"Very Bombay": Contending with the Global in an Indian Advertising Agency

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What does it mean to build a global brand? The predicament of contemporary advertising is its claim to sell a specific good in the guise of a universal, affective relationship. In the February 2003 issue of Cultural Anthropology, William Mazzarella examines the production of advertisements in India by advertising agencies and shows how struggles to bundle products and images into one coherent package reflect larger transformations that were set in motion at the end of the twentieth century. The opening of Indian markets in the early 1990’s created a situation in which international competition for the “Indian consumer” began to erode the social and political paradigm of strong, central state authority. As this article demonstrates, advertising agencies played an important role in the formation of new consumer-citizens.

“‘Very Bombay’: Contending with the Global in an Indian Advertising Agency,” tells the story of a major consumer electronics company and its attempts to establish itself in the Indian mobile cell phone market. From the start, the campaign to develop a new cell phone product was beset by a central tension—“the brand was strongly identified as Indian, but the product category (cellular telephony) demanded transcendence of place”. If this tension was part of a larger discourse about the place of India in the global structure of power, Mazzarella asks us to focus on the way that it mediates a very concrete relationship between the advertising agency and their clients. What is often lost in the lofty talk about brands and their identities is the fact that advertising is, itself, a commodity that has to be sold. By looking at the discussions and disagreements around a campaign to create a commodity image that is simultaneously Indian and cosmopolitan, Mazzarella demonstrates how advertising and marketing function “as key sites for a contested elaboration of cultural meaning."

About the Author

William Mazzarella is Associate Professor of Anthropology and of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. He writes and teaches on mass media, globalization, public culture and consumerism, critical theory, commodity aesthetics, and post-coloniality in contemporary India. His book, Shoveling Smoke (Duke, 2003), is an ethnography of the Bombay advertising business and its role in the rise and elaboration of mass consumerism in India in the 1980s and 1990s. The book develops a general theory of how the production and circulation of 'commodity images' mediates the local and the global, affect and discourse, image and text. Mr. Mazzarella is currently working on a book project tentatively titled The Censor's Fist: Affect, Cinema and Mediation in Modern India, which juxtaposes an ethnographic exploration of Indian film censorship debates in the post-liberalization period against a historical reading of the colonial foundations of cinema regulation in the 1910s and 1920s.

Author's webpage

Multimedia Links

Although the following ads were made more than a decade after the RightAway campaign, they demonstrate that the same themes remain central to the Indian mobile telephony market. Note how each of the following brands--Airtel, Reliance, and AT&T--has staked out a different poisitioning vis-a-vis its relationship to India and the world.

Bharti Airtel ad, 2008.

Reliance India Mobile (RIM) ad, 2009.

"AT&T ad, 2009."

Amitabh Bachchan was the central figure of the RightAway campaign. Mazzarella writes, "On paper, the choice of Bachchan as a celebrity spokesman was inspired: he had established himself in the 1970s as a 'Bollywood' icon by plaing angry-young-man roles [...] By the 1990s, Bachchan's real-life self-reinvention as a sleek (if not particularly successful) entertainment entrepreneur drew on the rebellious resourcefulness of his erstwhile screen persona but downplayed its (in any case fictional) proletarian anchoring" (40).

"Deewar." .

Bachachan stars in Deewar (1975),


Mrityudaata (1997)

"Teen Patti." December 11, 2012 

Teen Patti (2008)

Media Links

For context on the 1990s and the opening of internal markets, see the following article from a 1995 issue of Multinational Monitor. Backwash: Coke Returns from India Exile, An Interview with George Fernandes

Related Readings

Applbaum, Kalman. 1999 "Crossing Borders: Globalization as Myth and Charter in American Transnational Consumer Marketing." American Ethnologist 27(2):257-282.

Foster. Robert. 1999 "The Commercial Construction of "New Nations."" Journal of Material Culture 4(3):263-282.

Fox, Stephen. 1990 [1984] The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising.London:Heinemann.

Kemper, Steven. 2001 Buying and Believing: Sri Lankan Advertising and Consumers in a Transnational World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moeran, Brian. 1996 A Japanese Advertising Agency: An Anthropology of Media and Markets. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

Miller, Daniel. 1997 Capitalism: An Ethnographic Approach. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

O'Barr, William. 1994 Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising. Boulder: Westview.

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