Many would count Surf Excel’s ‘daag achhe hain (stains are good)’ in the list of unforgettable brand campaigns in India. The punchline went against a type—a detergent ad should be all about fighting stains, not celebrating them—and yet, it endured. This was perhaps because it came with heartwarming back-stories, like a little boy painting himself into a scare-crow so that his grandmother doesn’t have to exert herself shooing off crows from their yard.
More than the product, the campaign served to establish the brand’s defining ethos. What ‘daag…’ did for Surf Excel, ‘jaago re (wake up!)’ did for Tata Tea and ‘What an Idea, Sirji!’ did for Idea. These campaigns wouldn’t have been, but for the genius of ad-man R Balki (Balakrishnan), who has just announced that he is quitting making ads for good to concentrate on film-making.
Balki—who leaves Mullen Lowe Lintas as the group chairman—has a knack of making brands relevant beyond just a product-consumer association. For Fair&Lovely, a skin lightening product, the challenge was tilting popular perception: under Balki, the brand shifted away from a medieval focus on women’s complexions to being about bolstering their confidence.
His Tanishq ad features a bride getting ready for her wedding—only, she was married before and has a daughter who walks with her to the mandap. Even as it showcases Tanishq’s wedding line, the ad forces the viewer to engage with her/his own thoughts about a woman—a parent to boot—marrying for a second time.
Balki etches women characters with a unparalleled sensitivity, acutely aware of the challenges women face in patriarchal settings. That reflects in the superlative run he has had so far in the film-world; his commercially and critically successful Cheeni Kum and Paa feature strong female lead characters. Given his creative genius, the ad world’s loss could prove to be the film-world’s gain.