Deepavali 2023 in Indian advertising

The closest in India that comes to the Western world’s Christmas-related advertising scene is the Deepavali/Diwali-related advertising. Unlike IPL—the other major advertising jamboree, but one that requires working officially with BCCI to talk about, in a branded context—Deepavali is an open festival that any brand can latch on to. And I reckon Deepavali would easily beat any other Indian festival when it comes to brand interest.

And yet, while there are reams of writing and opinions on the overall state of Christmas advertising in any given year, we do not have any such collective viewpoints on Deepavali advertising. At best, we have articles and news reports on individual campaigns or a ‘Here are our favorite Diwali ads this year’ kind of listicle, or specific individual ads get talked about or go viral. Or, as it happens in recent times, individual ads get outraged about, for reasons ranging from daring to try to ‘change tradition’ or because some model was not wearing a bindi.

So, this year, I decided to gather as many Deepavali ads as possible, and offer a larger perspective on them, together. More like a ‘Deepavali/Diwali 2023 in advertising’.

The effort of collecting all ads is obviously daunting, so I started with some ground rules – only video ads. If I start getting into print advertising, I would need to go into each Indian language, and assorted media per state, and the numbers would balloon completely out of proportion.

Within video ads, either used as TVCs (Television Commercials) or as DVCs (Digital Video Commercials), I was able to collect about 60, in total. I’m sure I may have missed some, but I guess this is a good start.

The other thing that I, as an outsider, cannot go into, is effectiveness. At best, I can only guess the effectiveness of these ads, as someone not involved in the creation of these ads. Also, effectiveness is dependent on many factors—media spends, repetition, and the choice of media, among others—all of which are details that are available only to the client and the agency. And since I’m not into guessing or predicting, let me avoid getting into effectiveness entirely.

Allow me to look into the craft of advertising, instead: the kinds of stories being told, the way the stories are articulated, and if either the story or the articulation is relevant to the brand.

So, here goes – Deepavali 2023 in Indian advertising.

Broadly, I would place this year’s ads across 5 buckets:
1. Functional advertising, poorly made
2. Functional advertising, reasonably/perfunctorily made
3. ‘Feel-good’ advertising, predictably scripted, with forced brand connect
4. Trying hard to tell interesting stories, and largely failing
5. Trying hard to tell interesting stories, and succeeding

(Note: There are a LOT of embedded YouTube videos in this post. So, the page may take some time to load fully.)


1. Functional advertising, poorly made

Let me start with ‘functional advertising, poorly made’. To be clear, it’s not a crime to make poor ads. These are low-budget digital video ads (that show obviously) or ones that do involve some decent budget but are done with very poor imagination. The Archies ad is a good example – the entire idea looks straight out of 1990, featuring… wait for it… an animated mini Giraffe, to talk to an old man waiting for his family to come home for Deepavali! The Drools ad too tries to convey something in the backdrop of Deepavali but ends up looking like a home video with a gorgeous dog severely overacting.

But, as I said, it’s not a crime to make poor ads. It’s merely a failure of imagination.

Here are the ads this year under this category.

iThrive

Research & Ranking (Agency: SM productions)

Archies

Drools

ManipalCigna Health Insurance

Tata Power

2. Functional advertising, reasonably/perfunctorily made

The next category is ‘functional advertising, reasonably/perfunctorily made’. This is the standard issue sales-led ad where the focus is entirely on the product, and not on telling interesting or engaging Deepavali-led stories. Again, this is not a crime at all – it’s good old dhandha/business. The product or the service is the most important element in these ads (perfectly understandable) but they also assume that merely suggesting their products or services—with a visible/obvious Deepavali backdrop—would be enough for people to consider them. That would be true if people already had a need they articulated in their own minds and these brands’ ads would do the equivalent of connect-the-dots.

