Bhamini Lakshminarayan | M2015MC013 | Group 1
Image Making – I
Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayashankar
11th August, 2015
Airlines and Identity Politics: IndiGo and the Construction of the Indian Nation
Last week, the class was divided into groups which were required to deconstruct a certain product or line of advertising. Our group, comprising Milen Mathew John, Pruthviraj Shinde, Ramadas KS, Sanghamitra Dutta, and myself, choose to look at airline advertising. We felt as though this service was an interesting space to examine – private domestic civil aviation services were only introduced in 1990 in India, shortly before the era of economic liberalisation. In this line, we felt as though this particular service reflected a certain middle- class aspiration of a certain economic status and lifestyle, through the creation of certain identities which resonated with the shift towards consumerism as upposed to utilitarianism in the use and purchase of goods and services.
In particular, I focused on an ad released by the private carrier IndiGo, released in March 2010. At this point of time, IndiGo and Kingfisher had an even market share of 18.6%, but were still running behind the established carriers of Jet Airways and its budget airline, Jet Lite. The way IndiGo firmly cemented its position in the public eye, and proceded to rise in public perception over the years that followed, was due, in part, I believe, to its intelligent advertising and branding campaigns.
The marketing of IndiGo is run by the Delhi branch of the New York-based firm Weiden + Kennedy, who have stated that “Advertising is irrelevant if the customer experience isn’t great.” The customer experience that IndiGo attempts to sell is one of cheap flights and a hassle-free and on-time service. This ad, in particular, looks at how the service runs on time – every statement ends with the rhetoric “on time.”
This idea is exemplified by the closing statements of the ad – “When we get to work on time, we become the world’s most powerful economy – on time.” In response to this, one is forced to grapple with the idea of who exactly IndiGo believes runs the economy. It would seem as though these are those individuals who “get to meetings on time,” wearing business suits, carrying their briefcases and signing contracts (a further point to which I will return to later is that these individuals are all biologically male). It is this corporate and business class that powers the economy and propels it into the future – a future in which the
Indian nation is a superpower – for being the world’s most powerful economy is effectively being the world’s most powerful country in terms of international negotiations and relations. IndiGo does not attempt to establish itself as an airline for the aam-aadmi, as opposed to Air Deccan, which ran an emotionally charged ad in 2005 with the tagline “For millions of Indians, flying is not just a dream anymore” – targeting the lower economic classes who had just procured the economic power for more comfortable and expensive travel. IndiGo targets those comfortable middle clasess who aim to integrate with a more global and upper class market, conveniently choosing to ignore the unskilled labour, migrant labour, and agricultural labour, without whom the current Indian economy would not exist – least of all the city we currently live in, Mumbai.
This same capitalist aspiration is reflected in the aesthetic styling of the advertisement, in which men and women are shot travelling on conveyor belts. At first, one must note the eerie reminiscence to the video for Pink Floyd’s anti-institutional anthem, Another Brick in The Wall Part II, in which young people are dehumanised in an attempt to make them compliant with a conformist society. Once one moves past the visual association, it is of use to make note of when the conveyor belt was initially introduced – by Henry Ford in 1913. This has widely been accepted as a move that signficantly changed the systems of mass production, leading to cheaper and faster manufacturing. Thus, IndiGo seems to be implying that they are efficiently manufacturing not just structures, but also individuals who provide a clean and useful service – but, with the implication, they also seem to dehumanise those individuals who perform the very service.
This, I argue, is in line with the Marxist argument of seperating the labourer from his labour-power. In the aesthetic positioning of the bodies on the conveyor belt one sees the labourers in unnatural, almost mechanical positions, as though the individuals are no longer human beings but well-oiled parts of the IndiGo machine. This seems reminiscent of the argument that labour is increasingly objectified and aliented, and that it is currently perceived and will be ultimately replaced by capital in the prevalent modes of production.
In this particular idea of capitalism there is a necessary division of labour, justified in neo-classical economics as a form of comparative advantage theory. In this ad, this has been done along the lines of patriarchally constructed gender-roles, with overt productivity differentials. The pilots “wake up on time” and “get to work on time” and are also all unambiguously biologically male. The chefs – not cooks, but chefs – are also all biologically male. The ground staff is, again, biologically male. The women who work for the IndiGo airline service seem to be confined to a particular role – that of “airhostess” and not flight attendent. This reflects a strongly partiarchal idea of the identity that fulfills a particular role which demands human-interaction and care for the passengers. However, the actual work that these women must perform is not referred to – instead we are told that they “wear their make-up on time” and “look oh- so-pretty – on time.” All of this is done while the women are both the surveyor and the surveyed of themselves, as argued by Berger, lining up in front of a mirror as they wear their make-up, while we viewers watch them. Their role ends when they walk past the camera and flirtatiously pout or wink, and the section on airhostesses ends when a woman looks directly into the camera, poses for it, and winks flirtariously at the viewer – her identity seems to have been constructed for Mulvey’s male gaze.
This heteronormative patriarchal construction of the identities in the middle-class business and service industry are reinforced by the roles that the men and women who travel by IndiGo airlines are portrayed as playing. In a brief sequence in a hotel, the man is a bellboy while the woman is a receptionist. The shot that follows is one of a man sitting behind a desk, looking through some papers, while a woman (conceivably a secretary) is perched on the edge of the table talking on the phone. The ad ends with two businessmen shaking hands and one signing his approval onto a document – there does not seem to be space, within this idea of becoming the world’s most powerful economy, for a powerful businesswoman.
This returns to my main argument of the construction of the mythology of an Indian identity, which is reinforced by several other details – such as the Western business suits on the men and most of the women, who are otherwise attired in upper-class designer salwaar kameez and sarees. The colours used are bright and appear to “pop” at the viewer – though it is of note that these are not colours that could be created with traditional Indian dyes. The music is synthesised and upbeat, and is confined to no particular geographical location but, temporally, seems almost futuristic. The Indians themselves, both the travellers and those who work for Indigo, do not seem to possess any particularly “Indian” identity markers – least of all, their skin tone, which appears to be a uniform shade of beige, with no space for the myriad of colours in the skin pallette in this country. Finally, in the construction of this national identity, one must question the very voice which narrates the entire advertisement to us – although it is selling us the idea of India and its economy, the narrator speaks with a polished American drawl.
Thus, in conclusion, I argue that this advertisement attempts to sell not just a service, but a naturalised mythology – one which marginalises the majority of the actual Indian population by constructing the idea of an Indian economy and nation and who belongs and contributes to it, and which reflects an overarching imperialistic structure, as argued by Fejes’, with a gendered, capitalist process of identity- creation. The ad attempts to escape this space by the use of colours, sound, and the space in which the bodies are located, which are unlike any space we encounter in the real world. However, even though the space does not exist in reality, the narrative and power-structures inherent in this space are those that are directly drawn from the dominant discourse in today’s India. While this might not have been the original intention of the creators of the advertisement, Hall has argued for the multiplicity in interpretations of encoded messages. In a country where the words “The trains ran on time” resonate with a particular message, an advertisement that sells itself on its efficiency of timeliness is one that requires both deconstruction and introspection on the side of both the producers and the consumers.
IndiGo Airlines. YouTube.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2015.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Hill & Wang, (1957) 1987. Print.
Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Moscow: Progress, 1974. Print.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 Autumn (1975): 6-18. Print.
Fejes, F. Media Imperialism: an assessment. Media, Culture & Society, 3. 1981. 281-289. Sage Publications. Print.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting, 1973. Print.
Hall, Stuart. Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79. London: Hutchinson, 1980. Print.