Did Aamir Ad Work? It Was More About 'Incredible Aamir Khan' Than 'Incredible India'
The Incredible India ads done by Aamir and his agency were not about promoting tourism, but about making Indian tourism “promotable”.
The heated discussions around the discontinuation of Aamir Khan as brand ambassador for ‘Incredible India’ has focused on whether this was the NDA government’s retribution for the actor’s remarks about “growing intolerance” in India a few months ago.
While many in the Secular–Liberal Outrage Brigade (SLOBs) have worked up a lather to view this as one more instance of growing intolerance where their pet actor has been turfed out for making controversial remarks, for the Voluble BJP Brigade, Khan merely got his comeuppance. The more sophisticated argument given by those who support Khan’s exit is that his views on Indian intolerance were incompatible with his role as brand ambassador for promoting India as a tourist destination.
Both views – for or against Khan – are irrelevant. For it can never be proven that Khan was handed a pink because of his views (after all, the contract was merely not renewed, not terminated in the middle); nor can it be said that his views on intolerance were incompatible with his role in promoting India as a tourist destination. As we shall see later, he wasn’t promoting India at all. The only yardstick against which Khan’s ouster can be judged is the simple one of whether the ad worked to achieve what it set out to do.
Despite the fact that the ads had high traction and recall value, they may not have worked. Not every noticeable ad sells products, and this one is unlikely to have worked for reasons one can list.
The Incredible India ads done by Aamir and his agency were not about promoting tourism, but about making Indian tourism “promotable”. It was aimed at a domestic audience, supposedly an appeal to treat foreign visitors well, as indicated in the tagline “Athithi Devo Bhava”. So clearly the ads were intended to change public attitudes, including boorish behaviour towards foreign tourists. So the only question to ask is: did the ads manage to do this?
Probably not, for the TV spots all projected the actor as hero in the micro stories involving harassment of foreign tourists, and that too in the typical black-and-white approach favoured by Bollywood.
Consider three of the ads.
In one, some goons are harassing two foreign women tourists and Aamir enters the picture as a typical Bollywood hero who arrives in the nick of time to rescue the damsels in distress. More cringeworthy, in the end the camera, focuses on Aamir all the time, and the two women mouth a silent thank you to their saviour in the background. The crowd enters the picture only when the goons threaten Aamir. For the hero cannot lose to thugs.
Now is this ad about changing attitudes or about Aamir the Bollywood hero? You decide.
In another ad, two Indian lovebirds at a historical monument are canoodling, when the loverboy wants to show his ardour for sweetheart by inscribing their initials on the wall. But just as he is about to do so, enter (who else?) Aamir grabbing his hand. And then he tries to scribble something on the to-be vandal’s face, to much tittering in the assembled crowd.
Is this not a typical Bollywood story and approach to a serious subject, where the focus is on the heroism of Aamir rather than the act of vandalisation that we want to conscientise Indians about? The attempt to humiliate the vandal is also typical Bollywood, where the hero must be shown to humiliate the baddie.
Or take a third ad, where a foreign tourist is taken for a ride by a rickshaw driver despite her protests. But another auto driver – a good sardar – enters the picture suddenly and rescues her and takes her in his own auto safely. Aamir enters the picture only towards the end, this time to anoint the good guy as good and the bad guy as bad.
Again, the usual damsel in distress story, and the black-and-white separation of good and evil, with Aamir pontificating about it in the end. In Bollywood, minor tweaks in the formula are considered daring. And this third ad, where the hero enters the scene after the rescue, was probably one by Bollywood standards.
The “Athithi Devo Bhava” campaign, while well intentioned, is unlikely to make an impact on public behaviour for the simple reason that it has the typical Bollywood masala film which is meant as entertainment and escapism, not about changing attitudes. If a hero arrives always to get your work done, why bother about changing your own habits? Aamir Hai Na?
Now contrast this with the ongoing Swachch Bharat campaign, where we have ordinary people clapping whenever someone pees in public or throws garbage in rivers or on the street. The same basic idea of changing habits, but without a Bollywood superhero to distract us. Ads to change bad habits work best when they are about us, and not an idolised hero who may be worth watching, but who is so far removed from our lives that we can slot the message as merely good entertainment and go back to what we were doing earlier.
This is not to say that actors and cricketers cannot promote tourism. By the sheer fact that they are recognised and held in high esteem, they can endorse tourist destinations just as they endorse costly watches or health foods. But that is about making a direct point. Amitabh Bachchan’s promotion of Gujarat tourism used his Bollywood charisma to talk about Gujarat; they were not about his herosim or himself.
To be sure, it is unfair to blame Aamir for an ad script he may have had nothing to do with. He acted out his part as it was written for him. But the takeout is this: he became more memorable than the underlying message. It was not a bad decision to discontinue the agency and the ad.
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