Google's Plan to Win Over Indians—by Making Them Cry

A new ad campaign suggests the search engine can help solve six decades of estrangement between India and Pakistan.
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A security personnel answers a call at the reception counter of the Google office in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. (Krishnendu Halder/Reuters)
 
I was born of an improbable reunion between long-lost childhood friends. My Hindu grandfather Harish and his best friend Yash, a Sikh, were young boys together in Lahore, Pakistan, where their houses shared a common wall. They were parted suddenly in the terror and chaos of the partition of India in 1947, when both families were among the 14.5 million people displaced.

Nearly 10 years later, my grandfather was overseeing box office sales at a cinema in a small Indian town near Agra. A hand came in through the window, asking for a ticket. My grandfather instantly recognized the voice. He grabbed the hand and said, “Stay where you are.” He ran outside and found himself face to face with Yash. When their families reunited, the elders arranged a marriage between my grandfather and Yash’s sister—my grandmother, Chandrakanta.

Now Google’s India office has created a tear-jerker ad that is deeply resonant for Indians and Pakistanis with family stories like mine. It shows an aging Hindu Indian man waxing nostalgic to his granddaughter about his Muslim childhood friend in Lahore before the partition. The young woman then uses clues from the story to track down, via Google, her grandfather’s childhood friend in Pakistan. The ad culminates in a gut-wrenching reunion between two old men, more than 60 years after they were parted by history. A series of subsequent ads shows them re-establishing their friendship, finding shared cultural experiences, and trying to set their grandchildren up with each other.

The ad, created by Ogilvy, has struck a particularly emotional chord by refusing to take India and Pakistan’s historically adversarial relationship as a given.

Pushing social norms and emotional buttons is proving to be a recipe for viral advertising success in India. Earlier this month a norm-breaking jewellery ad depicted a single mother’s second marriage. With its latest ad, Google has managed to side-step politics. Media depictions of Indo-Pakistani relations tend to be fraught: Bollywood films often feature unlikeable Pakistani characters, and many Indian movies end up banned across the border. But by zeroing in on the issue of partition-era separations and reunions, Google has achieved the kind of powerful emotional response that most brands can only dream of.

Indeed, the appeal to emotion and nostalgia seems to be a big part of Google’s strategy in India. Its India office has been involved with a campaign to to bring 2,500 shops in Old Delhi’s historic Chandni Chowk market district online. Another docu-ad—not by the India office—also went viral a few weeks ago, telling the true story of Saroo Brierley, a young Indian boy who was separated from his family at a busy train station in Kolkata and found them them 25 years later using Google Earth in his adoptive home in Australia.

Google’s business in India is relatively small but growing fast, with fiscal 2013 revenues up 78.7 percent to 20.8 billion rupees ($332 million). With ads like these, it seems to have mined a rich vein.

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Mrigaa Sethi is an Indian writer and editor based in Bangkok.

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