers had thought of complete episodic starters and endpoints. This is obviously a lot of thinking and work and works far more smoothly in a complete fictional setup.

Advertising is an awkward mix of fiction and non-fiction. The entertainment elements are make-believe, but the product and service-related claims are totally serious and supposed to be factual (enough for us to pay good money to buy them). So, I do understand the extra effort needed on behalf of HDFC to truly make the random-order-watching experience click.

An incidental way to deal with the random-order problem on the TV version of these ads could be to advertise the overall series prior to the TV premiere and set the expectation of what viewers of the cricket match could expect. That may at least prepare the viewers when they stumble directly on the 6th ad in the 10-ad series, and recall that this is a series and it won’t make sense in the middle.

But despite all these nitpicks—and yes, better writing was most definitely mandated because the highly inventive form would attract a lot of attention—full marks for the idea. It’s very unique and stands out as a high-concept approach. That a client like HDFC Life signed off on this is a fairly big deal. They could have simply shot this down and gone for a simple one-two ads standard package, but they went out of their way to support this unusual approach and that deserves kudos.

PS: I couldn’t find the creative behind this idea. I will update this post as soon as I find it out. The HDFC Life press release that has been reproduced verbatim in most trade publications does not mention the agency’s name at all. That’s a terrible miss – given how unique this idea and execution was, the agency deserved a mention.

Tata Sky – Daily Dillagi (2015) playlist: