How are you? I’m Raghav, nice to meet you. So my full name’s a little on the nose, but I hope you won’t judge me for it? I’m Bislleri presents Raghav Sharma, brought to you by Kurkurre, energy partner ReddBull, media partner Viacon18 and ReddFM bajate raho. And, if you haven’t figured, I am the world’s first human advertising space.
I know it can sound a bit intimidating, but I’m nothing special. You guys produce and sell docus for a living, while I sell my body, mind and time. And I’m good, else I wouldn’t be where I am. In fact I just had this great idea of how we’ll market our film. But that’s for later. Where do we wanna start?
Can you tell us how it all came together for you?
Ohh. It’s the usual stuff. I was a teen, loved Bollywood, wanted to make it big, tell stories that connect people, yada yada. But the fact is I come from a family of engineers and doctors. Not a single artist in my bloodline… Had no clue where to start. Ended up taking a lot of bad loans, tried making it into film school, even tried producing a movie. Ergh. All money down the drain. I literally ended up on the road for weeks. My dad refused to take me in, Mumbai became this intimidating fortress where a failure like me wasn’t welcome.
You know how the city can drain even the best of us! Anyway, when the days got long and exhausting, I’d always freshen up with a bottle of Bislleri, with water packaged straight from the torrents of holy Himalayas. You want some Bislleri water? No? Okay, let me know when you’re thirsty. If you scratch this coupon code and send it to this number, you could win cash prizes up to five lacs by the way. Crazy, no?! From goddamn water!
Sorry, contracts. So I was telling you I was literally living on the road. And I’m just walking by this highway when I see this giant billboard with a number, and it’s basically selling ad space. I call them, and they say they charge in lacs, which just blows my mind. By the time the call was over, I knew I had figured this insane way to make money. My first client was this mall down the street. Raunaq Mall. (Wait, they’re huge!) Yeah yeah, now. Back then they were going bankrupt. And so I told them, ‘look, this will sound utterly ridiculous, but what if I be your advertisement.’ Not an advertiser, not a marketer, but an advertisement. Like I’d tell people about the mall, I’d spin a whole story of how it changed my life. I’d get them customers like--
Basically a brand ambassador.
Not at all, hahaha! It’s literally been over two decades but it’s still hard to explain what a human ad is. Look, ambassadors, or even your social media influencers, that's like being a good looking salesman, but that’s all they are. Deep down their audience knows they're selling them something, it maybe even hates it. But a good ad doesn’t even feel like an ad. You’re invested in it and you don’t even notice how open you become to the ideas it talks of. That’s when the ad pulls out their product to sell. And that’s what I’d do too. I’d borrow things from the mall, like I got this cool pocket watch once, and then I’d just get into a local train and pretend to be so absorbed in my watch that sooner or later someone would enquire about it, where I got it from, how much for, everything. That’s when you knew you had them. They were officially choosing to not Skip Ad. And then I’d tell them about this mall in Kurla which had the best staff, the best cafes, the best everything. And in just ten minutes, I’d have a family ready to visit a mall they’d never known.
This seems awfully ineffective.
For small and dying businesses it was everything. The folks at Raunaq were overwhelmed. I was never an investment. They were just covering my rent at a chaul and with me spending eight hours everyday for weeks for them, things compounded and it brought in demand they’d never known
But more than that, I learnt so much about what gets a person’s attention, that I started scaling it all up. Like that one time I acted like I’m having a fit right outside Andheri station, and this whole crowd gathered. And out walks this astrologer I’d rented my ad space to. She runs over, says some fancy words and then I just pretend I’m normal. Hundreds of people saw that live, and they fell for it. Her phone hasn’t stopped ringing ever since. And then you just figure more ways to grab attention. There’s the lazy things I do, like wearing Peppsi merch or reading out Bislleri promos, and then there’s wild things like changing my legal name to include sponsors, or setting my villa on fire and coming out unburnt. (For that sunscreen?) Yeah, Neutrodermma. I miss those days, you know. So this local newspaper had fallen for it, and I told them I was alive only courtesy that friggin sunscreen, and they made that a front page headline. 23rd Feb, 2004, this news went international. Check Johnnson & Johnnson stocks for that day. No TV ad can do that.