Take the Ferrero Rocher ads, for instance. The brand has been doing these basic video ads featuring Hrithik Roshan for some years now. All he does is talk about how the gold-colored wrapper chocolates are his staple during Deepavali and if we too were looking at giveaways for the occasion, while not being adequately interested in the Haldiram variety, these ads would help us make a decision. Or at least consider the details like pricing, availability, etc.

Some of the brands try doing things a shade better at least in terms of aesthetics, like Tanishq, while others take the tried and tested celebrity route to garner attention.

But the overall template of this category of ads is straight – product/service first, Deepavali later. Not an issue at all, but for the fact that they continue to prioritize themselves over the occasion that people prioritize.

Here are the ads this year under this category.

Tata Steel Nest-In

Tanishq

Realme

GM Modular

SBI Life

Larah by Borosil

Kora

Hershey’s

Kotak General Insurance

PNB Housing Finance

Ferrero Rocher

Home Credit India

Kalyan Jewellers

KreditBee

British Airways

Bose (Agency: Cultivate Design)

3. ‘Feel-good’ advertising, predictably scripted, with forced brand connect

The third category involves the most popular template when it comes to any Indian festival (or even Christmas, globally): “feel-good”.

Feel-good seems to give brands and agencies an unlimited palette to tell incredibly predictable stories with zero brand connect. Make people feel good with a lengthy story and add the brand name at the end. The best, and the unironically funniest example of this, this year, is the ad by Rajnigandha.

At last with the Western Union/EbixCash ad. they tried to tell some story with a minor intrigue. But at the 5-minute duration, it merely ended up as a WhatsApp Uncle coming alive with his WhatsApp’ness in the real world too.

This is also the category where stories get repeated very often. Cadbury’s has been endlessly flogging its technology-enabled spread-the-goodness for quite a few years now, with each year’s iteration building one more step on the same idea launched in 2020 with ‘Not Just a Cadbury Ad’.

What started with adding small local retailers’ names in geo-targeted ads in 2020 went on to become a Shah Rukh Khan-fronted campaign in 2021 where Ogilvy used AI to make the star the face of digital ads by the small local retailers (with questionable usefulness). In 2022, Ogilvy got Cadbury to make people ‘support local hawkers’ by purporting to give them a digital presence, and in 2023, the brand stretched that idea even further – purporting to give home businesses a virtual presence.

What is conspicuously missing in all these campaigns that have gone on to win many international awards is any information on the end result (different from the ‘effectiveness’ of the ads for Cadbury) of what they claim to enable: how many small local retailers gained from the 2020 and 2021 effort, how many local hawkers gained from the 2022 effort, and how many home businesses gained (eventually) from the 2023 effort. And how would Cadbury/Ogilvy quantify the ‘gain’?

I believe the Ogilvy-Cadbury ‘Let’s use technology for feel-good’ template has run its course, that too with declining marginal utility.

Another repeated template is to show the plight of workers/employees when they are forced to work during Deepavali, and how they are treated ‘right’ by assorted people – the bosses realizing it late/eventually, or the people they are serving. This year, ads from Rajnigandha, Paragon, Real Juice, Polycab, Reliance ResQ, Honor, and Luminous used variants of this template. The next time you see an ad showing someone working hard during Deepavali, fully expect it to end on predictable lines 🙂

A third template involves a brand latching onto something completely outside the park – this year, Bikano ‘used’ child adoption, Greenlam used a child’s generosity, and Berger Paints ‘used’ color blindness, while doing limited justice to both the brands, and to Deepavali itself!

Fourth template: a do-gooder pops out of nowhere and changes people’s lives! Take a look at HP and Panasonic’s ads this year. HP, in particular, has been using its printers to purportedly help streetside diya sellers, tailors, local juice stores, and village-based artists/painters in the past, and goes back to another local store this year. The stories are utterly predictable by now, much like Cadbury’s work. At least the writing could be better, but even that treads on the predictably maudlin.

