Billboard Hit

Allan Lasrado        Print Edition: July 8, 2012

Amul's India
Collins Business
Pages: 212
Price: Rs 299

Air India's Maharaja has been cremated by his managers. Onida's devil has been exorcised by the Koreans. And little Gattu has been painted out by Asian Paints. But one Indian mascot, a cute little thing in polka dots, continues to captivate India nearly 50 years after first making an appearance with a pun on the Lord's Prayer. Each week, motorists and pedestrians pause before billboards around the country to see what the Amul girl has to say about the latest events in the news. Whether it's activist Anna Hazare's agitations against the powers that be or Shah Rukh Khan's shenanigans, Sachin Tendulkar's achievements or a scam in the corridors of power, the little girl has something to say, and she does not pull her punches. 

Today, over 4,000 billboards later, the Amul campaign continues with its theme, style and tagline - utterly butterly delicious - unchanged. The credit for that consistency and continuity goes to the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF), in particular, its founder, Dr Verghese Kurien. And to daCunha Communications and its forerunner, Advertising and Sales Promotion, headed by Sylvester daCunha. Even on a good day, agency-client relationships are nothing to write home about, but this one was special. Dr Kurien ensured that daCunha and his team had complete creative freedom, and the agency made the most of it. That licence continues to run to this day.

Those who missed out on the moppet's tongue-in-cheek comments over the years now have a chance to do so, thanks to a new book, Amul's India, which celebrates the Amul campaign and its history. The book is a collection of essays by daCunha, his son, Rahul, Harsha Bhogle, Shyam Benegal, Shobaa De and many others. It also has interviews with Kurien, adman Alyque Padamsee, and actor Amitabh Bachchan. A quick and easy read, it tells the history of India, through the Amul girl's eyes.

While the most engaging essay is Future Brands MD Santosh Desai's commentary on how the Amul girl's satire evolved over the decades, the best part of the book is the reproductions of many classic Amul billboards. That makes the 212-page tome a joy to read for those who missed out on seeing them, and a wonderful trip down memory lane for those who did. Even better, it takes the reader behind the billboard to show him/her exactly how the moppet was created, how she evolved, and what goes into the making of an Amul ad.

Early on, daCunha himself traces how the slogan 'utterly butterly delicious' emerged out of a conversation he had with his wife Nisha. His art director Eustace Fernandes then drew the caricature of the Amul girl. The agency ran the moppet and the tagline on a few lamppost boards in Bombay, getting positive feedback. Thereafter it was decided to launch a full-fledged billboard campaign. The girl with the polka dotted frock and matching ribbon in her ponytail hasn't looked back since.

Today, the fact that Indians instantly identify the moppet with the Amul brand is testimony to the success of the campaign. She was conceived as a mascot only for Amul butter, but her popularity has today made her a mascot for most Amul products.

The only jarring note in the book is Benegal's essay, largely on his film, Manthan, which was financed by farmers from the GCMMF cooperative. Although it has some interesting points, it doesn't really belong in a book about the Amul advertising campaign.

Amul's India makes the reader realise that the India of old was a kinder, gentler place, less prone to the extreme reactions of today. That allowed the copywriters to fearlessly take on one and all. For instance, former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav earned the title "Fodder of the Nation" after the fodder scam broke out. "Today, try poking fun at the MNS in Mumbai or satirising Mayawati in Meerut...," writes Rahul daCunha, making a telling point.

There were times when the Amul ads rubbed people the wrong way, such as the "Indian virgin needs no urgin' ad in response to gynaecological checks on Asian women entering the UK in the late 70s. Women's rights groups protested the line and it was one of the few occasions when the agency decided to pull an ad.

Some of the ads remind the reader that not much has changed in India over the years. During a prolonged strike years ago, the Amul girl, dressed as an airhostess, says: "Indian Airlines serves Amul butter - when it flies". Another, from a decade ago, shows Jayalalithaa, who was the chief minister of Tamil Nadu back then as well, holding a gun against former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's head. Replace Jayalalithaa with Bengal chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Vajpayee with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and you realise that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

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