What can be a greater marketing opportunity than a country gaining Independence from foreign rule? Gandhian simplicity notwithstanding, newspapers in India ran quite a few freedom-special advertisements on and around 15 August 1947. This was a time when the term ‘India Inc.’, as we know it today, wasn’t even invented.
Of course, these will pale in comparison to today’s special supplements overflowing with advertisements on Independence Day. But ad-makers used the historical occasion 72 years ago to the hilt. Some went too far to make all kinds of stretched connections to India’s freedom. But everyone wanted a piece of it.
A new life, assured
The day’s significance was not lost on anyone. There are few parallels to a moment which at once becomes the defining part of personal and national histories. A moment like that offers all kinds of possibilities for businesses dealing with matters of life and death. So, when India won its freedom, private insurance companies led the ad war from the front, literally, with their promotions and celebrations dotting the front pages of all newspapers.
Free India General Insurance Co. Ltd., with its head office in ‘Cawnpore’, announced ‘India is free’, showing the Indian flag and asking people to ‘Celebrate this with a “Free India” Policy now!’ It had a tagline: ‘Protect national wealth at minimum cost’.
Another one, Crown Life insurance Company, ‘incorporated in Canada with limited liability’, raised a toast and the tricolour. ‘Here’s to Free India’, its headline cheered, while declaring ‘a bright future, through Crown life policies’. A desi company, ‘Bharat Fire & General Insurance Ltd.’ took the opportunity to claim the ‘advent of freedom heralds a brilliant record of Bharat’.
‘General Insurance Society’ declared the arrival of ‘August 15, 1947’ with élan, announcing in bold letters that the ‘portals stand open’. It struck a sombre note, reminding Indians that ‘the outlines of the structure of this new nationhood — though not identical with those of our ideals for which many toiled and many more suffered for years — are taking clear, concrete steps today’. It paid homage to ‘all those who have brought us to the very portals of freedom’ and promised to ‘add our weight to that foundation of stability and security…’.
Union Life Assurance Co. Ltd flipped the whole idea behind Partition to put the two countries on the same map, open from the top and joined ‘in celebration on the birth of the free dominions of India and Pakistan’. Others like Firestone showed the flags of both India and Pakistan, wishing peace and prosperity to them. G.E.C. radio, a product of the General Electric Co. Ltd of England, also wished that ‘Dominions of India & Pakistan triumphantly prosper’.
Freedom fighters who ‘kept the faith’
Famous brands like Tata, Godrej, Glaxo, Bata, and Parle marked their presence as did other forgotten businesses. Deccan Airways Ltd, claiming to be ‘the backbone of India’, saluted ‘those whose sacrifices have made this day possible’ while outlining its ‘next great task’ – ‘Prosperity through Progress’.
‘Cocola’ of Calcutta, probably a rip-off of the famous brand Coca-Cola, simply put itself to be ‘in the service of the nation’. Eastman & Co. of Calcutta showed sketches of Subhash Chandra Bose, Khudiram Bose and some faceless agitators with the headline ‘They kept our faith’.
Bose, and more specifically his Indian National Army (INA), was remembered in a very special way by a metal company ‘Saru Smelting & Refining Corporation Ltd.’ Its ad carried a line from the ‘national anthem’ of the INA – ‘Sooraj ban kar jag mein chamke Bharat naam subhaga’. This anthem, composed in the tunes of ‘Jana Gana Mana’, opened with the line ‘Shubh sukh chen ki barkha barse, Bharat bhagya hai jaga’.
‘Lister Antiseptics’ of Calcutta showed the tricolour with English translation of the first stanza of ‘Bandemataram’ (Vande Mataram) whereas Dalmia De-luxe biscuits’ ad used the opening line of the song eulogising the national flag, ‘Vijayi vishwa tiranga pyara’.
Love for tricolour and some bizarre offers
The Indian map and flag were generously used in all the advertisements. Dalmia Cement used the picture of Parliament along with the flag to run an ad with the tagline, ‘Construct your house of independence’. Allen Berry & Co, a Dalmia-Jain enterprise, also used Parliament and the tricolour in its Independence Day ad.
Calico Mills of Ahmedabad had little doubt about what India had achieved. And it presented this freedom by simply showing a drawing of two hands with broken chains. It didn’t need many words to signify what it wanted to convey through the image, which was accompanied by only one word written in Gujarati – ‘Aakhre’, meaning ‘at last’.
There were some bizarre offers too. Kit Kat restaurant in then-Bombay launched a new dish called ‘Mussaqa’ on 15 August, claiming that ‘such a delicious dish was never before served in any restaurant’. (Moussaka is a Greek dish.) A rubber factory from the citydeclared independence from ‘alien rule, alien economy, alien goods’ while offering ‘rubber toy balloons’ from the ‘nation’s growing industry’. A balm maker claimed ‘Freedom fight for (the) country was started in 1886 but the blessings of freedom from pain was enjoyed by its people from 1885 through Little’s Oriental Balm’.
While there is an influx of cinema halls promoting nationalism today, not many at the time of independence had gone beyond the occasional ads. One of the advertisements for a Gujarati film, Seth Sagalasha, which was in the theatres in Ahmedabad for 24 weeks, carried the slogan ‘Jay Azadi’ (Hail Independence). But the theatre ran a disclaimer saying ‘today’s show will be a benefit night for the cinema staff. Hence, all sorts of free and complementary passes will not be entertained’.
Record companies like HMV and Young India advertised records of speeches of leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru to encash the freedom fervour.
One copywriter’s belaboured wit shined through in an ad by a Calcutta-based company. It read: ‘The verdict of history is irrevocable. Ink that History uses is the best of its kind. The letters burn with undying flames and glow with unfading glory.’ It happened to be the ad of an ink manufacturer in Calcutta.
Urvish Kothari is a senior columnist and writer based in Ahmedabad.