The ekatvam advertisement for Tanishq jewellery, which is now in the eye of the storm, carries forward one of the features that formed the outline for Titan’s advertising in the 1990s — that of capturing the moment of gifting with the attendant emotion of being gifted something so special
The needless controversy surrounding Titan’s recent advertisement for its Tanishq line of jewellery would have pained its founding chairman Xerxes Desai no end. The man who set up the watch company and ran it for the first 15 years, was an aesthete who used its initial ads to position its watches as something of a fashion accessory, to be worn and displayed with pride. Soon it became a veritable statement, a far cry from the humble workmanlike image of the products from its rival HMT, the public-sector company which dominated the market at that time.
Given the toxic and polarised environment in which we live, Titan’s decision to withdraw the advertisement is entirely understandable, particularly if it feared for the physical well-being of its employees. I wonder though, what Desai would have made of the matter. Belying his image of a soft spoken and genial man, he hid an iron fist in his velvet glove. After dealing with a workers strike at one of the plants in the early 1990s he told me in no uncertain terms that he hadn't been looking for a win-win. Clearly, he wasn’t a man to back down.
Desai who passed away in 2016 at the age of 79, was an odd choice to build a company. After doing his MA in philosophy from Oxford, he was keen to go on and become a don there. However, fate, and JRD Tata intervened, and he found himself charged with setting up Titan Industries in 1984. He approached the task with an artist’s eye bringing in designers from abroad to fashion a completely new kind of product that would appeal to a younger set of Indians.
Eventually, Titan changed the perception of Indians towards watches using advertising that stressed refinement and elegance. Reflecting his own tastes in music, he handpicked its memorable signature tune, an excerpt from Mozart’s 25th Symphony which was created for the company by ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, then called OBM, and led by the brilliant Mani Ayer who passed away in 2010. The story of the collaboration between Desai and Ayer is brilliantly captured by Vinay Kamath in his book TITAN: Inside India's Most Successful Consumer Brand where he writes about the creativity that the agency injected into the company’s advertising. From its very first series of television advertisements for its Quartz range, the watches were given the appearance of an objet d’art.
Also, while the watches themselves were beautiful, the advertising tapped into human emotions, of love, romance and most important, giving. Is there anything more exquisite than the parting line of one of its advertisements where a father presents a Titan watch to his soon-to-be a bride daughter: “Titan: pyar ke bad sabse pyara uphar.”
The ekatvam advertisement for Tanishq jewellery, which is now in the eye of the storm, though made by Culture Film Company, carries forward one of the features that Kamath in his book says formed the outline for the company’s advertising in the 1990s — that of capturing the moment of gifting with the attendant emotion of being gifted something so special.
Desai would surely have loved the advertisement and approved it instantly. We will never know whether he would have withdrawn it in the face of the raging controversy. He too was a pragmatic business leader and like the company’s current leadership might have decided discretion is the better part of valour. Either way it is a reflection of the times we live in that a seemingly innocuous advertisement can lead to so much heartburn.Sundeep Khanna is a senior journalist. Views are personal.