New Delhi: A boy wanders around a town with a dog at his heels. Wherever he goes, the pup follows.
In the early 2000s, the cellular network Hutchinson Essar’s advertising campaign featured Cheeka, a pug, that built up a massive obsession for the breed in India. The jingle, “You and I in this beautiful world”, played in the background while Cheeka followed a boy to the most unlikely places, amplifying the tagline, “wherever you go, our network follows”.
There was no obvious branding, no effort to sell anything — and that was the magic of the Hutch ad, as millennials of India remember it.
Abhishek Sonowal, management trainee at Udaan, a Bangalore-based startup, who remembers the ad campaign, said: “As a young boy I was so fascinated with the ad, I tried to make my dog Lexi follow me around as well. But that little dog never did until I finally caught a few treats and tempted her to follow me like Cheeka. It did not work quite well but nonetheless made me happy; as if I too was the young boy and my Lexi was Cheeka.”
The campaign also won big awards — it was the top Print Ad and one of the top 10 TV campaigns of 2003 in India, reported a Business Today survey. The Hutch campaign idea was “pure entertainment and therefore consumed easily”, said Shailesh Dobhal of Business Today in the report.
Anyone else remember that time in India when Vodafone was Hutch and they did that iconic ad with the pug and it won a billion awards and then everyone in India went and bought pugs but not Hutch phone connections and the Hutch marketing head got sacked? lmao good times
— Shiv Ramdas (@nameshiv) May 14, 2021
The campaign was managed by the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather (O&M), whose primary aim was to convey the idea of a network that was robust enough to reach every part of the country. Mahesh V and Rajeev Rao, the creative directors of the agency, worked around the idea of pushing the tech “using emotions” to assure the user that this network will follow you just as a loyal pup does.
The team had initially thought of building a story around a little sister following her brother but was later replaced by Cheeka and the boy, a “less mushy” narrative. “Man’s best friend was the simplest analogy that could represent unconditional support,” said Renuka Jaypal (Business Director, O&M) in an interview with Business Today.
Pug prices shoot up, activists voice concern
According to a report in India Today, advertising legend Alyque Padamsee saw a “creative paradox” behind the success of the Hutch ads. “You rarely see pugs in ads because they are ugly” and “this goes against the grain and that’s why it clicks,” he had said in the report.
In an interview with Business Today, Piyush Pandey, then National Creative Director, O&M, said the “magic” of this campaign is the “simplicity”, adding that the prices of pug pups had shot up after. Around the country, the sale of pugs doubled arbitrarily — to get one home, could cost between Rs 10,000 and Rs 60,000.
— Sarah (@SpoonfulOfTweet) March 27, 2014
Pugs were welcomed into many Indian homes but not every pug had a happy story. The increase in demand triggered by the Hutch ad was criticised by animal rights activists such as Maneka Gandhi who cautioned, according to a report in The Hindu Business Line, that this sudden rise in sales was for a dog that “was not native to India and whose climate did not suit them”.
Pugs cannot give birth naturally and need a cesarean, Gandhi cautioned K.V Sridhar, the National Creative Director, Leo Burnett, according to a report in Business Today. Sridhar also revealed that owing to the spike in demand for pugs in the country, over 50,000 pugs were imported to India, and many illegally. These puppies were then sold to buyers who were unaware of the breed’s special needs and their in-born malaises.
R. Padmachandran, director of Dogsindia.com, also raised concerns about the survival of these dogs in tropical heat due to their short muzzles.
PETA India veterinarian and CEO urges @VodafoneIN to stop using pugs who are prone to breathing difficulties and numerous other serious ailments in their advertising.
— PETA India (@PetaIndia) April 3, 2018
In 2018, when Vodafone — which acquired Hutchinson Essar in 2007 — brought back Cheeka, they were asked by PETA to stop making pugs the face of their campaign. “PETA India points out that pugs have been deliberately bred to have features so severely exaggerated that they cause physical suffering — just to suit a concept of cuteness marketed by breeders to potential buyers,” the group said in an appeal on its website.
Besides heat distress, pugs suffer from chronic eye and skin infections due to their protruding eyes and folded skin, along with intolerance to exercise owing to a vulnerable spine. Buyers often abandon pug puppies as they are unwilling to take on these hassles.
The Hutch campaign thus received both bouquets and brickbats. It was a brilliant ad but it had implications for the health of pugs. But Cheeka and the boy for sure will never be forgotten.
(Edited by Paramita Ghosh)