Asia Life

Amul: the Pun-dits of Indian Advertising

Amul has managed to not only advertise its brand, but also brand its advertisements.

Amul: the Pun-dits of Indian Advertising
Credit: Flickr / Chris Hoare

“Justin, Trydough with butter!” was how an Indian dairy company addressed the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his recent visit to India. At the same time, the famous Pakistani politician and a former cricketer, Imran Khan, was entering his third marriage, that company also released a picture of Khan’s wedding with a rather sexist caption: “Still bowling a maiden over?” (in cricket, a “maiden over” is an over in which the batting side has not scored a single run).

Advertisements can be silly and distracting, but the occasional few can be witty or funny. More than that: over a longer period of time they can reflect societal changes. This is the case of the Indian dairy company Amul, which has been spreading their butter commercials with puns and fun for decades. Not shying away from economic, political or social issues these advertisements now offer a short and sketchy review of recent Indian history. They have one eye set on international events as well. When Barack Obama became president of the United States, Amul shared an ad that said “Barack Fast in the White House” (and showed Barack Obama being fed a slice of bread with Amul butter on it). Instead of the regular company name in the bottom right corner of the picture, this particular ad also included the word “Obamul,” instead of “Amul.”

Apart from releasing a range of dairy products, it has been a tradition for Amul to publish its butter advertisements in the form of pictures that often relate to contemporary events, and are thus dubbed “topicals.” These appear on billboards or in newspapers, and, of course, on the web. The TV commercials may be the bread-winners of today’s marketing, and Amul naturally does them as well, but here I am concerned only with the topicals. These are prepared for Amul by DaCunha Communications, and the link between the dairy powerhouse and the marketing company has been as old as the Amul adverts themselves. At times, the ads take on politicians, sportsmen and other famous people or events. A sport-themed Amul ad featured two swimming styles: “Butter fry” and “Bread stroke,” and the comment at the bottom of the topical added: “Amul. Phelp yourself.” On the occasion of American rapper 50 Cent putting on a concert in Mumbai, Amul butter advertised itself as the “Unwrap Star.” On other occasions, the topicals are just pictures with good puns, such as: “Holiday on slice,” “Divide and drool,” “Born in India. Bread in India,” or “For butter or for worse.”

Amul has similarly commented on a number of historical events. The adverts are not enough to form a chronicle, obviously, but serve as fun-facts, amusing additions to the historical narrative: quotes one could sprinkle a history textbook with to make it more readable. When in 1979 U.S. President Jimmy Carter came to India during a period of a short-lived Indo-American bonhomie built by the equally short-lived Janata Party government, the Amul topic welcomed the president with the words: “We’re peanuts about you!” (Jimmy Carter’s family had struck it rich farming peanuts in Georgia prior to his political career.).

In 1991, Boris Yeltsin was greeted with the words: “From Russia with loaf.” And when India successfully tested the BrahMos missile in 2017, marking yet another step the growth of its rocket forces, the Amul advert went “BrahVo!” (and another text on the same picture played with the similarity in spelling of the words sukh, which means “happiness” in Hindi, and Sukhoi – the Russian military jet operated by the Indian Air Force). When India got its Miss World in 2017, the butter was advertised with the sentence: “Amul: Won’t Miss it for the World.”

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DaCunha Communications has even spread its butter advertisements into the realm of politics. Here the company has been much more careful though it did risk a few pinches here and there. In the 1980s the Bofors scandal erupted: very highly placed officials and politicians were accused of accepting bribes from the Bofors company to win a contract. The relevant Amul ad showed a man lying in bed with the caption “Bofors – Out of commission” (and, as Bofors is a Swedish company, Amul advertised itself as “swedelishous” back then). When the national airline, Indian Airlines, went on strike, an Amul advertisement observed that “Amul Airlines serves Amul butter – when it flies” (that was one of the few time when the company was slapped with a legal notice for its cheekiness). Usually, however, the topicals seemed to gauge the popular mood and not to swim against the current. Political controversies are usually criticized in the ads only when there is already widespread criticism. In 2011, when the immensely popular social activist Anna Hazare went on a hunger strike to demand better anticorruption laws, the company ad showed the Amul Girl (the icon of the product) giving a sandwich to Hazare with the caption: “Kha na, Hazare!” (Eat, Hazare!).

While the adverts are meant to arouse one’s taste for butter, and a great number of them offer tasty puns, there is also a minority which I consider to be in bad taste. The “bowling a maiden over” topical belongs to this list and some of the TV commercials were quite sexist as well. Here is another controversial one: during the Emergency period in the 1970s, the Indira Gandhi government introduced vasectomies in the name of birth control, a 1976 Amul picture showed a nurse carrying a tray with a package of clean butter and the caption said “We’ve always practiced compulsory sterilisation.” The Emergency-period vasectomies were compulsory only for those who wanted to obtain certain perks and opportunities from the government, but probably they were also enforced in certain cases and hence widely criticized. Making fun of “compulsory sterilisation” is a bad idea. Similarly, after the gruesome rape of a woman in Delhi in December 2012 (which was accompanied by injuries that resulted in the victim’s death) Amul released a picture with the motto Nirbhaya bano (“Become fearless”). Nirbhaya was also a name given by the press to the rape victim (as she was anonymous for a long time). While the idea of the dairy company was to stress the protection of woman and female empowerment, it is not suitable for a butter advertisement to address the issue of rape, and the motto – Nirbhaya bano can be understood as “Become fearless” or “Become Nirbhaya” — was ill-chosen, to say the least.

Yet, it reflected the company’s marketing strategy to not only make fun but appear to be taking a stance and express concern about the country. A number of advertisements were somber and referred to a number of issues, such as India-Pakistan tensions, political instability or the deaths of famous stars. One of the ads, for instance, called for “butter living conditions.”

Despite my criticism of some of the topicals, I value the Amul adverts for their way with words and their consistency. What is also noteworthy is that the Amul adverts appear in more than one Indian language (and the puns in Hindi are good, too) but, as seen above, they offer a lot of puns in English. This means that not only have the authors of the ads mastered the language but they assume the readers will appreciate their games with words as well. The popularity of these ads speaks a lot about the high level of English among the Indian middle class.

And then there is consistency. Amul has been churning out its advertisements for decades. Its very first picture ad appeared in 1966. The picture showed a praying girl and the words “Give us this day our daily bread: with Amul Butter.” The same icon – the Amul Girl – has been a part of the marketing efforts ever since, just like the “Utterly Butterly” motto. The pun factory seems to never lose steam, and the Amul topicals are nowadays widely shared via social media. While the role of the advertisements is usually to popularize a brand, DaCunha Communications achieved more: they created advertisements that have themselves become a brand.