There is a book by Roland Barthes that is titled “Empire of Signs”. It is about Japan. To Barthes Japan is a place full of balance, where under minimal shapes hide deep meanings, a realm of moderation and control, in which nothing is left to chance: everything is calculated, measured, designed in a certain way. It is a world that constantly – and often successfully – struggles to deny entropy, imposing geometry and precision to life.
Chandni Chowk, the main shopping area of Old Delhi, the heart of the heart of Delhi, is Barthes’s Japan upside down: it’s the realm of chaos, impressive for its vitality; it’s not an empire of signs, it’s a Dantesque Circle where signs died of agoraphobia (you can see it in the reportage by Reed Young on Bill 02).
Claims, signboards, neon signs, posters glued on old posters glued on hand-painted writings on walls. Sentences in Hindi and improbable English on gaudy signboards promote business activities, from the smallest to the biggest: electricians, carpenters, tailors, merchants of gold and precious stones, wonders from all over the world, spices, spicy fried treats. And awful photos of unlikely candidates with bushy mustache and fat fingers adorned with rings: in the world’s largest democracy there is always an upcoming election, a neighborhood committee where anyone can be appointed to some position.
Ads, ads everywhere. The most common sign of a growing economy is the proliferation of messages, of invitations to see, feel, choose, buy something. The cacophony of written communication doesn’t belong only to trade – love for the written word goes from the “I luv u” stickers on cars to bold t-shirts that read “bad boy”, to doormats that greet you “Welcome”, to the three-wheeled that warns you with red, misspelled letters, “I’ll bowl you off”.
“I think that the written word works as a substitution of the spoken word” explains Santosh Desai, one of the most influential experts of socio-cultural theory in the Indian subcontinent. “And because there’s a lot people, in India people don’t speak sequentially […] but everybody is talking over everybody else and so there is a certain kind of cacophony.”
The overcrowding of the word as an image reflects the overcrowding of the word as a sound, which is a direct consequence of the crowd itself, since Indian cities are the most densely populated in the world, what with the constant noise, the inescapable presence of other people, intrusive and reassuring at the same time.
What once was achieved by standing at a shop’s door to attract passers-by now is made through the written word: a short text in bold characters accompanying photos or illustrations which visual impact is certainly powerful, whether you like it or not.
In India “People seek crowds rather than running away from crowds, because crowd is a sign of life and you want to be attracted to life” says Desai. In the busiest market in Delhi, signboards have become a reflection of that world teeming with life – unripe, unrestrained and invincible – that is the foundation of India, the plus-size country of the world population.
The need to communicate exceeds the desire to draw attention, Desai says, it’s a way to “give voice to your presence”, to “animate the inanimate”. A sort of “I speak therefore I am”, a cause-effect chain that turns written communication turn into a simulacrum of being.
But this is only Chandni Chowk, this is the old town, this is where the new is swallowed by the monstrously huge tradition. This is where zillion dollars businesses stand next to light poles that look like trees, with new cables twisted around the old ones. It’s the model of tourist India: bad smells and fragrant spices, jewellers and beggars.
Moving a little further, towards the new town spreading out in all directions, you see less goats, chickens and cows wandering on the street. The streets become wider. The sounds disperse in air. The crowd, although ubiquitous, becomes thinner. And signboards take a breath.
Where growth and change already show their impact, everything becomes less overcrowded and seems even tidy. It is the effect of the new economy, the projection of wealth and citizens’ aspirations.
In a society that traditionally gives more importance to community and family than to the individual, the task of advertising is to define individuality, to promote and enhance it. Because it’s the individual who desires, envies and – hallelujah – buys.
Hence the need is not just to be heard, but to be heard from the individual, and above all from the “model-individual” of big cities. There is much less interest in what happens outside the cities, because trade (and its promotion) looks ahead, aims to new changes, sometimes even outlines the future before it happens.
This is why Mohit Jayal, Managing Director of Wieden + Kennedy Delhi, quoting an article from The Guardian about Mad Men, says that advertisement should be a form of pop culture meeting “art, commerce and lifestyle”.
Until the late 80s, pop culture existed only in Bollywood, because in a closed economy, as was historically the Indian one, brands have no interest in creating new forms of expression. In this sense, the opening of new markets has been a huge opportunity for all products to enter the market. But as fast growth has diverted the attention from the need to generate relevant messages, brands (local and international) just absorbed what was already there and did not create anything new.
“When you’re growing at 10% or 12% or now it’s 7%, who gives a shit? You’re winning. I’ve been in meetings with people in pitches where I’ve said this could be done better and they’ve turned around and said who gives a shit.”
What still distinguishes advertising in India, says Jayal, is “subtlety, lack of”. The claims are absolute and banal – I love you, I hate you, I’m richer than you – the form is theatrical, almost melodramatic. But change is happening so fast in India that it will soon affect Indian society and cultural, thus creating a collective consciousness and strengthening popular culture, which are the basis of postmodernism – the nurturing place of fine communication.
While the public is becoming more sophisticated, advertising missed the opportunity to build its own popular culture, and will be forced to do it later (or maybe it has already started to do it). As Desai argues, in the last ten years ads are getting more complex and elegant, a great upgrade from the traditional and simple “I’m here” posters of Chandni Chowk.
When growth won’t be enough to justify the proliferation and success of mediocrity, the brands will make their voice heard, and their echo will be stronger than single campaigns starring movie stars promoting powder detergents. Claims will have to be subtle. Advertising will be a matter of shades, it will address different places and people, all the individuals in the giant with many heads and thousands of languages that is India.
It will be – and maybe it already is – all about identifying the common and specific traits that characterize the country, stopping to import ready-made Western images and overindulge in old-India stereotypes. It will be all about speaking the language of future.
A solution may be moving away from the noisy crowd, Jayal thinks. “If there’s a lot of noise and there’s a lot of extra messaging everywhere, the smartest thing to do is of course to move against the current, and to simplify the message and hope that that aesthetic and that sensibility is what it comes through”.
Now the trend seems to be leaning toward sophisticated communication, creation and innovation, rather than exploitation of the past. It could be the turning point, the time when quality advertising starts to be a need that can no longer be ignored.
“In our industry the search for more meaning and more depth and more taste has begun,” says Jayal. “It’s the last stop because it’s the least important industry, it’s just the icing on the cake, but now people are beginning to think about good icing and saying it should be good icing.”