From THE HINDU group of publications
Thursday, July 05, 2001


Permissiveness, Indian youth and marketing

Sooraj Bhat U & Kiran Kumar S

Permisiveness can be broadly defined as indulgent, lenient behaviour or allowing margin for it in social conduct. It typically involves overcoming certain specific cultural and social taboos for behaviour.

It has been observed that with the onset of liberalisation in India, permissiveness in society seems to have increased particularly amongst youth. A fast-growing Rs 4,000-crore industry, the liquor industry sells 55 million cases a year; 18 lakh fresh bottles enter the stores everyday, and 1.5 lakh bottles are sold every hour during a normal 12 hour business day. With a new brand launch every fortnight, it is expected to grow at 10 per cent! Trends in acceptance of alcohol consumption and other factors are indicative of increasing permissiveness.

Observable shifts in behaviour, including consumption behaviour, often reflect underlying shifts in values. In the US, value changes such as concern for physical fitness and health have created markets and industries in their wake. Even in India, the mushrooming of beauty parlours can be attributed to this reason. A few years ago, beauty parlours were a taboo and shunned by a large number of the population; but today they are accepted as part of the urban culture.

Another recent trend one observes in India is the emergence of Valentine's Day as a major festival for the youth. It clearly implies a shift from a conservative attitude towards romance and courtship to a more westernised one. Ideas like these were sniggered at a few years ago; yet today they are almost part of the cultural fabric. It is hence necessary for marketers to understand the underlying value shifts in order to understand current and future behaviour.

Values are representative of consumers' basic convictions about right and wrong. Gratification is a value. The value could be to save for a rainy day (postponed gratification) or to live for today (immediate gratification). Sensual gratification and abstinence are bipolar values. To what extent is it acceptable to enjoy sensual pleasures such as food, drink and sex?

Self-image is multi-dimensional and comprises, among others, the actual self-image (what the individual thinks he is), the ideal self-image (what he would ideally like to be), the social self-image (what he thinks others see him as) and the ideal social self-image (what he would ideally like the others to see him as). This self-image is of value to the individual and he/she strives to enhance one's self-image.

The Raymond man campaign targets the consumer's ideal self-image. Surf's Lalitaji series of advertisements attempt to appeal to the Indian housewife's actual self-image by stressing that it is smarter to buy Surf and hence the smart consumer should do the same. Dinesh Suitings' `Take the world in your stride' advertisements attempted to appeal to the consumer's ideal social self-image of being unflappable.

Traditionally, marketers have researched values and have derived implications from them for product development, design, communication design and execution. They adapt their strategies, particularly the communication, to suit the shift in values. Communication cues also help in affecting the consumer's value set and permissive behaviour. The framework given, where self-image theories and the attributes-consequence-values (ACV) model has been combined, explains this dual relationship.

Permissiveness in a society increases as a consequence of the shift in values in a society. For marketers, this provides crucial inputs into the kind of symbolic cues to be used during communication. If the product/communication/execution possesses permissive attributes in the form of symbolic cues, the psychosocial consequence of this consumption will affect these permissive values. The shift in values is faster when the symbolic value offered by the brand is congruent with the self-image of the consumer. Else, the dissonance created will prompt the consumer to either seek more information to justify it or will discontinue consumption. The importance of communication is more in the case of the Indian youth as he/she is not skeptical about advertising and has been found to buy into the brand at the emotional level.

The current marketing situation is witness to several international/western brands entering the Indian market. Most of these have positioning appeals, which try to appeal to the youth's ideal self-image (socially expressive products) and the gap between the actual and ideal self-image (typically fantasy appeals). If the imagery used in them are permissive attributes, it is inevitable that the consumption of these by the youth affects values.

Marketers can use this effectively to enhance the symbolic value offered by their brand. Liquor firms in India seem to be using this effectively. The commercial for Bacardi white rum communicates the ethos of Bacardi fun, sun, sea 'n' sand, freedom to be oneself and relaxation. It is shot on a beautiful sunny beach, with attractive young men and women, without a care in the world, dancing to a catchy jingle. The youngsters prance about and add to their soaring spirit by sipping Bacardi rum. These visuals are loaded with permissive attributes. Alcohol is a socially expressive product, where the imagery is a very important aspect of the brand. Satisfactory consumption of such image-intensive products can bring in a shift in the consumer's values. The dominant theme in these advertisements is indulgence and satisfactory consumption of these products will impact permissiveness.

Another example is the San Miguel beer advertisement. It shows a young man fantasising about the contours of a woman while fondling a bottle. And then appears an inviting barmaid to take the San Miguel order after enticingly asking `Anything more?' There have been suggestions that the visual inspires thoughts of sexual foreplay and are permissive attributes. The communications strategy for Directors' Special Black whisky is for the brand to form a link with the positive content of id, the sensual side of the personality, which believes in immediate gratification. The underlying theme is surrealistic since liquor makes life more pleasant than it is. The signature line is `Let your dark side show'. Any communication, which appeals to the id and tries to say liquor makes life pleasant is clearly a permissive attribute and will thus affect values. Marketers need to identify aspirational (permissive) attributes, which are in consonance with the shift in values and use them in their communication to enhance the appeal of their brand to the young consumer.

Permissiveness and the changing set of values provide marketers with increased opportunities to tailor the product's positioning to appeal to the youth. But this is a delicate act and it would be unwise on the marketers' part to blindly use western/American values and try to project these in their brands' communication. Rebellion is a very successful positioning plank in the US. But it is unlikely to succeed in India (according to a survey conducted by McCann Erickson, almost 72 per cent of Indian teenagers still look up to their parents as role models against 12 per cent of American teenagers who do so).

In fact, it might not be wise to think of the Indian youth as westernised at all. A recent study on Asian youth by Ogilvy & Mather reveals that the `Indian inside and western outside' image is the in thing among youth. While 64 per cent think it is important to uphold traditional values, 55 per cent are quite westernised in their outlook. Also, the Indian youth don't seem to be totally consumed by materialism. Higher materialism actually connotes higher fear of missing opportunities more than anything else. Today, the youth has more avenues open for them and this leads to the fear of missing out on opportunities by selecting any one avenue. The Indian youth in fact is deeply rooted in the family structure. When probed, what emerged was that there was a great deal of dependence on the family, which in turn gave birth to a great sense of love, commitment and respect towards family values.

Therefore while the increasing permissiveness visible among the Indian youth does present some opportunities to the marketer, care has to be taken to ensure that product/communication cues do not clash with the existing value system.

(The authors are Area Sales Manager, Coca Cola and Cadburys Plc)

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