The word ‘advertising’ can kindle a twofold impression in the layman who is at the receiving end of ‘marketing communications’- as advertising is called technically with relation to its application in the world of trade and commerce. One side to it is that it occupies something of an enigmatic space as an accomplishment based on merits of creativity which not anyone and everyone can achieve. There is in that sense the impression that the most successful advertising campaign creators are enigmas who are born with certain talents that are not the result of some formal technical classroom education alone. The other side to this enigmatic profession called advertising is that its sole aim is to sell goods and services to consumers who may be swayed by the persuasiveness of the advertisement although the money spent may not always be in their best interests.
I tend to think of advertising as a form of salesmanship without the salesman. It is one way communication with one chance to convince the viewer/reader/listener. Therefore to understand your potential customer, the salesman must know the psyche of the person to whom a marketing pitch is made. So whoever wants to sell fridges to Eskimos must know as much as possible about the ‘world’ of the Eskimo. It is very much about knowing the culture which the consumer inhabits.
Sometime last year I happened to make the acquaintance of one Mr. Pushpananda Ekanayake who is by occupation a word font artist whose career began in the advertising industry working at Phoenix Advertising (Pvt) Ltd, which is the forerunner of the renowned Phoenix O & M of today. In the course of a conversation I had with him, Ekanayake said that today much of the ‘trends’ in advertising seem to be flashing some images that are visually soothing to the eye, perhaps vibrant and bursting with glamorousness, but doesn’t focus on speaking to the deeper Sri Lankan psyche. He used the word ‘jana vinyanaya’ which could be translated as the ‘folk consciousness’ or the ‘folk psyche’, one could say. Recalling his days back at Phoenix he gave me a glimpse about the approaches to Sinhala medium advertising borne by his employer back then, Irvin Weerackody. Arguably, Weerackody, who is the present chairman of the Ogilvy Sri Lanka Group, must now be the senior most advertising baron in the local advertising industry. And he is also very much accredited as being the ‘ad man’ who revolutionised the Sinhala medium advertising sphere giving it a creative thrust towards modernisation.
On understanding how ‘local knowledge’ sets the successful advertising agent apart from over estimated ‘international expertise’ (which could very well run the risk of botching things up) I came across an article which relates to how Weerackody had pointed out to one British consultant named John Earl back in 2004 that Earl’s proposed slogan ‘Marx or Market’ (intended for the UNP’s election campaign at that time) will not have much effect among the rural mindset in our country since most of the masses who do not don credentials of membership in a leftist party, will not even know of Karl Marx and him being the fount for leftism. That is a shining example of the value of local knowledge when it comes to dealing with how mass communications are crafted to address matters relating to ideology. A careful sifting and selection must be done of what construes connections to images and signposting of the subject in question, in the minds of the intended audience.
How the mindset of the local consumer was gauged by Weerackody when he devised the newspaper ad campaign to mark the launch of Sampath Bank was also related to me by Ekanayake and one of his friends Hemantha Arunasiri who had worked as a photographer at Phoenix. One of the ads had had as its pictorial or visual element, a miserly money hoarder, the kind of village money lender who stores his money under the mattress and doesn’t believe in banks. Showing how regressive and unproductive that type of thinking is, the headline of that ad had read in Sinhala –‘Vakkade hakuru hangana aya’. This well known Sinhala idiom speaks about how unwise measures for safekeeping can be utterly wasteful. Money that is not allowed to circulate in the market diminishes in its potential to reap better benefits as investments.
Another of this campaign had had as its visual component the well known market at Delkanda junction in Nugegoda. The caption had stated that the bank has come looking for the small scale merchants. Banks apparently were until then seen more in the light of financial service providers to the affluent and ‘elevated’ in society, and not so much the common man. Sampath Bank had been focused on inspiring banking practices among those who were not ‘accustomed’ to banks. What struck me most was what was described of the third of this series of press ads. The visual component of this piece had been of Panchikawatte, paved with multitudes of business and trade establishments. The headline, the text, had been a simple line of just two words – “Api Matara”. An assertion of southern identity and pride which is often stated by those who are from Matara in the same vein as it is often said by the southern who is tenacious of his identity – “Api dakune”, (We are from the South). The cream of the Sinhala business community are from the South and more so from Matara. This is very much local knowledge in practice.
The appeal to the mindset, the sensibility, of the customer in connection with his personal identity will always create an impactful communication. It was Weerackody who went on to become the pioneering ‘ad man’ to devise many creative approaches to appeal to the local sensibilities through Sinhala medium advertising in the late 70s and 80s, and thus created a more creative, modern trend of thought stimulating advertisements to Sinhala newspaper readers. Before that the Sinhala medium press ad had been more in the mould of a notice conveying information.
Today we live in an era of digitalisation where the rural urban divide based on communication technology is diminishing fast. And advertising has taken turns that make its core almost composed of ‘glitz’, ‘glam’ and a flash in the pan! At least so it seems when it comes to ads addressing the present youth and the fast strides that define them. There is much hybridisation of the Sinhala language in advertising as well. These are treated as ‘trends’. However there is still very much a traditionalist pulse alive in many who constitute the strength of Sri Lanka’s working force whose wholesome sweat nourishes our soil. They, who form our nation’s rural heart in both the South and the North, constitute a significant audience. In this present ‘climate’ one cannot help, but wonder what brand of communication patterns will be devised to speak out to them, and seek to connect with their pulse and sensibilities. In time to come how much of their ‘jana vinyanaya’ will inhabit the Colombo centric ‘ad makers’ is anybody’s guess.