Imagine a typical travel ad involving India and the visual that probably comes to mind is a white tourist getting into a sticky situation at a chaotic outdoor market, or perhaps being accosted by an elephant.
Travel-services provider Thomas Cook India has turned that meme on its head with its latest campaign by JWT. The three TV commercials show Indian travelers running into a variety of unsettling problems while on vacation in the West: scary tour guides, shady gypsy money changers or an R-rated "Golden Mangoes" hotel (shown below).
"It's not that interesting to say 'From start to finish, you're in safe hands,' so we tried to create situations that people can easily visualize. When things go wrong, they go seriously wrong," said Rakshit Desai, executive director of Thomas Cook India.
The ads underscore the increasing influence of outbound Indian travelers and the country's growing middle class. Thomas Cook estimates about 3 million Indians took overseas vacations last year. That's not a huge number, considering the country's population of 1.1 billion, but the segment is expected to grow 20% year-on-year for the next three to five years.
The $5 million campaign, which is airing on TV and in movie theaters, targets first-time travelers from cities outside of major hubs such as Mumbai and Delhi. Print and outdoor ads are scheduled to roll out in a few weeks.
Viewers are reminded that Thomas Cook offers full travel services, from booking tickets to changing currency to providing insurance. They're important services for Indians who don't have strong English skills and are unfamiliar with practices and customs overseas, said Tista Sen, JWT India's national creative director.
"In spite of the perfect planning and online checks and calculations, the Indian traveler usually gets it all wrong," Ms. Sen said. "Everybody comes back from exotic locations with some horror story."
The ads have the added benefit of helping Thomas Cook, a company of British heritage with more than 100 years' history in India, seem "more approachable, more indigeneous, more local flavor," Mr. Desai said. Previously it was perceived to be an expensive niche operator.
Full-service tour packages are Thomas Cook's "bread and butter," and some of the fastest-growing destinations in terms of popularity are South Africa, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, Mr. Desai said. (The ads were shot in Poland.) But the company ensures that novice travelers don't feel too out of their element -- many Indians have dietary restrictions for religious reasons, so tours often ensure that Indian food is served for two of the three meals each day, no matter the location.
Still, the exotic destinations highlight the growing confidence and dynamism among Indian consumers as the country grows in wealth and profile.
"With the Indian economy doing well and everything opening up, the world suddenly isn't as far away as you thought it would be," Ms. Sen said. "It used to be it was a big deal to hop on a flight, but now it's only eight hours away, it's as simple as that ."