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When ‘copywriter’ Rabindranath Tagore sold FMCG products

12 March, 2021 11:51:47
When ‘copywriter’ Rabindranath Tagore sold FMCG products

Words hold a lot of power. Without copywriting, you don’t have words to express. And without words, you don’t have anything worth reading, hearing or experiencing. Like the air you breathe, copywriting is that important to advertising. In order for you to sell any product or service, you need to communicate it well to your target audience. We have legendary copywriters like Brian Clark, Joe Coleman, Laurence Blume, Demian Farnworth, David Ogilvy, Jay Abraham and many others. In India, copywriters of great caliber like Piyush Pandey, Prasoon Joshi, R. Balakrishnan, Prahlad Kakkar and Josey Paul have transformed the face of modern advertising with their brilliance and gift of the gab. But how would you react if we add the name of Bengal’s Bard, Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, as one of the most successful and brilliant copywriters of all time?

Tagore, however, did appear in an advertisement of Bournvita -- a chocolate beverage manufactured by British multinational Cadbury. In fact, many companies and individuals used his name and fame to promote themselves. Tagore was way too generous and consented to requests from people he knew or even strangers who were referred to by his acquaintances.

It is most startling indeed for most to envisage Tagore as a commercial copywriter, endorsing FMCGs (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods) including books, toiletries, beverages, stationery, over-the-counter medicines, food products, musical instruments and personal care products. Tagore was a much sought-after copywriter and model who appeared in hundreds of advertisements during the Swadeshi era. In fact, once noted ad-guru Prahlad Kakkar said, the success of an advertisement is no longer dependent on beautiful faces. Times have changed and now the success of an ad depends on the model’s reach and his/her connectivity with the mass. That’s the reason why cricket players and film stars have replaced professional models. “Had Tagore been alive today, his brand value could have run into crores of rupees, giving a run for their money to big shot endorsers because his reach was phenomenal, cutting across all classes, languages, states and even continents!” Kakkar said. Nothing could be truer than this.

Rabindranath’s tryst with copywriting can be traced back to 1889 when he wrote a brief description about a collection of his songs that was going to be released. Since then, till his death in 1941, Tagore appeared in hundreds of advertisements. A number of publishers often approached him requesting him to write a few lines on the books they were planning to launch. This became a trend of sorts and he often obliged.  

These advertisements appeared mostly in popular magazines and journals of the time including Basumati, Calcutta Municipal Gazette, Bhandar, Sadhana et al and in newspapers like Ananda Bazar Patrika, Amritabazar Patrika and The Statesman.

Was that a compulsion for Tagore to endorse commercial products? According to veteran Tagore researcher and educator, Pabitra Sarkar, ‘patriotism’ was the driving force behind Tagore’s decision. ‘Almost all the companies or products that he endorsed were by indigenous companies who struggled to compete with foreign or established brands. He considered it his duty to support the Swadeshi enterprises,’ Sarkar told in one of his interviews.

Tagore, however, did appear in an advertisement of Bournvita -- a chocolate beverage manufactured by British multinational Cadbury. In fact, many companies and individuals used his name and fame to promote themselves. Tagore was way too generous and consented to requests from people he knew or even strangers who were referred to by his acquaintances.  There are a number of advertisements where Tagore gushed about indigenous companies and their products, applauding them as better than their foreign competitors. The Godrej soap ad featured Tagore’s photograph and quoted him saying, ‘I know of no foreign soaps better than Godrej's and I will make a point of using it.’ This ad appeared in a host of newspapers across the country.

It is most startling indeed for most to envisage Tagore as a commercial copywriter, endorsing FMCGs (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods) including books, toiletries, beverages, stationery, over-the-counter medicines, food products, musical instruments and personal care products. Tagore was a much sought-after copywriter and model who appeared in hundreds of advertisements during the Swadeshi era.

In an age when tea was rare and an expensive luxury, the British government established a propaganda unit, at first called the Tea Cess Committee, that was meant to propagate tea consumption. In 1903, the government accelerated the drive and put up posters, distributed handbills and printed advertisements were published in newspapers and periodicals of the time to generate interest among the natives. The famous British tea company, Lipton, approached Tagore with a request to endorse tea. The poet obliged and wrote a short poem about tea lovers waiting patiently for their cuppa as the water boils in the kettle. 

He wrote an ad for ‘Kuntalin,’ the indigenous hair oil manufactured by Hemen Bose. Eastern Railway quoted lines from his poem in printed advertisement. He wrote to promote companies manufacturing and selling records and musical instruments. Dwarkin & Sons, one of the oldest companies in India and credited with inventing the Indian harmonium, was heartily endorsed by Tagore.

As the sphere of consumer market increased and new players entered the arena with their products, competition became more intense and cut-throat. Hard-hitting raw flashy, jazzy copies were required and talented copywriters entered with mind-blowing copies. However, Tagore immense contribution and his involvement paved the way for others to continue the journey on the right track.

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