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What is the secret behind the success of the advertising world? How is it that the corporate world convinces us to buy more and more, even when it knows that we do not at all need many of those celebrated products? The modus operandi seems very simple. The sales market makes us fall for a value. When a fairness cream, for instance, says that by using the particular cream you will become fair, without our knowledge we fall for the ‘fairness’ value. To decipher the semiotics, the signifier which is the product, signifies ‘fairness’ while denoting that being fair is better than being dark, simultaneously connoting that fairness is an absolute value.

Or take that other fabric advertisement that tells all men that wearing its branded suiting would make them ‘complete’. In other words, men by birth, at least according to their yardstick, are ‘incomplete’. It is important to be complete (whatever that means!). And what is the way to become complete? Very simple: buy their suiting and voila! You are as complete as the heavens!!

All products today have to sell a value. Otherwise, no one will buy an additional consumable that they don’t need. Imagine for a while life without a cell phone today; or burgers and fried chickens. A couple of decades ago all were happy eating vada and samosa, while talking to their friends and neighbours face to face. Today, friends and neighbours are less of a value in comparison to the cell phone; and vadas and samosas are still there, but eating pizzas and burgers seem to be the most valuable upwardly mobile trend in town.

Companies today spend lakhs, if not crores, for best of ideas that can help them sell a value. That is because once you sell a value selling the product is easy. When Harland Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, tried marketing his recipe, it was rejected over 1,000 times. However, the product eventually became a hit mostly for its unique taste, and Sanders was able to sell his company for two million dollars in the mid-20th century. Among other things, the company became a house-old name because Sanders was able to market a value: namely ‘country chicken’. It is important to savour the country chicken and not any other chicken to remain healthy, he seemed to suggest to his consumers, because as he said, ‘we do chicken right’.

So, what the advertising world teaches us is that it is important to sell a value before you sell a product. In his recent book Breaking News, former editor of The Guardian, Alan Rasbridger speaks of a concept that the social media world has adopted: Reach before Revenue. The social media entrepreneurs did not worry about making profits through the internet at once. They knew the days would come when they could mint hefty profits. For the present, it was important to reach before they minted revenue, and they succeeded. For example, Twitter which began its operations in 2006, made its first profits only in the year 2017. By then it had lost billions, and the first profits were just 80 million dollars. The founders knew the wait for profits was worth it as they had reached over 330 million people now. Once you had the users who trusted you, revenue would follow. Twitter too had sold a value first, not the product and its value was ‘you have an opinion and you must voice it’!

Political values

The giants of politics are well versed in marketing a value before they can market themselves. Indira Gandhi in the late seventies said garibhi hatao (root out poverty). She was selling a yeomen value of alleviating poverty in a country where poverty levels were as high as 60 per cent. Whether she succeeded in making everyone rise above the poverty line is left to the historians to judge, but her ‘value’ had won her votes like never before. Ditto for George W. Bush Jr. (GWB), the former president of the United States when he was contesting re-election in 2004. After 9/11, terror attacks and internal security became important issues. Despite his many failures, he made security of people as the core value, and made sure he marched to the White House for his second term. No one bothered if security was such a great value at all, even as the economy was in a bad shape with notable banks and financial institutions ready to file for bankruptcy. But GWB had nothing to lose.

Cut to the present. Narendra Modi is also seeking a re-election. He had made ‘development’ and corruption-free India as his core values for the elections in 2014. He promised acche din. Even the sceptics thought Modi could deliver like no-one in the past. He won handsomely selling not just one, but a series of values. Today, he is working hard to seek a second term. Perhaps, it is unnecessary to elaborate on his core values to sell for the general elections of this year. They are there in the public domain for any right-thinking citizens to evaluate. But, none of the values he sold five years ago are anywhere in sight. He sold his key values in 2014 quite easily. This time, it seems a harder job with the brand new values. Will he succeed in selling them, we will know only on May 23, 2019.

Melwyn Pinto is teaching in the department of Journalism and Mass Communication at St Aloysius College (Autonomous), Mangalore)


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