Let’s start at the beginning. Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Lady or the Tiger, Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat (I was in a convent). In school, I barely passed Maths (Fuck You Sets. You think you’re better than me Surds?), but come English period, and I was home. Stories were currency, and Mrs. George asked us to express without fear. So I did. I wrote Letters to the Editor bordering on homicidal threats and Free Hand Essays about friendly mosquitos battling depression due to a new repellent in the market. Even Hindi was fine when the stuff was scripted. Dwarka Jahu Ju, Dwarka Jahu Ju, if you get my drift. Sudama Charit? Probably not.
Naturally, I went on to do Engineering, because there’s nothing more fun than to see your youthful creative exuberance get throttled by some measly, yet surprisingly sprightly diodes. And triodes. And transistors. And inductors. Ooh. And if that isn’t enough, you can choose to have it circumcised into little bits and bytes by embarking on a promising career as an SAP programmer. (That’s Systems Applications Products and something). #include <thingswerequitedull>
That’s right. Hashtags before hashtags. Will the real shady nerds please stand up?
Luckily, I stumbled into Advertising.
Now here was a place I liked. Everyone looked similar, and everyone drank coffee. And you could sometimes wear slippers. I worked hard, slept late and dreamt stories. Of cars and shoes and TVs and alcohol and NGOs. Of little children and stubbled men and troubled housewives. “5 BIG ideas this year” scribbled on my Post It pad.
Things were finally looking up. And I was about to catch my big break.
F.M.C.G. Fast Moving Consumer Goods – stuff like soaps, shampoos and hair oils that get quickly picked up at stores. I know this sounds boring, but in our little Advertising world, F.M.C.G. (Learn this word. All the cool kids say it), is the Holy Grail. F.M.C.G. brands have the deepest pockets, which means they are the biggest spenders on TV & Newspapers, which in-turn means the stories we create will be seen by many people, maybe even our parents, which would finally give them something to be proud about. In my case, this would be right after the time I won ‘best actor in a female role’ at a school dramatics competition. In class 11. Did I mention I was in a convent?
On this lucky day, I found myself meeting with a new, juicy F.M.C.G. client. Could this be it? My big campaign that people will remember for years to come? The big story I’ve always wanted to write? Will girls actually like me now? What will be the title of my autobiography? I need something punchy. Like Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish. Damn you Steve Jobs!
So? I asked my client, beaming with virgin enthusiasm. Is it soap? Is it a wash? Is it a looopah?
A bit of all, he replied. This is classified information.
Yellow. I want my book to be yellow. I don’t know why.
What we have is a revolutionary new product. A new category I would say. A Facewash plus a Hairwash plus a Bodywash.
A three in one product, he stressed, that will wash the face, the hair and the body together. In one synergized motion. Just like nature intended it.
That’ll be one solid cleaning.
The new product will do much more than cleaning; he smirked, in a well-rehearsed smirk. It’ll give you fairness of the face, silkiness of hair and the smell of a bodywash. All in one. Then he crumpled his fingers together. ‘3 solutions, 1 revolution.’
Woof. My spider sense was tingling. So chief, what’s the secret ingredient?
Ss. Coffee beans. Coconut oil. Fresh strawberries. Together, he repeated, they’ll make your skin glow like a bulb, your hair flow like a feather and your body smell like Wimbledon. A slide appeared to show this graphically, as if on cue.
Amazing. Coffee, Coconut and Strawberries. Who would’ve thought? How do you mix all these together? I was so damn curious.
It’s a research and scientific process. It’s a science thing. The scientists at our laboratory are building a mechanism to integrate the ingredients. So.
I wasn’t listening. I was scribbling. Do they take the coconut oil and then mix it with coffee concentrate and then add chunks of strawberry in it? No wait. Maybe they take a strawberry base, like a paste and then emulsify it with coconut oil and then sprinkle coffee beans into it? Oh wait. They probably just crush the strawberries and coffee beans together and mix that paste with coconut oil, right? Add some petroleum jelly for lubrication? I did Chemistry in college.
