Advertising in Sri Lanka: Part 3

A year after the Kandyan episode, I left the country and joined a fairly large, multinational agency in Dubai that handles a spectrum of big brands in the Middle East and North Africa region.

In my very early days at the new agency as an art director, I was once briefed to develop advertising material for Comfort – the fabric conditioner from Unilever. Comfort rejuvenates fabrics, and therefore, my “big idea” for the campaign was based on the simple truth: Comfort brings clothes to life. The agency was so confident of the work that was on brief, and on brand – we didn’t bother having any other alternate creative routes. Known brand, known client, brilliant work, we felt that we had the recipe for success, that a Plan B wasn’t needed.

Agencies are quite cocky sometimes.

The D-day comes and we drive to Jebel Ali Free Zone, where Unilever had its offices. We meet the team of clients, exchange pleasantries and go through the boring part of the presentation. Then it was my turn to reveal the creative work. I re-cap on the brief and pre-empt the thinking behind the campaign. As I whetted their appetite, I sensed the usual excitement and anxiousness in the room. They were eager to see the work.

“Comfort brings clothes to life..!” I exclaimed with pride, and I could see the facial expression of the senior-most client, changing. I could see his face turning red, I thought he was just excited to see the work. Little did I know what was coming next.

A few more sentences later, as I repeated the words “Comfort brings clothes to life,” the client exploded in fury.

How dare you?” he thumped his clenched fist on the table and rose quicker than lightening. The chair went reeling back and bounced against the wall behind. Suddenly, there was an eerie silence that swallowed us. Time, stood still for a moment.

Nothing brings anything to life – except Allah..!” he screamed from the other end of the conference table.

I was shocked, horrified, and mortified.

We all were.

A bunch of expatriates working in Dubai have overlooked a tiny detail in the Saudi culture. Even before we could present a single board, we were thrown back to the drawing board, mercilessly. What would have been a very successful campaign in the United Arab Emirates didn’t fly at all for the Saudi market. Strategy, creativity, brand-relevance and all the nice, clever terms associated with good advertising went flying out of the window, simply because we forgot to pay attention to minuscule, but extremely important, socio-cultural sensitivities.

2. Knowledge: Can Indian Creative Imports fill the need?

There’s lot more to advertising than just doing some ads.

That is one of the problems inherent to importing creative talent from India, or any other country for that matter. Agencies sell creativity, and if the creative minds don’t possess the cultural insight, one couldn’t expect the same magic to come out of their brains.

When one isn’t aware of the deepest darkest secrets of a certain culture, they are only capable of producing ads that are universally applicable, and understood. This kind of advertising that’s packed with universal appeal but hardly any unique “local” flavour, might win awards but they’d fail to win the hearts of the consumer. When there is no Sri Lankanism captured in their creativity, advertising would “feel” foreign and it would pass like a ship in the night. No amount of reading, research or socialising with the locals could make up for the missing element of magic for the expat creatives in Colombo.

Indians are Indians, and Sri Lankans are Sri Lankans. One cannot “pretend” to be the other.

Sri Lankan cameos like “Heen Seraya” on the other hand, have clearly demonstrated the difference. They feel the heartbeat of the islanders. Their ads bring a smile to our faces. Their work, more often than not, genuinely touches our heart.

Indian creatives (the good ones) bring in a few good commodities. Knowledge, passion and craftsmanship top the list. We have the local talent, and possess the local insight. Combine the two cleverly and one finds the winning formula for great advertising that sells goods, builds brands and wins awards. A recipe for success, a weapon to blow the mediocre agencies to smithereens.

But if one party in the combination is a rogue, the formula fails. We tend to blame the entire republic of India if the rogue happens to be their one. If one chooses to ignore the bad and learn from the good, then the Indian advertising industry as a whole is a great university for the budding local creative. There is a whole lot to learn from them, considering that we don’t have any formal education in advertising in this country, yet.

