India’s most famous ad campaign: how the 'Amul butter girl' has been churning up debate for 50 years

This creative advertising campaign has captured the hearts of consumers for five decades. But can it survive in a time of instant social media criticism?

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"Got Milk?", "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter", "Say Cheese!" – these are only a few marketing slogans that have successfully touted the world's dairy products over the years. But none have done the job so bravely and creatively as Amul, an Indian food and beverage company that sells a range of products, from butter to ice cream and flavoured milk – many of which you will find on supermarket shelves in the UAE.

Since 1966, the brand has churned out thousands of topical ads, purportedly making it the longest-running outdoor advertising campaign in the world. The creative team behind it is known for jumping on the day's headlines, issuing new and witty ads starring the now-ubiquitous Amul moppet, also known as the "utterly butterly girl", that sum up in one snappy phrase the mood of the majority.

Are people losing interest in the Amul butter girl?

From celebrity deaths to elections and world tragedies, the team has historically been unafraid to take a stand through this cute-looking cartoon.

Back in the 1970s, for example, she took on the Indian government's sterilisation drive during the 21-month state of emergency in India that ran from 1975 to 1977. The advertisement said: "We've always practised compulsory sterilisation."

More recently, the campaign issued a strong response to the tragic Mumbai floods – an event that happens every year and, it's widely believed, one the municipality should be better prepared for – with an advertisement in which a scared Amul girl is attempting to stay afloat in a raft. The tagline read: "Hazaaron sapne Mithi mein mil gaye!" It is a pun on a well-known Hindi phrase, essentially saying people's dreams bite the dust when the Mithi river sweeps away their homes, animals and loved ones.

Such campaigns undoubtedly stir up controversy among government figures, but have – for the most part – been widely applauded among the public. They don’t always hit the mark, however. When the Indian government recently scrapped Article 370, which gave special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Amul released an “unbiased” advertisement with the tagline “Union ke har territory mein,” which means it’s present in every territory of the Indian union. This was followed by the subtext: “Amul: The real article.” While many believe it was a brave move – and laud the team for even referencing it amid a turbulent political climate – others felt it made light of a seriously sensitive matter.

An ad marking the removal of Article 370, which gave special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Courtesy Amul / daCunha Communications

“Till today, I have loved everything about your brand,” wrote one commenter in a widely shared post on Facebook. “This wasn’t expected out of you guys and is totally not cool.” It’s just the latest step in a trend that signals a downward spiral for the campaign’s reputation. In particular, the tone and tongue-in-cheek rhetoric that were once a brand hallmark could be said to have muted considerably.

“In a country with a vibrant political discourse, the Amul ads were sharp and reflective,” says Maitrayee Chaudhuri, professor at the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, who specialises in media studies. “Today, everything is supposed to affirm the dominant view, and in this [political] clime Amul’s signature advertisement [style] can’t work. Satire must have layers and depth. The Amul girl might look the same, but the punch is lost.”

A history of tackling tough topics

Back in the campaign's heyday, the ads became extremely popular because they reflected the common man's thoughts and feelings, says Rahul da Cunha of daCunha Communications, the company that devised the first advertisement nearly 53 years ago. The agency – founded by da Cunha's father, Sylvester da Cunha, alongside art director Eustace Fernandes – has held the prestigious account for decades, even though copywriters, artists and creative heads have come and gone.

It made the Amul girl a pop-culture phenomenon, with cult status not only in India but across Asia. "It was a master move," says da Cunha of the creation of the character. "She could comment on potentially sensitive subjects without offending anyone. Now, whenever something happens, I'm always asked, 'What is the Amul girl going to say?'"

The butter girl ensures us food for thought with her witty remarks

Nerta Agarwal, a corporate communications professional from New Delhi, grew up with an appreciation of the ads. She says they have played a pivotal role in India since the early 1970s. "I clearly remember some of the wittiest hoardings, be it about the dot-com bubble or the recent ones featuring Priyanka Chopra's famous train at the Met Gala. The butter girl ensures us food for thought with her witty remarks."

She still lauds the team’s courage to take a stand on hard-hitting political issues from time to time.

The Amul brand's history of tackling tough topics lies at its roots. Short for Anand Milk Union Limited, and now managed by the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation, it was founded in 1946 as a protest against unfair practices imposed by local trade cartels and middlemen. Under the leadership of Dr Verghese Kurien – father of the so-called White Revolution, which made India the world's biggest dairy producer – the Amul model of development in Gujarat was copied nationwide.