The fifth template—which has been fairly popular across the years—is ‘homecoming’. This involves someone wanting to come home for Deepavali (but couldn’t, and eventually does) or someone coming home for Deepavali and the situation around it. Amazon’s ad this year belongs in this template, as well as Vivo. In the previous years, I recall severe overuse of this template, and I’m glad it has faded this year. Unless this template is paired with really good writing or the addition of an X factor (more about this at the end of this post), it may not evoke the necessary impact anymore. I was particularly disappointed with Amazon’s ad because it seems to have put too much hope into the one line in the end – ‘You are the gift’ (or, ‘Your presence itself is my gift’). That did not seem enough to hold the already thin narrative. Previous Deepavali campaigns by Amazon have done considerably better, in comparison.

Here are the ads this year under this category.

OnePlus

Real Juice

Polycab (Agency: ShrtFrm)

Mamaearth

Cadbury’s Celebrations

Bikano

Amazon

HP (Agency: Simple Creative Inc. and Media Monks)

Panasonic (Agency: Grapes)

Epson

Greenlam

Western Union and EbixCash

Goldmedal (Agency: FoxyMoron)

Harpic

Mahindra Finance

Piramal Finance (Agency: The Womb)

Reliance ResQ (Agency: L&K Saatchi & Saatchi)

Luminous (AutumnGrey)

Jindal Stainless

Rajnigandha (Agency: McCann)

Runwal Group

Paragon

Berger Paints (Green Chutney Films)

Vivo (Agency: FCB India)

Honor phone

Scapia

MG Motors

Sintex (Agency: Campen Factory)

4. Trying hard to tell interesting stories, and largely failing

The 4th category of ads this year is where brands try to tell interesting stories, but also largely fail in the end when it comes to narrative prowess.

The ads here do have reasonably thoughtful writing. You do wonder what is going on in the Adani Realty ad featuring the boy and the postman. Ditto with the Deepavali gift money the kid gets in the Federal Bank ad. The Eicher ad is mostly predictable, but it at least dares to showcase what most other brands completely avoid during Deepavali – a negative sentiment (fear). The short Volkswagen ads are well written from the point of view of the dual-layer humor – all 4 showcase on problem first (which is addressed by driving the car even more) and end with another short problem.

But except Volkswagen, the others don’t put people’s emotions, sentiments, and Deepavali festivities as the primary narrative focus. Even with Volkswagen, these are too short to evoke either talk-worthiness or shareability. Change the festival to any other occasion, they work. Change the car to any other car band or vehicle, they work. The Volkswagen’ness is what seems missing here, even as they get the Deepavali’ness fairly well with the setting and backdrop.

Here are the ads this year under this category.

Adani Realty (Agency: Tonic Worldwide)

Federal Bank

Eicher (Agency: Grapes)

Volkswagen (Agency: DDB Mudra)

5. Trying hard to tell interesting stories, and succeeding

The 5th category involves brands that have really well-written ads even with brand connections seemingly forced.

Amaze’s ad is a very good example. It has a predictable family-comes-together narrative core at its base but it also dares, unusually, to add a conflict to the proceedings. And even more interesting – the conflict is a dicey, salary-ego conflict!! These are themes that no brand would want to touch with a bargepole given that ‘feel-good’ is considered the primary emotion for ads in this season. And yet, it is the conflict that brings the ‘feel-good’ in this ad! The inverter brand has, literally, a throwaway shoe-in reference, without even a brand mention. This is perhaps par for the course when it comes to Deepavali advertising – the focus is essentially on people, their lives, feelings, and joys. Brands are incidental to the lives, after all, no matter how much brand managers and agencies pretend otherwise because their salaries depend on it.

The Dhara ad is on similar lines – dares to introduce a conflict, and goes on to resolve it in the most human way families deal with such conflicts. The oil is incidental, of course, but at least this is the 3rd ad in the brand’s Khaane Pe Kehna series. That means the brand is seeing some traction in the series, or else they wouldn’t produce a third iteration.

These are what I would call ‘highly shareable’, given the thought that has gone into the writing. But like effectiveness, even shareability, these days, needs some kind of push. To allow attention-deficit people to observe the nuances. The Amaze ad, in particular, has some really sparkling dialogs!

