Yummy at 50 and as witty
The Amul girl has been one of the nation’s sharpest political observers. This new book celebrates a half-century of her subversive wit
Fifty years ago, daCunha Communications decided they would ignore tantrum-throwing, high maintenance celebrities in favour of a lovable little girl in polka dots to advertise butter. Their little girl quickly became the country’s sassiest mouthpiece, saying what the rest of us were only thinking. Born on advertising hoardings, she became, literally, India’s poster-child, an irreverent witness of current events. Whatever it is—cricket scandals, Bollywood scandals, political scandals, corruption scandals, even the infamous Lux ad with Shahrukh sprawled smugly in a bathtub brimming with rose petals -- she's been there, punned that.
Amul’s India, a short, slim book that tells the story of the popular campaign, was launched at the India International Centre in Delhi on Wednesday evening with a discussion moderated by journalist Barkha Dutt. Panelists included Rahul daCunha, managing and creative head of daCunha Communications; the social commentator and author Santosh Desai, and columnist Swapan Dasgupta.
Created by Rahul's father, Sylvester daCunha, the Amul girl won the nation over immediately. From the very first hoardings, she took on such topics as test tube babies, the hartals in Calcutta of the 1960s, virginity tests administered on Indian women in the 1970s, even making sly reference to the mass sterilisation campaign during the infamous Emergency. Only more recently, though, has the company had to face the ire of its various targets, including death threats. Inevitably, says Rahul daCunha, he's forced to wonder if the Amul girl can continue her waspish commentary. "Do I touch upon these people's foibles? Or do I not touch them for fear of a backlash?"
“Whatever else you may die of in India, you'll never die of boredom," said Barkha Dutt to initiate the discussion only to be countered by other panelists' collective concern about the country losing its sense of humour. Santosh Desai suggested that “ethnic jokes” were tolerated today but that systemic change required humour to be directed at the exercise of power. “People in power,” he said, “are exceedingly quick to protect their boundaries.” Swapan Dasgupta was more dismissive: “Indians don't have a great sense of humour.” He decried what he saw as a general willingness to acquiesce to every protest, a determination to take offence. “It almost seems there's a desire to misunderstand.”
It’s difficult to imagine that the Amul girl will fold in the face of protests. The many testaments in the book from figures as diverse as Sania Mirza. Alyque Padamsee, Shyam Benegal and Shobhaa Dé are proof of her enduring appeal. For Swapan Dasgupta, the Amul hoardings were part of his growing up years. “It's been a landmark of sorts. There are a lot of things which keep changing in India, but Amul has been a constant,” he said. “It’s reassuring to see that some things don’t change.” The little Amul girl has, perhaps, become even bigger than the brand itself. “It doesn’t matter,” asserts RS Sodhi, Amul’s managing director, “she’s synonymous with the brand”.
An utterly butterly toast to Amul
90 hoardings, six channels, 22 publications & 309000 social media fans, the brand glows golden at 50
By Rahul daCunha
I took over the campaign in 1993 from my father and after I joined, we took on board copywriter Manish Trivedi. And along with Jayant Rane, our art director from the 80s, we’ve been at the helm of things.
Every Monday the creative team meets for a brainstorming session and we decide on topics that have been doing the rounds. We take up pan-Indian topics and also regional ones for dedicated areas around the country. In the beginning, we would single down a few topics for the week and make hoardings on them. But now, every time an issue comes up, we do a hoarding. The more the better.
The Amul ad is targeted at five different Indias — Bombay, where our campaign took off from and where we have the most loyal consumers; Maya Desh, the area comprising Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh; South India; Facebook/Twitter; and the rest of the country.
There are 90 Amul hoardings around the country. We advertise the campaign on six channels, in about 22 publications, including the Khaleej Times, apart from the 90 Amul hoardings around the country. We have also ventured into social media. Nothing gets us a faster response than Twitter. A Facebook update gets us a hundred likes in minutes. One of our hoardings—on the Karnataka Assembly porngate scandal—got 5,022 likes on Facebook.
There have been various times when we’ve courted trouble because of the ads. Right from the American Embassy—for a hoarding on the Bush ‘Shoegate’—to politicians, many a times by Mamata Banerjee for cartoons on the cartoon controversy and the railway portfolio, and the Shiv Sena, to socialists. A hoarding on Indian virgins being “tested” in the UK led to an outcry by the country’s feminists, we’ve run into many troubles since we started.
I must say that my father was more fearless than I was. It was a blessing that Amul never pulled us up for our exploits on the billboards and supported throughout. But there are areas that we do not touch. Our twin troubles are the Shiv Sena and the MNS. The damage that they leave in their wake is disparaging for a brand. At the end of the day, Amul is a brand. The irony here is that both “uncle” and “nephew” are cartoonists.
The ad world regards the Amul girl as a strong pillar. The Onida devil died away, the Liril girl did not live long and we don’t really know how long the Air India maharaja will live. But innovation, in the Amul girl’s case, was never really needed. We never had to really play on the way she looked. Because along the way, she became the country’s darling. We once drew her as an IPL cheerleader and were soon flooded with hate mail! As Alyque (Padamsee) in the book puts it, she has become the Indian Barbie.
We never really had to target different mediums over the years. Every week many around the country wait for what the Amul girl has to say. That is the kind of space that she had created for herself.
Rahul daCunha is managing director and creative head of daCunha Communications, the ad agency that creates the Amul outdoor billboards