Hakka noodles, shipping costs, and life insurance to the rescue

In November 2022, Pirate Ship, the cloud-based shipping software provider for small and medium-sized businesses, launched its first brand campaign made by the agency Mother.

The narrative device is hilarious and audacious: People are shown to be in life-threatening distress (being abducted by aliens, sinking deeper inside quicksand, inside the car’s boot). A huge pirate captain enters the scene and starts with, ‘I’m here to save you’ and its variants.

Pirate captain: “Can I be of assistance?”
Woman being abducted by aliens: “Save me”
Captain: “I will…”
Woman: “Thank you”
Captain: “…up to 89% off on your shipping”

You get the drift? He is here to ‘save’ for people, but not the ‘save’ they had in mind based on their current predicament. The ‘save’ or ‘save you’ segues smoothly towards the cheaper shipping rates offered by the brand.

The brand released 2 more ads in that campaign.

Let’s move to March 2023 now… to India!

Aditya Birla Sun Life Insurance’s new campaign Isse Zaroori Kuch Bhi Nahi, made by Dentsu, has a very similar premise. People are in some kind of distress: stuck in a lift that has stopped working mid-way, gagged and tied to a chair in an abandoned garage, stuck on a giant merry-go-round that has stopped working.

Aditya Birla Sun Life Insurance agent enters the scene. The people ask him, ‘Are you here to save me?’, just like the people in the Pirate Ship campaign. The agent says, ‘Yes, I also want to tell you about this insurance scheme…’.

There is no direct link between the action of the agent and what he’s selling.

Of course, you can argue that the supposed link is about the person being in some danger and an insurance man coming to the rescue.

There are 2 more ads in this series.

But what does the insurance agent’s primary pitch to the man in a stressful situation? “If you invest in the Nishchit Aayush Plan, you will get guaranteed income from the next year, for 40 years”. And after the scene shifts to on-screen text, the voice-over adds, almost as an after-thought, “Get life cover too”. If the stressful situation was dealt with and an offer for life cover made, that at least makes a direct connection. But the primary pitch is that of investment. Even then, the situations the people are in are hardly life-threatening. If a lift stops, you just need to wait for a few minutes to be rescued by the building maintenance folks. Ditto with the meery-go-round. The kidnapping scene is different, of course.

Another argument that can be made about the potential connection is that the agent cannot directly say, “See, I saved you. Now, if you have this plan, your family would get XYZ”. That’s a negative framing and clearly, it may not go well with the viewers. So, the agent is perhaps focusing on the investment potential more than the life cover.

But the writing doesn’t make an attempt at connecting the stressful situation and the insurance plan, and pitches the investment opportunity, even though it jumps eventually to ‘Isse Zaroori Kuch Bhi Nahi’ to imply how important insurance is.

This is what clearly made the Pirate Ship campaign come alive with absurd humor – that there was a tangible link using the word ‘save’ that tied seamlessly back to what the brand offered even though those people didn’t need that saving at all.

In the case of Aditya Birla Sun Life Insurance, the people in distress definitely do need saving, but they would need to be sold insurance after they are in a better frame of mind. If they are being pitched while in distress, that makes the entire premise of the recent Malayalam movie ‘Mukundan Unni Associates’ awkwardly come alive (and it probably does happen, for the movie to use that as a plot point).

The film highlighted ‘ambulance chaser’ lawyers who prey on people in distress, using dark humor to tell the story. Aditya Birla Sun Life Insurance’s ads don’t have dark humor; the Pirate Ship ads did. And because Aditya Birla Sun Life Insurance plays it straight (understandably; it cannot afford to, owing to the negativity, while movies have that leeway), the impact is severely lessened.

So, the rescuer could be selling/saying anything, and not just insurance from Aditya Birla Sun Life Insurance. He could have as well said, “Yes, but while saving you, let me also remind you that Campa Cola has been relaunched and you must try it out before anything happens…”.

Or, “No, I have not come to save you, but to tell you that you can make perfect hakka noodles at home by soaking it in water for just 7 minutes!”.

Does that sound too specific?

It actually is! An ex-employee of Publicis India has alleged through a LinkedIn post that he had pitched this idea (for Chings Noodles) first, in January 2021, and that the team lead, who is now with Dentsu, used this idea for Aditya Birla Sun Life Insurance.

There was one thing that was thought-through in the draft: when people in distress were being saved, it was by appropriate rescuers! So, a house is on fire, and firefighters come to the rescue (and end up selling hakka noodles). A kidnapped girl is rescued by police (who end up selling hakka noodles). In Aditya Birla Sun Life Insurance’s campaign, the rescuer is an Aditya Birla Sun Life Insurance agent! Why? Because the actual rescuers cannot sell insurance! So, anything goes in the name of pitching insurance, and insurance agents become daring rescuers for no obvious reason other than, ‘Why not?’.

The team lead had responded too, with surprising grace, by talking very highly about the ex-colleague (he need not have at all, but chose to!), and explaining how he had suggested the core idea that was eventually developed into a draft, but didn’t work for the client (I can guess why. Even for insurance, the eventual execution seems tenuous because of the relatively weaker writing that’s bent on selling an investment. For noodles, it sounds completely preposterous, with forced humor). And that this is all teamwork and that ideas do travel with people from agency to agency.

And because we have an insight into the January 2021 draft, we can be sure that Aditya Birla Sun Life Insurance’s new campaign is not inspired by the Pirate Ship campaign from November 2022! So, at least some good came out of the rant of a LinkedIn post even though I believe that should have been a conversation between the people concerned and not a broadcast for the public to weigh in.

But unlike Pirate Ship which made a solid effort to link the ‘save’ with the product being pitched, the other 2 ideas, one executed, and one in the draft stage, do not make the effort to find internal logic for their narratives. Ironically, the hakka noodles version gets at least one aspect right (who should save them?), while the insurance version treaets everything else in a flimsy manner.