ONE OF my vivid recollections from Mark Twain’s book ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ is the story about young Tom who was dreading the task of whitewashing the fence. But by pretending to enjoy the task and initially hesitating to allow his friends to share the task, he manages to get the entire fence ‘outsourced’ and gets paid for it by eager boys, all dying to have a go.
The fence gets done thrice over and by the end of it, Tom’s acquired just about every piece of ‘wealth’ in the possession of the others; from a “dog collar without a dog” to a dead rat with a string tied to its tail.
I must have been about ten years old then and I remember being fascinated with young Tom’s guile in passing off work as a fun thing. It is a concept that still interests me hugely and it never ceases to amaze me that the ploy that is still successfully carried out in many places including in the corporate world.
The most typical example I can remember is that of a tomato ketchup advertisement in India. A common grouse those days was about how ketchup tends to solidify somewhat and how it would take ages to come out on to your plate. Instead of hiding behind this drawback, the company used a popular Bollywood song in its jingle (Aha aaja ahaha aaja … meaning ‘C’mon, c’mon’). The advertisement showed some enthusiastic children having fun with the inverted bottle, shouting and laughing excitedly when the ketchup finally gushed out. Suddenly scores of children were singing it along with their ketchup. To their parents, happy to see the kids actually smile and sing at the dining table, the ‘drawback’ ceased to be one overnight.
A variant of this theme is where instead of hiding a potential problem, you put it on a banner and hold it up proudly for the whole world to see. Somehow, when you do that, the problem either seems to get alleviated, disappears altogether or even better, turns into an advantage.
When the Volkswagon Beetle car was initially launched, there were serious doubts about how it would fare. In a world where bigger was better and sleekness a virtue, what chance did this small, bug like contraption have? It had none of the commonly accepted traits attributed to elegance and beauty. Which self-respecting adult would buy it and why? The makers decided to hold the bull by its horns. The marketing whizkids beat their chest and announced to the world the new arrival. From the rooftops, they screamed about the ‘ugliest car in the world’. The ploy worked. People queued up. The little car was a huge success.
In India again, a few years back, a company that manufactured mint decided to cut costs and sell its mint shaped like a ring instead of as a full circle as was conventional. That gave the consumer only about 60 percent of the quantity per mint, but the company splurged massively on advertisements calling it ‘the mint with a hole’. Now why that should be anything to shout about, I don’t know, but it helped to differentiate and it worked. When people thought mint, they could only think of this one. It worked very till a rival wisened up to this and started a counter campaign which promoted the ‘whole’ mint as opposed to a ‘hole’ one.
At a product level, advertising, of course, has much to do with all this. Bitter drinks tend to promote the tough, macho angle to promote sales. Till about 20 years ago, the idea of someone paying for water was laughable. But now, by associating water with class, health or purity they have managed to create a market for something that was considered free.
My wife once gave me a spiel about making coffee; about how it was an art, how much she enjoyed making it to perfection and about how I was a budding coffee connoisseur who had it in him to make the perfect coffee. I fell for it and since then have made every cup of coffee at home. Now, my wife thinks it is unfortunate that my extraordinary talent for cooking has been unutilised. But I’m smarter now and haven’t fallen for this one.
Maybe there’s a bit of Tom Sawyer within each of us. We preen and promote so that we may not be the only one.
Bhaskar is the author of ‘Jack Patel’s Dubai Dreams’ published by Penguin (India)