New Delhi: Even today when 21-year-old Harsha Mini scouts for toothpastes in the large shelves of supermarkets, she can’t help but gravitate towards Colgate Active Salt or its many variants.
“I can’t help but imagine actor Lara Dutta bursting out of nowhere to ask me agar mere toothpaste me namak hai (if my toothpaste has salt),” Mini, who is based out of Delhi, told ThePrint.
In 2010, FMCG major Colgate-Palmolive (India) Ltd launched an advertisement for Colgate Active Salt toothpastes that was new in its content and essayed an assertive, confident image.
The advertisement shows Dutta playing the role of a cashier at a grocery store, when suddenly a customer (played by actor Sahil Anand) feels discomfort, signaling a toothache. Dutta is then shown in the role of a TV reporter delivering the iconic dialogue: “Kya aapke toothpaste me namak hai?” (Does your toothpaste have salt?) She then goes on to explain the benefits of the product.
This question went on to become one of the iconic, most recalled taglines by consumers.
There was just something about Dutta going from being a check-out counter girl to a reporter in split seconds that really struck people. “She interrupted the guy and for a few seconds in the ad, I was terrified, but it was equally funny,” Mini added.
The advertisement propelled Colgate into a cult status. The commercial was created by Red Fuse Communications, an integrated global WPP team that was made for Colgate-Palmolive worldwide.
There were subsequent advertisements in the same format — celebrities playing reporters would pose the question in a dramatic fashion.
Prior to Colgate’s commercial, Indian consumers hadn’t seen a product that incorporated salt into something that was supposed to be on the sweeter side. To see a popular toothpaste brand experimenting with salt was startling.
“For a second I thought it was a joke, and then when I saw it on the stands I knew I needed to try it out,” Mini said.
Vishwajeet Rana, an advertising professional who lives in Gurugram, told ThePrint, “It is a category (oral hygiene) you don’t really pay much attention to or question unless you have a problem, so there is inherent trust.”
This ‘trust’ is reflected in the company’s numbers too. In 2016, 55 per cent of the market share in the oral hygiene industry was held by Colgate-Palmolive. Of the 55 per cent, 7 per cent share was held by the Active Salt product. Around 25 per cent of the market share held by Active Salt was from South India.
In the same year, a new variant of the Colgate Active Salt was able to secure a 1 per cent market share. In March 2020, Colgate-Palmolive was still able to hold 52.7 per cent of the market share, even with stiff competition from herbal giants like Patanjali and Dabur.
Among school going children, these advertisements also became extremely popular memes. People also used the tagline “Kya aapke toothpaste me namak hai” to humour and take jibes.
“As a kid, I remember this being a funny running joke that everyone took part in. It was one of those few jokes that I could make at home and people wouldn’t find it too offensive and often took part in them,” Mini recalled.
Why it worked
The team at Red Fuse had been using what is known as the ‘interruption campaign‘ format for sometime and wanted to refresh it — allowing for the recall value of the ad to be greater.
Which is why, although Colgate ads had the likes of actors like Sandhya Mridul and Koel Puri earlier, it was the one featuring Dutta that really became popular. It wasn’t just the jump scare and rapid-fire nature of the interaction between Dutta and Anand that really sold the ad to consumers. It was the absurd nature of the question itself.
Rana said, “When someone suddenly questions you like that you can’t help but wonder — ‘oh okay, I didn’t know there was something like this in the market’. And especially when you have an established brand saying that, you’re like — ‘oh there’s some truth in it’. That’s why they’ve been able to stick around for decades.”
He added, “The commercial was to the point and I guess it’s abrasiveness then stood out because our media wasn’t like that.”
The question asked in the ad isn’t personal but just catches one off guard. Hearing someone ask what kind of toothpaste you use and if it contains salt was definitely bizarre to the ears.
If there were variations of this tagline, it was because Colgate was promoting a new product. “You need a massive amount of guts to do something different as a marketeer and unfortunately we rarely do that in Indian advertising. We go with tried and tested methods,” Rana said.
This format of advertising really worked for the brand as they went on to feature more actors in different variations of the original ad. Actors Kareena Kapoor Khan and Anushka Sharma also posed as reporters asking unsuspecting victims, “Kya aapke toothpaste me namak hai?”.
Interpretations in pop culture
Delivery service Swiggy Instamart came out with its own spin to the Colgate advert in 2021. Swiggy’s advertisement was one in a series of many that were made to recreate the iconic Colgate ad.
Many other brands came up with their own renditions of Colgate’s “Kya aapke toothpaste me namak hai?” tagline, as one seen in a commercial by milk brand Country Delight in 2020.