In the year 1966, the advertising campaign for a butter brand was assigned to an agency in Bombay. The brand, which had already been in the market for 10 years, was "processed from the purest milk under the most hygienic conditions by a dairy co-operative in Gujarat". Sylvester DaCunha, who headed the advertising agency, was quite clear that that positioning — and the existing tag line, 'Purely the Best'— was not going to cut it. He mentioned the campaign to his wife Nisha. "Why don't you say 'Utterly Amul'?" she said. To which (Sylvester tells us), he added, "Hey, what about, 'Utterly butterly Amul'?"
This is the sort of behind-the-scenes event fiction writers dream of. The hugely popular Mad Men — an ongoing American TV series about New York advertising executives, also set in the 1960s — contains at least one narrative where the winning campaign is something the 'wife' comes up with. Megan Draper's success with Heinz baked beans — "Some things never change" — is her tumultuous first and last foray into advertising. Nisha DaCunha's spontaneous suggestion to her husband led to a campaign that has lasted over 50 years.
Based on Sylvester's 'instinctive' feeling that Amul's emblem "should be a child, someone impish and loveable", his art director Eustace Fernandes created the "charming little poppet in a polka-dotted frock" that we know as the Amul girl.
|One of the first Amul ads|
The cheeky humour of the Amul girl, punning her way through years of Indian public life and popular culture, can now be enjoyed in a book: Amul's India, released last fortnight by HarperCollins. By Delhi book launch standards, it was an unusually formal affair. The people gathered in the large new Multi Purpose Hall at the India International Centre to listen to Rahul DaCunha (Sylvester's son, who has handled the agency for 20 years) did not know each other at all. Journalists and publishing faces were few. The audience, seated in rows on white-cloth-covered metal chairs was quiet, orderly and familial, as on a TV talk show.
The feeling was confirmed when Barkha Dutt arrived to host a panel discussion, followed by DaCunha, columnist Swapan Dasgupta and commentator Santosh Desai, best known for his regular Times of India column, City City Bang Bang. "Santosh is a Bombay boy who's moved to Delhi," DaCunha ribbed Desai. "Which city is his column about, I'd like to know!"
The Bombay-centric origin of the campaign is crucial. DaCunha talked about how what began with a single hoarding on Bhulabhai Desai Road has grown into an all-India campaign, with 132 billboards on 90 sites in 69 cities. The writers chosen for the volume, whether cricketing and film icons or social commentators, are almost all Bombay-based: from Amitabh Bachchan and Sunil Gavaskar to Shobhaa De and Rajdeep Sardesai.
Sardesai sees Amul hoardings as shaping elements of the genteel cocoon that was 1970s South Bombay. This South Bombay constituency is clearly core for Amul, its anti-politician consensus sharply revealed in ads like the one after 26/11, where a politician is shown surrounded by security guards, with the line, 'Will the real terrorist please stand up?'. True to that imaginary, Amul marked the 1995 renaming of Bombay into Mumbai with a teary Amul girl looking out wistfully at the city's skyline: the text read "Bom Bye!"
And yet, Amul also consciously seeks to transcend that English-speaking elite cosmopolitan image for a wider one. So they also produced a "My Mumbai, Love it or Leave it" ad, showing the Amul girl in five different regional costumes.
That the campaign has always been in English itself is a fascinating fact. To Dutt's question about whether Indians can laugh at ourselves, DaCunha responded that a 90s ad, which targeted Laloo Yadav's with the line 'Fodder of the Nation: Scamul', went by without any incident, but he could not run the recent 'Kol-kartoon' ad in Kolkata for fear of reprisal by Mamata Banerjee. But as Dasgupta pointed out, that was because no-one in Laloo's constituency was English-speaking. The increase in prickly reactions, he added, is crucially inflected by the fact that more and more people are now able to partially understand — and thus misconstrue — Amul ads.
Another fertile idea in the book is Alpana Parida's suggestion that the Amul girl draws on the mythical butter-loving Krishna: "The natkhat Krishna has become the iconic persona that all mothers seek in their child when they say with great pride that their son is 'very naughty'. In that context, the Amul girl is Bal Krishna!" Parida is definitely on to something here. But she doesn't dwell enough on the campaign's fascinating transformation of the 'naughty boy' — the son whose bad behaviour pretty much all Indian parents are likely to indulge — into the 'naughty girl'.
In real life India, a daughter's transgressions are much less likely to be condoned. Perhaps the fictional, not-real quality of the Amul girl, who allows us to laugh at ourselves, has also enabled a quietly radical transformation in how much middle-class Indians indulge their daughters.