The number of 40-year-old CMOs chasing 22-year-old consumers in this country is growing. And with it is the marketing machinery that’s spewing out well researched, link-tested, SM-seeded, snazzy productions aimed at engaging this audience. Yet they fail to impress the youth as much as videos uploaded by a tribe of clever college students with low budgets but a sharp point of view. With a series of million-plus hits on Youtube, groups like All India Bakchod and India Viral Fever have hacked mainstream culture and made some space for the real voice of the youth to be heard. Their brand of satirical, sharp and politically incorrect Qtiyappa and Bakchod has hit the right notes and is a rage on social media. And their success reveals a lot about what’s brewing in youth culture and offers lessons for brands on what it takes to make a real connection with this generation.
Hacking the mainstream culture
The breakaway generation (born in the post ‘91 liberalisation era) has had a tough time dealing with the dogmas of the previous generations. In spite of their potent rocket fuel of ambition, global exposure and self-confidence, they continue to be grounded in a world where the agenda is set by somebody else, like they’ve been granted a negotiated existence. Their media is biased, politics is dirty, laws are archaic, TV entertainment is clichéd and the moral codes thrust upon them are stifling. Mainstream culture has failed them. They’ve had their own ways to deal with it, resorting to ‘jugaad’ and clever subversion of sanctions to meet their goals. But lately there’s a marked shift in their attitude towards these old world values and impositions. They’ve had enough and are striking back with wit and vengeance. Instead of cleverly manipulating uncomfortable situations, they are leaning in and boldly taking matters head on.
In this stifling environment, the only way they could break free was by leveraging a medium that wasn’t controlled by the mainstream and through a message that wouldn’t hurt our delicate sensibilities. With Youtube, the audience could be the author and all it took was four funny guys, a camera and sharp point of view. Thus the Unsanskaaris were born. They create content (on youtube, blogs and parody websites) with a piercing commentary on our culture, served as a satire. Their amateurish productions but intelligent plots continue to resonate with millions of young Indians who are lapping up episode after episode of this new genre of entertainment. Groups like India Viral Factory and All India Bakchod are using pop culture themes ranging from bollywood clichés (Bollywood Aam Aadmi Party) to women’s safety (‘It’s your fault’) and have spared no one. Their tongue-in-cheek humour allows them to take on burning issues without sounding too abrasive – an approach which is aptly captured in the tagline of the parody news site Faking News: “Where truth doesn’t hide, where truth doesn’t hurt.” Our embarrassments, inconveniences and hypocrisies can no longer hide in the shadows, topics that were once taboo are out in the open and the reality of our everyday lives is laid bare by the Unsanskaaris.
The Pressure Points
The Unsanskaaris can’t stand ridiculous rules. They can’t figure out why public holidays are dry days or why is it mandatory to sing the national anthem before every movie. One of their favourite enemies is the CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification) or, what is commonly known as, the Censor Board. It is known to be a killjoy for many young movie goers who want to watch movies the way the directors intended them to be. The ridiculousness of this censorship was evident during Martin Scorcese’s ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ where the warning sign ‘Smoking Cigarettes is Injurious to Health’ flashed every time someone would light up, but the censor board didn’t mind people snorting cocaine over two dozen times through the movie.
Our Supreme Court can’t handle same-sex relationships (Sec 377), there’s a curfew limit on partying (Bangalore), you have to be over 25 years to buy liquor (Mumbai) and you never know when Dhoble may strike (a hockey stick wielding police officer known for moral policing). These archaic laws, stubborn old practices and heavy censorship just don’t add up in the minds of young but mature Indians. And they’re letting them know.
