The readership and advertising battle between two of India's largest newspapers shows no sign of abating, with The Times of India again taking pot shots at its big rival, The Hindu.
The battle for readership began late last year when the Times of India (TOI) decided to enter The Hindu's stronghold in the south Indian state of Kerala, following stiff competition in the latter's headquarters in Chennai.
The TOI's latest ad reads: "We congratulate the competition for finally waking up to The Times of India," a mildly sarcastic response to its rival's "Stay Ahead of The Times" campaign.
Initiated by the TOI as a "bid to wake a sleeping giant", the sarcastic advertisements from the country's two major English-language newspapers have sparked much media comment.
The TOI, the country's sixth biggest seller overall, has been an "undisputed leader" in north and central India in the past decade and has been trying to bolster its presence in the south.
It launched its Chennai (Madras) edition in 2008 but has not been able to overtake top-selling The Hindu in terms of readership.
Unfazed by its "average success" in Chennai, the TOI brainstormed for a launch strategy into Kerala late last year.
As part of the TOI's plan to beat its rival, the group came up with a series of TV ads which ran prominently on South Indian and national channels.
The TOI ad began with random shots of people gathered for the inauguration of a government building, school children, an election rally, a crowded market and traffic jams. The visuals run at very slow speed with a lullaby as the background score.
These chaotic scenes come to an abrupt end with a person sleeping in different positions - standing, sitting, lying down, and leaning over - with a newspaper in his hand.
At this point the music changes to a fast-paced track with a caption that says, "Stuck with the news that puts you to sleep?" displayed on the screen. The ad ends with the words: "Wake up to The Times of India".
At this point, "the viewers are left with no doubt what the soporific scenes allude to - The Hindu, TOI's main rival", NS Ramnath wrote in his Forbes India blog on 9 February.
The Hindu took nearly three months to come up with a counter strategy. Many believe the TOI ads woke a "sleeping giant" and rattled it into noticing the competition. The newspaper made a slew of changes, including appointing a new editor, and issued fresh TV ads taking "pot-shots at the TOI's celebrity-driven" journalism.
The Hindu's TV ads show people failing to answer current affairs questions, and ends with - "What paper do you read?" and "the unmistakable lip-sync that mouths - Times of India". A screen caption says - "Stay ahead of the Times".
"When the TOI launched a campaign indirectly targeting us four months back, we decided not to react at the time, but wait for the right time and the right motive, despite a lot of internal angst and pressure," says Suresh Srinivasan, vice-president of advertising at the Hindu Group.
"This can be seen as our response," Siddharth Varadarajan, the new editor of The Hindu, told moneycontrol.com. (Forbes India on 9 Feb, moneycontrol.com on 30 Jan, media magazine afaqs on 30 Jan).
India's print media has been growing at a rate of 10% every year and is expected to maintain this trajectory.
India has close to 650 television channels, more than 2,000 publications and more than 30 FM radio operators, running 245 stations. The country's movie industry releases more than 1,000 films a year. Writing in The Indian Express newspaper, columnist Rachana Shukla says these statistics have "no parallel anywhere in the world".
The market may look crowded, but the long queue of aspirants trying to hop on to the bandwagon remains undaunted. India's information and broadcasting ministry still has a large number of firms seeking approval to start TV stations and newspapers.
While new entrants are trying to consolidate their presence, old players like the TOI and The Hindu are treading on each other's toes for bigger slices of the pie. (Indian Express on 8 Jan 2012, The Economic Times on 15 Oct 2011).
Social media buzz
The campaigns have created quite a buzz in social media, with The Hindu's ad receiving 100,000 hits within just a few days of it having been uploading on video-content sharing website YouTube.
The official Facebook pages of both the TOI and The Hindu also received a fair amount of attention from users clicking "like".
Most mainstream media have refrained from commenting on the ad war, but some expressed doubts over the sustainability of the media sector's growth.
Indian Express columnist Rachana Shukla said that even though the media market was growing in terms of investment, profitability remained a concern, as most companies were in the red.
Manjula Rajagopal, associate editor of Tamil daily Dinamalar, echoed the sentiments, saying that the computer generation would soon migrate to online reading, posing a strong threat to India's booming print media market. (Indian Express on 8 Jan 2012, The Economic Times on 15 Oct 2011).
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