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CULTURE : In India Ad World, Hitler Can Mean Fun : What's bad taste in the West has been deemed a way to sell fast food in country's unique and lively style of selling.


NEW DELHI — Here's the problem: You've got a fast-food item that you're hoping will be the next Big Mac. To promote it, you want splashy advertising that will make people take notice. You're looking for endorsements by the biggest names possible.

Why not Adolf Hitler?

That's the approach hit upon by Option Trikaya Grey in a media campaign that the Bombay-based agency took three months to formulate for Dosa King Snack 'n' Rolls, a machine-made version of a south Indian delicacy.

"Yo! Dosa King," a snarling cartoon Fuhrer exclaims in colorful ads prepared for Indian magazines and slick newspaper supplements, in which he shares space with Abraham Lincoln, Count Dracula and other famous figures gripping rolled dosas.

"Basically, this product is being positioned as a fun product," said account supervisor Nitin Tandon of Option Trikaya Grey. "These are people you wouldn't normally imagine having a dosa. They add funk to the product."

Questionable taste is more like it, a Western consumer might say.

But as the Dosa King campaign shows, the enormous Indian market has its own rules when it comes to advertising. And though the opening up of the country to foreign multinationals may alter some practices, the basic game should stay the same, advertising pros predict.

Indian marketing campaigns are loaded with hyperbole, with a typical example being a homemaker who says she loves her husband because he is as reliable as her washing machine. There's also a humongous dose of induced envy and snob appeal--one jocular ad by the bogus "Average TV Makers Union of India" urges consumers to destroy the obviously superior Onida 21-inch set.

"The fact is, Indian advertisers lay a hand on the emotions of the Indian consumers," said Anita Nayyer, who runs accounts, including that of American Express, worth more than $8 million for Ogilvy & Mather Ltd. "Because Indian consumers are very emotionally led."

Western-induced change is apparent, especially in television spots. An ad for Kingfisher beer shows a handsome man giving a pretty woman a kiss on the cheek during a yachting regatta. That would be fine, if the couple were from Indiana. But in India, there is still a strong taboo against such public displays of affection.

In a spot now running for Cadbury's Dairy Milk chocolate bars, a girl leaps from the stands after her boyfriend scores 100 runs in cricket, shoves aside the security guard and, with her skirt billowing above the knees, dances onto the field. "Indians just don't behave that way," one viewer commented.

"Advertising is changing, as it is definitely cued to the West," Nayyer said. "One has to change with the times. But definitely not so much as to believe that anything that works in the West will work here."

In the context of Indian advertising, she observed, there's nothing wrong with using an odious figure like Hitler to sell a product--provided it works. "Advertising is like war and love," the New Delhi-based executive said. "I guess everything is fair."

With its campaign, Indian Foods Fermentation Ltd., Dosa King's creator, hopes to sign up franchisees throughout the country.

One of the simple masterpieces of Indian cuisine, a dosa is akin to a taco or burrito, with a vegetable filling in a shell made of rice flour fried to a crispy gold. Dosa King is a take-out version, which a customer can get with any of four sauces. It will sell for five rupees, or 16 cents.

"It's very much a snack for the masses," Tandon said.

The franchiser, who already has more than two dozen outlets in Bombay, sells the machinery used to make Dosa Kings, as well as the ingredients. The goal is a product that will taste the same in Calcutta or in Cuddalore.

The media campaign featuring Hitler and the other celebrity dosa eaters is still being fine-tuned.

"I think we will need six months to get on a firmer footing," Tandon said. "After that, we'll be ready to market in a major way."

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