Sense in a world of nonsense

The Hindu has finally woken up and taken up the cudgels against the dumbing down of newspapers in a new advertisement campaign. The Times of India recently entered the Chennai market by airing TV commercials that showed The Hindu as a sleepy old newspaper covering boring news. This seems to have prompted the staid old lady to launch an advertising campaign to counter it. The print images and the TV commercials from this campaign can be seen here.

The print advertisements are clean and purposeful. The tagline “Stay ahead of the times” takes a sporty jab at ToI and the Hindustan Times. The TV commercials on the other hand are quite something else. The 3 commercials feature young adults at a college, hanging out at a mall and at a workplace respectively. They are asked basic questions (Where is Tahrir Square? for example) and they appear clueless and unable to answer them. Later, they are asked a trivia question about Bollywood gossip and they promptly answer this correctly. Finally, they are asked what newspaper they read and unsurprisingly their (bleeped out) answers are all ToI.

I felt that the last bit of naming (and shaming) the competitor directly in the TV commercials was too low a blow and certainly does not suit The Hindu. Other than that, the commercials are spot on! Ogilvy says these commercials were made based on responses they actually got from people they accosted. I have no reason to disbelieve this claim since I have experienced first hand how clueless most folks now are about what is happening in the world and in their own country.

One of the questions asked in the TV commercials is “In the Ramayan, who is Ram’s father?” The fact that this remains unanswered is truly ironical. Students on a 1967 quiz show aired on Doordarshan could not answer a similar question about Ram’s mother, but they knew details of Greek mythology. This conundrum was what led Anant Pai to create the legendary Amar Chitra Katha comics to entertain and inform the next generation of Indians. 40 years later nothing much has changed, history and mythology have to now compete with cricket and Bollywood.

Today, most of the newspapers are tabloids in broadsheet clothing and the innumerable TV news channels use sensational and useless junk news to fill their airtime. Much like the people who choose to eat at McDonald’s despite availability of healthier choices, I believe this situation has been a creation of the consumer himself. The mainstream media is successful because it gives exactly what the consumer wants. The media cannot thrive if they offer something that he does not want. So it is the responsibility of the consumer to pick not just the chintzy offerings he is craving for, but also take in a steady diet of news that matters to him and the world around him. And that is why a wakeup call, like the one from The Hindu, is needed occasionally to remind the consumer to re-examine his diet.

Finally, though newspaper penetration continues to increase in India, most Indians spend far more time watching TV than reading. (A respondent in the TV commercial does attribute her ignorance to not having watched Ramayan, seemingly unaware that it can be read too.) One only needs to flip through the channels on cable TV to see how much full of crap all of them are. One does wish that there was someone to take the fight to the TV channels too.

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4 thoughts on “Sense in a world of nonsense

  1. vaidya 2012-01-28 / 10:28

    I really doubt if this will cause any change. 90% of people have been like this for ages and 90% will continue to be like this. If you’ve read the Fountainhead, the ToI is similar to the Banner there, catering mainly to the baser instincts of the masses.
    It’s good the Hindu is trying to stand up to it, but as far as I can say, it’s a losing battle. You can rage and rant as much as you want, but the real consumers are those that fill malls to pass time with income they know only to buy clothes and accessories with.

    And no, cricket’s got nothing to do with it. Please don’t lump it with Bollywood. At the very least just say IPL. Most people can’t understand beyond sixes and fours.

    • Ashwin Nanjappa 2012-01-28 / 11:51

      Vaidya: Yes, there will always be people who do not give a damn about anything. I know since I myself was reading ToI until 2005. It was only after my GRE English tutor implored me to read Hindu op-eds did I discover some real problems plaguing the country and the world. So, there will always be people who come to their senses and look for something of better quality. It will be a sad day if all quality newspapers are dead by then.

      If it is a losing battle, so be it, but it needs to be fought. The Hindu has no choice. If they are silent they will be bulldozed over. And since a fight is imminent they have brought the battle to their own turf of quality instead of fighting over who is less soporific and so on.

      There is nothing wrong per se with news about either cricket or Bollywood. The problem is with the disproportionately large and prominent coverage they garner.

  2. Pramod Biligiri 2012-02-01 / 04:19

    ” The mainstream media is successful because it gives exactly what the consumer wants. The media cannot thrive if they offer something that he does not want.”

    Agree.
    I think most people don’t read newspapers for hard news/opinions anymore. It’s just a casual pastime, something you glance at for a few spare moments everyday. And even at that they’re getting bashed by TV (and Facebook, Twitter I might add).

    The talent has already fled to new magazines like Caravan and Tehelka. I’m sure future news junkies will be born via the web and not through the paper šŸ™‚

    • Ashwin Nanjappa 2012-02-01 / 21:24

      Pramod: Yes, the ToI/HT popularity clearly demonstrates what most people want from their newspaper.

      In an older era, there were few newspapers and so they had to balance news, analysis and entertainment (even if they did not want to). Now that the media is democratized (?), everyone can get exactly what they want. ToI serves what the majority wants. Thankfully, the democratization also means that the smaller serious readers can also get what they want in focused products like Caravan.

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