By being only a few miles away from Talaimannar, Indians have had a remarkable influence on the islanders since the beginning of time. Buddhism crossed over to this side of the Palk Strait, and so did King Vijaya and his battalion of friends. Later on the Bo tree, Hinduism, the ethnic divide, the TATA bus and the three-wheeler blaring a Hindi song, too followed.

We cannot escape the Indian influence. India, is all over this tiny island. The advertising industry is no exception.

Thanks to satellite television, we are exposed to a great amount of Indian advertising everyday. From time to time, we are treated to some gems that we would love to say “wish I had done that” too.

Comparing the two, It feels like Sri Lankans are somewhat “ashamed” of their poverty and the true state of affairs. Sitting in ad agencies we tend to think of using BMW’s and spankingly new kitchens and crisp clean living rooms in our ads. We have white women in commercials feeding their white kids yogurt, and our soundtracks sound far away from the tunes of Paradise. There’s a classroom in a soft-drink commercial set in a school in a funky country far, far away from my island. Watching these, and more, sometimes I feel like a foreigner and I would really love to visit Sri Lanka that’s portrayed in our television commercials. Somehow, I find it hard to relate to most of these ads.

Aspiration in advertising is a virtue. Surrealism is something else altogether.

Indians on the other hand, are not ashamed of their reality. Havell’s cables has a beautiful ad that shows the plight of the poor. There is a plywood commercial that celebrates the chaos in the city. The famous Coca-cola ad has the nation playing cricket in the middle of the traffic madness. Cops take bribes, peons push envelopes in a series of ads for a famous newspaper.

Watch an Indian ad, and it feels like India. Sadly, the same couldn’t be said about the Sri Lankan advertising. Not most of the time.

If we were to learn just one thing from the Indians, that would be to celebrate what is truly Sri Lankan. A water-soaked cricket pitch, a clogged drainage, a muddy road – shouldn’t be avoided in our commercials. Its quite ok to have a commercial shot on the main street, not in Nawam Mawatha. It would be fine if there is a poor kid in the frame; but not as well dressed as the ones we see in biscuit commercials.

Indians are telling us to be proud of who we are.

That’s just one aspect of their positive influence.

Perhaps it is the first step in our adventure to discover the true Sri Lankan identity in advertising. Perhaps it is the first step in our long march to get where Thai and Indian ad industries have already reached today.


  1. Notice how the indian ads look better, technically? As in, pleasing to the eye. If an indian comp showed a garbage dump, it'd still look better than an orchid in a local ad, for lack of proper post-processing.

    Good to see you back and posting!

  2. I love Indian Adverts...the worst in my opinion are the ones in Australia. I have not seen crappier advertisements from anywhere else in the world. SL adverts I am still on the fence about. Hey man could check your typos...its eerie not eery...kanawa language :p

  3. @Jerry, :D
    True. Craftsmanship. Something we didn’t talk about till a couple of years ago.
    Thank you.

    @Ayesha, Hired! New proof-reader. ;) And thank you.
    Yep, Agree with you on Aussie ads - they are the most boring – looks like they just read the packaging or “Directions to Use.” They could do with a bit of imagination for sure.

  4. Good stuff... laughing on the saudi dude's reaction.

  5. "Indians on the other hand, are not ashamed of their reality."...I agree with your statement but disagree that we should be proud of everything that is Sri Lankan. There are things that we should definitely be proud of and there are things we should accept but should try to improve on..
    If we are proud of everything ..how can we improve as a nation from the status we are in right now ?
    Problem with the Indians is they are so averse to change..and Sri Lankans on the other hand welcomes change..

  6. Anonymous, thank you for your comments. Please don’t get me wrong, I was referring to our attitude and not the physical state of affairs. In advertising, its not what you say, but HOW you say it. Jerry said it well above.

  7. Hey was it phoneix who came with some social issues advertisements? I remember this one advert where this girl goes in for an interview and instead of the interview questions the men there tell her how she will be sexually harassed. It was spooky and so damn good. I need to pass on the name of the company to a friend.