A campaign with 'no bias'?

Despite its history, da Cunha – who has worked with copywriter Manish Jhaveri and artist Jayant Rane on the account for the past 25 years – insists the ad campaigns “have no bias”. “Article 370 is such a sensitive subject – we had to create a topical advertisement, but what angle could we take?”

The trio decided to take what they believed was the middle road, with the Amul boy and girl each holding half a slice of bread while representing Jammu and Kashmir in dress. It was perhaps more divisive than they thought, but it demonstrated the brand's willingness to still push the boundaries within India's vanilla marketing landscape.

"Children always point out the right things," says da Cunha. "The Amul girl is a cheerleader – she's firm but always smiling."

Her take on sociopolitical issues is not limited to Indian concerns, either. In April, after the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka, the campaign featured a weeping moppet with the tagline: "Heartless. Defenceless. Senseless." America's sanctions on Iran in June prompted the advertisement, "Can't you Iran out the differences?" British prime minister Theresa May's resignation inspired a campaign that used the slogan "May Day", depicting an excited Boris Johnson eyeing her chair.

Amul marked the day former British prime minister Theresa May announced her resignation. Courtesy Amul / daCunha Communications

Sports, especially cricket, and cinema and other entertainment news are also regularly featured. For example, Amul riffed on Priyanka Chopra Jonas hitting global headlines with her trench coat gown at the 2017 Met Gala.

They also pay homage to the deceased, with monochromatic tributes issued for people such as former president and scientist A P J Abdul Kalam, politician Sushma Swaraj and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld.

“In this day and age, everyone wants to be witty, so it’s harder to stand out,” says copywriter Jhaveri. The use of Hindi words or catchphrases in Amul’s campaigns are thanks to him. “We call them smilestones – mileposts in history that make you smile a bit.”

'Hilarious and intelligent'

R S Sodhi, managing director of Amul's parent company GCMMF, reiterates da Cunha's belief that it is a "non-partisan, unbiased campaign". And he trusts the agency team so much that the company doesn't even approve the ads before they go out. "We see them when you do," Sodhi says. "The agency has full creative freedom. Our ads are instant and to-the-point. We reflect the mood of the nation at that moment."

He’s probably the campaign’s biggest fan. In particular, Sodhi loves how it tackled the Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi campaigns (“Embracing [or] embarrassing?”). The advertisement was released mere hours after Gandhi walked over to Modi during a heated session in Parliament and hugged him.

The ad Amul issued after Rahul Gandhi hugged Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Parliament. Courtesy Amul / daCunha Communications

Another favourite of his is the Jagmohan Dalmiya advertisement, released when the former chief of the Board of Control for Cricket in India was accused of misusing funds in 2008. It used the phrase "Dalmiya mein kuch kala hai?", a pun on a common Hindi proverb that means something fishy is going on. Dalmiya was so incensed by what he alleged was a defamatory campaign he threatened to sue Amul for 500 crore rupees (Dh256.2m).

The threat didn’t faze Sodhi, though – he especially enjoys the more controversial ads, saying they are hilarious and intelligent.

Criticism in the digital age

The team is wary of getting too sensitive, though. "We need to make sure the message is not harsh," says artist Rane. At the end of the day, he says, they are working with a food brand.

In recent years, this awareness has heightened due to social media and direct contact with consumers via the digital world, as the campaigns, even those clearly doused in humour, face increasing backlash. "My father never got immediate feedback, but now reactions come through within seconds," da Cunha laments.

Recently, Saif Ali Khan wanted to get his hands on the high-resolution files of any ads featuring him

These modern-day challenges have certainly made the trio's job harder, but no one can deny the Amul ads still get people talking – even the Bollywood elite. Megastar Amitabh Bachchan, who has been featured in more than 15 campaigns over the decades – celebrating his birthdays, new films and even controversies – has reportedly saved them all. Recently, Jayant received a call from Saif Ali Khan (Sacred Games), who also wanted to get his hands on the high-resolution files of any featuring him.

And they will always have firm fans among the public. “I don’t think [the ads] have changed drastically,” says Agarwal. “They are getting more vocal … [but] they never really cross that line.”

"The campaign is still very hot," da Cunha adds. And it's not going away any time soon. "We love India in spite of all its craziness. And we love the campaign because it revolves around the country we love."