What were you saying you miss about those days?
I guess I miss not being a household name. It was fun to be an ad back then. People trusted you more. Now most of them know who I am. It’s still fine though. There’s so much a human ad can do that a poster on the wall just can’t. I can win over your trust, I can manipulate your emotions.
It gets very personal when I’m the ad. Like I’ll tell you about this thing from 2007. So there’s this woman in the bus and she’s crying, and here I am, still far from my target click-throughs, and oh man, you’ll hate me for it but I see a potential customer in her. If you know someone’s emotional state, you have a power over them. I guess YouTube is getting pretty close with all their targeted ads, but they can never match up to me. So I sat there, consoled her for a while. Turns out her marriage had fallen apart, her man had been cheating on her. And she’s going on about how they hadn’t been intimate for years, how he’d stopped spending time at home, and I listen for long enough, and then I look her in the eye, and, uhh, don’t judge me. I look at her and I ask, “was she fairer? The lady he cheated on you with?” And I remember how her swollen eyes got even more teary as she nodded a yes. It was brutal for me, but I can tell you I met my target for the day. I was contracted to Unilever at the time, and she bought a year's worth of their entire range of fairness products- scrubs, washes, makeup, you name it. She got some even for her twelve year old girl. My bosses were proud.
Wow. That’s, that’s monstrous. It’s manipulative. Sociopathic.
Well, say hello to advertising.
That’s not advertising. That’s all you. Ads sell products, they don’t exploit someone’s grief like you did.
I don’t know what ads you’re watching but when Ronald McDonnald suggests it’s not an ideal family if they don’t have breakfast with McEggs, or when Patannjali hints you might be a bad Indian if you don’t buy their juices, or when Horlikks says you’ll remain short if you don’t have it everyday, they’re not just selling their things anymore. They’re exploiting your insecurities. They’re making you feel unhappy and then putting a price on your happiness. I also sold her happiness, I sold her hope. If her skin was fairer, maybe things could work out. Of course, over the years, working in this line, I’ve come to detest happiness. It’s not a gold standard of what humans need. We need satisfaction, we need joy, we need acceptance. But if Buddha was born this century, he’d be put in jail for how terrible his ideas are for business. Ads create uninformed people making uninformed choices. They rob you of satisfaction in life so they keep minting money. Like mouthwash after brushing your teeth, or deo’s that fling chicks onto you like you’re some biomagnet. That’s just how ads work, and being a human ad, I had to stay true to the medium.
You're reading too much into ads. They’re just short movies that--
That show husbands buying jewellery to prove their love to their wives? You know, I read this the other day. Decades ago in the US, this toy came out, Mr Potato Head. But its target consumers, the moneyless toddlers, couldn’t really buy them and their parents would never get them that ugly piece of plastic. Lucky for the Potato, a recent study had shown that kids learn to nag for things from other kids. Now they call it pester power, and five year olds are just bombarded with ads showing children nagging their parents for toys and junk food and what not. The ones who see it learn this behaviour, and they just don’t shut up till they get the damn toy from the ad. It’s psychological warfare, and the best analysts and data scientists at the biggest ad firms are working day and night on hacking your brain to make you buy as much as fast as possible. I was going to die in debt in this city, and I did an unprincipled job in an unprincipled world. It helped me survive. So I hope you get it. What’s the next question?
(sighs, clears throat) Why are you planning to retire?
Well my last few contracts are expiring in December. And looking back, it’s been a good run. I’ve worked with over a hundred big brands, I’ve made big money. I have two dozen brand logos tattooed on my body. There’s a Durrex one on my dick that I’ve recently gotten used to. Through being an ad, I’ve told more stories than I would as a filmmaker. And now I’m also a household name. It’s a good time to stop, no? (Oh, what about marketing our docu?) Oh yeah. For that, I plan to go back to the basics. I’ll announce my retirement and the next day all the billboards in Mumbai just have a speech bubble, and they’re going “Thank God!” (laughs) You can have your logo somewhere at the bottom. Let’s take a break for the day? (Yes! I’m exhausted!) Ohh great, from the torrents of holy Himalayas, you want some Bislleri water?