August 14, 2022

Indian Ads Then & Now: How Sales Rhetoric Has Changed In A Century

The concept of advertising has been around for a long long time, much longer than most of us care to think. Technically, the first

The concept of advertising has been around for a long long time, much longer than most of us care to think. Technically, the first 'ad' was when a caveman told another he could get something like food for a certain price. But that's before recorded history.

In India, advertising started off as hawkers calling out their wares right from the days when cities & markets first began.

The first Indian ad was classified! Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The first rendition of concrete advertising history starts with classified advertising in India’s first newspaper, Hickey’s Bengal Gazette. The first product to be advertised on Indian TV was Gwalior Suitings in an ad that appeared on 1st Jan, 976. However, it's rare for us to get a sweeping look at this industry that is older than our nation itself.

Here are some 15 photos of old Indian ads versus new ads that will make you realise how far we’ve come in terms of Indian advertising muscle:

World-Class Indian Hospitality

In the late 19th century, during British rule, Jamsedji Tata was reportedly refused entry into a posh hotel in Mumbai because he was an 'Indian'. He decided to build a hospitality chain that will showcase the grandeur and ethos of Indian hospitality.

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was inaugurated on 1st December 1903, and you could book a room at this palatial five-star for a 'moderate charge' of Rs. 6 a night.

Luxury Home Furnishings

Notice the paradox of the picture of Ganesh (a Hindu God) with an official-looking stamp that looks much like the Imperial Seal of the British Government. Not to mention, the name is clearly not 'desi'.

Premium Soaps

That is Nobel Laureate and one of India's most gifted poets as the face of Godrej No 1 soap - the Godrej Vegetable Toilet Soap!

Think of it, they had the calibre and advertising muscle to get a Noble prize winner as a brand ambassador. Now that's a pretty big deal.

Brand Messaging That's Held Out For A Century!

Notice how the 'Pears' brand has hung onto its core brand messaging of 'innocence' and 'purity' for almost a century. Admirable.


The interesting thing here is the way the ads are presented. This is also why ads can be treated as a reflection of society.

Back in 1930, one had to explain to prospective customers how 'Rubber Protectors' would make their lives better. Now they know.

So Durex just tells you to #DoTheRex!

Incredible India Tourism

Notice how Indian tourism ads have been consistent in highlighting the country's tourist attractions. The other noticeable similarity is the vivacity of colours and the common focus of what makes India what it is.

Representation Of Indian Women In Advertising

Leela Chitnis was the first Indian woman to appear in a Lux advertisement as far back as 1941. 80 years later, the representation of Indian women in advertising is no longer only about beauty & promise, but also about tenacity, ambition and self-actualisation.

We have come the furthest in this regard. Check out this relatively new ad from 'Mia by Tanishq' that claims to celebrate the strong, passionate, driven, ambitious working women of India, the kinds who not only bring their #BestAtWork but look their best while doing so.

Contraceptive Pills

Notice how the ads have changed from what might appear a 'medicine' to more of a 'lifestyle' product.

The earlier ad was being sold under the label 'Chemical Works', which sounds like a breach brand. Today's ads explain a scenario when such a product may come in handy so that customers can relate better.

Tea Or Coffee

When you think of tea or coffee, it's not particularly emblematic of your support for the freedom movement (obviously)! We drink it because you like it.

Today tea and coffee are marketed as conversation starters, ice-breakers or an excuse to have fun with friends or family.

Men's Hygiene

Modern Indian millennial men are not so hyped 'to shave and save'. They care more for being the 'Alpha', i.e. sleek, macho, and smooth.

This is also revealing of the changing body image Indian men have about themselves, and that reflects in our advertising.

Premium Accessories

Notice how back in the days, the price of a product justified its 'premium' tag. Sure if you want a 'Gold Rolled' watch you'll have to pay a premium. Today, a leading Bollywood female actor is synonymous with luxury.

Given the treatment of the ad, even the uninitiated won't expect a Titan Raga watch for a couple of hundred bucks.

Fizzy Drinks

Parle was the first Indian company to launch cola, and not everyone could afford a bottle every day. The ad to your left was created by none other than iconic cartoonist RK Laxman himself!

Squashes & Syrups

Notice how the image of a 'good housewife' is attached to serving chilled drinks to guests. Come today, and notice a tectonic shift to a leading Bollywood actor who is seen endorsing the 'health benefits' of these sugary beverages, and how he enjoys a glass for himself.

Lingerie & Intimate Wear

One of the starkest contrasts of product visualization is in this genre of ads. Back in 1954, one had to 'teach' Indian women about bras that don't 'twist and turn'.

Today, lingerie brands evangelise the liberalization & self-actualisation of women, of being comfortable with one's body, and daring to bare it all.

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