It’s not that simple, he reiterated. There’s science involved and the scientists at our labs are working on integrating the ingredients. It’s very molecular.
Science Shmience. I wanted to know. Experiment. Observation. Inference. Can I talk to the scientists? Maybe there’s a story in it? Huff. I can smell it.
It’s not that simple.
But how will I make the campaign? I need to know what kind of strawberries and what kind of coffee beans. And is this loose coconut oil or packaged coconut oil? That changes everything.
I believe there was some Titration done.
They must have tested thousands of samples..
Emulsification of the Bunsen Burner.
If you can just get me the lab tests..
Atomization of the covalent bonds.
I did Chemistry you know.
Things were silent for a while. Then he went and closed the door. More silence. Whispers.
The thing is, this product; it’s like umm – a cocktail, with three flavours. But think of it like a cocktail, if it’s not so much a cocktail but more Coca Cola.
I don’t understand.
Uhm. You think it’s a cocktail, but it’s actually just Cola. Like uh a drink in Bombay. You think there’s alcohol in it, but the truth is there isn’t.
So there’s no alcohol in the Fhodywash?
The coffee, strawberries, coconut oil – um like the alcohol, uhh they’re not there. No. They are there. But they’re umm emotive.
Emotive. As in for effect, for the emotional feeling, for the feel yaar. They give our consumers the feeling that this stuff is real.
But it is real.
But it’s emotive.
What is this product again?
Mostly soap and water. And bubbles.
No. Joking. It’s not that these ingredients aren’t there. They’re just extracts.
Oh like concentrates? Like Juice. Where you squeeze out the best qualities?
Not concentrates. ‘Extracts’. It just uh smells like the ingredients.
Like artificial flavouring?
Without the flavouring?
I never liked Chemistry.
What about legal implications? Is this even allowed?
It’s legal if you say extract. That means it’s there, but not really. Say 0.1%. But we do 1-2% to make things bulletproof. Plus then you can put big pictures on the packaging. Which is very important. Tell your designers.
But what about the Advertising Council? They must have some rules about claims?
It comes down to numbers chief. Who’s the biggest Advertiser these days?
And who sits on the board of the Advertising Council?
And who pays whose bills?
So, campaign meeting Tuesday?
As I wiped my tears and dreams away in the auto ride home, I couldn’t help but wonder how messed up this was. Here I was, ready with the cover and colour of my autobiography, finally about to make my parents proud, and these guys tell me that it’s all ‘emotive’. It’s not real. Toothpaste main namak? Emotive. Tel main Aamla. Emotive. Facewash with freshly ground apricots sourced from jungles of Columbia? Emotive. Dentist approved toothbrush? Don’t say it. I have sensitive teeth. This was deception. This was cheating. We were sitting in our high offices taking the piss out of the common man by pawning products that weren’t even real. Emotive! Exploitive! I was angry and betrayed and disappointed. It’s a matter of conscience! I screamed at work. We’re selling our souls! Business had taken over art again! Then I got very drunk. And then I calmed down.
You see my hangover really got me thinking. It was probably dehydration. Sure this ‘emotive’ business was manipulative and straight-to-hell worthy, but it was also ingenious. We were selling soap water as the fountain of youth, and people were buying into it. Not just into the product, but into the ‘story’. Man is an emotional being. And we were being ‘emotive’. The penny dropped. (For me. Not for the public. You’re screwed.) This was the biggest story of them all. Fiction turned into non-fiction. Imagination turned into reality. Creativity turned into profits. I could finally spin the biggest story of them all. Mrs. George would be so proud.
You know, people keep calling Advertising a surrogate profession. How it’s a safe hideout for closet writers and artists. But I disagree. Every once in a while we too get to flex our literary muscle. We make stories. Big, bold, beautifully imagined stories with gut wrenching emotive arcs. For the ‘feel’. Fhodywash. ZPTO. MMR. PUF. 3X whiter. 5X stronger. 0 transfats. They’re not real, but heck, nor is Nancy Drew.
Rushdie started in Advertising you know. Just saying.