ill a few years ago, the English newspaper market in Chennai was as staid as placid as the ocean of milk, the mythical abode of Lord Vishnu. But at present, the city is the turf for a high-decibel newspaper marketing battle. The Times of India, the country's largest English daily, but a relative newbie in Chennai, fired the first salvo.
In a recent advertisement campaign, it depicted The Hindu as paper that put readers to sleep compared to its own brand of zippy journalism. This week, The Hindu retaliated somewhat uncharacteristically with a new commercial which is a thinly veiled attack on The Times of India's preference for vapid celebrity-oriented journalism. "Stay ahead of times," said The Hindu advertisement. The tagline is hardly original. Over the years several challengers to the Times Group publications have used it or its variants. And the advertisement that spoofed a rival's claims or make fun of competing products is par for the course in India. But what surprised most was the fact that the Mahavishnu of Mount Road was roused sufficiently to return fire directly.
Marketing chutzpah of this kind hasn't been The Hindu's strongest suit. Created by the ad agency Ogilvy India, The Hindu's advertisement throws at general knowledge trivia of the youngsters such as "What is UPA" . While they are seemingly clueless about such issues of national importance, their knowledge of Bollywood gossip is immense. A voiceover then asks which newspaper they read. Their answers are bleeped out but you don't need a degree in lip reading to know that their preferred paper is the Times of India.
"We felt it was the right time to hold up the mirror to this disturbing new trend in Indian journalism. The fact is that Indian media industry, in order to gain more readerships, is serving news that is equivalent to junk food and this has resulted in dumbing down of the readers. The campaign shows that people are into gossip and they are so steeped in the page 3 culture that they are clueless about the more pressing issues around them," says Simi Sabhaney, president, Ogilvy Bangalore.
Sabhaney argued that if there was one newspaper that had the credibility, heritage and track record to wage this virtuous battle against vapidity, it's The Hindu. She contends that the advertisement does not target any particular competitor but attempts to make readers re-evaluate their choice. "We just want our readers to know that there is a world beyond gossip."
Agnello 'Aggi' Dias, co-founder TapRoot India, the advertisement agency that created the TOI Chennai campaigns, claims that the advertisement, which uses a Tamil folk lullaby to drive home The Hindu's "boring" attribute, was not aimed at "anyone in particular". For now, he rules out retaliation. But that call is for his client to make. TOI's marketing bosses did not respond to our calls and text messages on the issue. The Hindu advertisement, within a day of release, was a hit on social media platforms. However, many industry observers are sceptical about the efficacy of The Hindu's counter punch. "To me it looks like The Hindu is acknowledging that the Times of India is now a credible competitor. The campaign has added to the credibility of TOI," said Naresh Gupta, head, brand strategy of advertisement agency iYogi. He added that the campaign is clichéd and boring and that this strategy has been used by other national newspapers in Delhi and elsewhere. He's right. DNA used an almost similar device for its TV advertisements in Mumbai a few months ago. "I wish they had focused more on The Hindu and not on the Times of India," says Gupta.
Interestingly, the Rs 300 cr Chennai print ad market is getting cut-throat. On one hand is TOI, which entered Chennai in 2008, came with its aggressive marketing machinery. And on the other, The Hindu, which is currently undergoing an organisational restructuring that involves the separation of "ownership and operations", has roped in Arun Anant, a former Times Group employee as its CEO to counter TOI's challenge in its precious home base.