They’ve started taking on touch-me-nots. A 21-year-old girl was arrested for questioning the shutdown of a city when a prominent leader died. She went to jail along with her friend who had ‘liked’ the post before a public outrage got them freed. Not so long ago a young cartoonist was jailed on charges of sedition. Recently, Penguin (the publisher) had to withdraw a book fearing retribution. We are a sensitive lot. It doesn’t take much to offend us – a piece of art, a cartoon, a status update, a quote in a book and we are out on the streets burning effigies, destroying public property and generally kicking up a big fuss around a non-event. There was even talk of muzzling social media by the very prudent Information Minister who asked Google, Yahoo & Facebook "to use human beings to screen content, not technology" to cross check the billions of pages of the internet for any objectionable material further explaining that "We have to take care of the sensibilities of our people”. The Unsanskaari youth responded - in no time #IdiotKapilSibal started trending on twitter and the irony could not be missed. Though the touch-me-nots can be intimidating and they are finding unique ways to prove their point.
And most of all there is the self-certified Sanskaar brigade. After the infamous rapes in India, many started pointing their fingers back at women, suggesting that it’s their western style of dressing that provokes men. There was lot of debate on national television with prominent leaders toeing this line. That’s when All India Bakchod (AIB) came out with ‘It’s your fault’ - a dark satire on this attitude of blaming the victim for the rape. It was an instant hit on social media garnering over 3 million views slamming the door on any such absurd contentions. From Khaap Panchayat’s assessment on the effect of ‘chowmein’ on raging hormones to Baba Ramdev offering a ‘cure’ for homosexuality, the youth have been dragged into controversy by this Sanskaari tribe who have taken it upon themselves to protect the youth from the evil influences of ‘western culture’. To counter these ridiculous notions, the Unsanskaaris have employed their sharp wit and reduced this moral high ground to sheer nonsense, sparing no one including the Supreme Court.
Apart from these pressure points the Unsanskaaris are training their guns on any subject that is outdated, irrelevant, ridiculous or pretentious. For them no topic is taboo, no one is spared. They are in the mood to puncture the mainstream and aren’t missing any opportunities.
The success of Unsanskaaris on open platforms like Youtube has surfaced what is actually brimming underneath – that the Indian youth have had enough of the negotiated existence that they’ve been granted. They are no longer resorting to tactics of clever subversion to get what they want but are taking matters head on. Their bold themes, the biting sarcasm and the liberal use of profanity are telling signs of a change in tact. They are ripping apart cultural clichés and are even comfortable mocking their own flaws and insecurities. A line has been drawn and it’s time to take sides. Brands that continue play it safe and depict the youth as party loving YOLOs without a care in the world risk being irrelevant or even worse, being a part of the mainstream. Brands and content makers need to acknowledge this shift in mood and employ strategies that resolve this tension. The time is ripe for creating ideas and platforms that channelize this prolific creativity that’s showing up organically without much help from official sources. Youtube has recognized their impact and promoted some of these groups via Youtube FanFest - an offline engagement platform for fans to connect with Youtube celebrities.
A few brands like Snapdeal have even started adopting these channels as legitimate advertising opportunities, but have limited their exposure to brand mentions and not so subtle plugs. There is huge room to create branded content or be associated with such content in a way that endorses a brand’s point of view without hard-selling the product. A case in point is Chipotle’s Farmed and Dangerous, which promotes their healthier, more sustainable farming practices, using satire to make a point. Their approach of ‘values integration’ rather than ‘product integration’ seems to be the apt formula for creating branded content in this space.
The other big opportunity is in designing propositions that are pure, unadulterated spaces giving the youth unrestrained experiences. This segment will be willing to pay a premium for ideas that let them be, far from the judgmental eyes of the mainstream.
The success of the Unsanskaaris also points to a growing maturity of this audience. In the past brands and content makers have contested whether we have a refined palate for intelligent, layered narratives. The viral success of these groups shows that there is a wide appreciation for finer, nuanced story telling which was probably limited to smaller audience earlier. A quick glance at the Youtube comments are proof that they are phenomenon not only among the youth in urban metros but resonate equally in smaller towns as well. It’s clear that the kids have grown up and brands and content makers need to learn to treat them that way.
To sum it up, the Unsanskaari generation is pissed off and has found new and surprising ways to let us know. The time is ripe for creating ideas and platforms that channelise their Unsanskaari cravings and creativity and help them break free. Until that happens they will continue hacking away at mainstream culture and it will get increasingly difficult to engage with them from the wrong side of the fence.
(The author is AVP and planning director, Grey India.)
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