The UTI Mutual Fund ad does what the Federal Bank ad doesn’t (in the 4th category) – intricately links the occasion and the point being sold. I really loved the use of a humanly relatable analogy to explain the value of SIPs.

Both the McDonald’s ads give primacy to non-mainstream, but widely known ways of celebrating Deepavali – not the usual all-in-family-together, but smaller sets of people, for specific reasons within their stages in life. This is a significant upgrade from the brand’s 2022 Deepavali campaign where they imagined themselves being the center of attention on a Deepavali Day lunch/meal, when we Indians have so much to eat already in terms of our traditional food. The brand is replaceable, of course – it could well be an ad for Swiggy or Zomato too.

The ad from Bolas, a Karnataka-based dry fruits chain, is an interesting narrative too, weaving in a story from Ramayana, but with a strong reason: to showcase its Ramayana-branded packs launched for Deepavali. The narrative device too aids to the story-telling – a conversation between the grandfather and his granddaughter. The writing sparkles in the charming ending that brings the Ramayana story a relatable, present-day (actually timeless!) context!

The Wipro ad is the kind of hardworking ad that blends its product with the needs of the occasion. Excellent device too – that of a family elder who always finds fault in things, but is pleasantly won over by the product’s practicality!

The Urban Company ad is the umpteenth rehash of their own 2023 Pongal ad campaign (released in late 2022) about which I have already written.

Good to see the brand updating the 2nd ‘issue’ that I had highlighted, with regard to the nameplate. The brand has used the same ad for Janmashtami, Ganpati, and Navratri too, because of which the Deepavali-centricity of it doesn’t really stand out even though the narrative is very, very appropriate.

Here are the ads this year under this category.

Amaze (Agency: Bodh Entertainment)

Dhara (DDB Mudra)

UTI Mutual Fund (Agency: Havas Worldwide)

McDonald’s India – West and South (Agency: DDB Mudra Group)

McDonald’s India – North and East (Agency: DDB Mudra Group)

Bolas

Wipro Lighting (Agency: Experience Commerce)

Urban Company

To sum up, the point of Deepavali advertising, much like Christmas advertising in the West, is the occasion itself, and the many things that go on in the lives of people who celebrate it. Stories that get this fundamental perspective right, and make reasonable efforts to integrate the product or the service within the narrative would get the bare minimum right.

But what would stand out beyond the bare minimum is the X factor – something unusual (like a relatable conflict and one which doesn’t polarize), or an unexpected detail (like the ‘other’ Diwalis of McDonald’s). Of course, one of the harder X factors is simply genuine attention to detail in terms of writing. The Amaze ad is almost a TV serial episode in terms of family dynamics, but the writing makes all the difference. There are ads with X factors that seem totally forced, like the Bikano ad talking about adoptions. The point about X factors is that, when thought through well, they make people sit up and take notice, particularly in DVCs that have a longer duration at their disposal. But they need to gel appropriately with the overall story.

What many of these ads (above) are missing is that they fail to account for people as their media vehicle. Many of the ads, if you see them on YouTube, have millions of views, but very few comments and few Likes. That makes it obvious that the views have been purchased – in other words, pushed by media money. When the narrative is compelling, the brands could rope in people to do the distribution. But this requires the brands and agencies to think harder on the X factor, while considering, ‘What could we include in the ad that would make our DVC shareable?’.

DVCs that travel between people are the holy grail. They come recommended by someone we like, trust, love, or appreciate. That is far more valuable than DVCs that we wait to end while watching something else.

When it comes to functional advertising, the Wipro Lighting ad is a great example of infusing the product’s context and relevance within the Deepavali scene. But it does so without thinking of it as mere transactional storytelling and has an interesting narrative device (discerning and annoying elder; a device used recently by Suhana Masala too) to convey the point. It may not be shareable from a social sense, but even within what it attempts to do (which is to just point to a product and ask us to consider it), it does so with a very human touch.


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