For the obligatory Shah Rukh Khan post on his 51st birthday, we decided to skip the routine listing of the extravagant rides in the superstar’s garage (It’s a BMW 7 Series and 6 Series Convertible, an Audi A6, a Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe, a Bentley Continental GT and a Toyota Land Cruiser, among others – there, are you happy now?). Instead, we revisit one of the most successful car ad campaigns that firmly established Brand SRK as the Greatest Of All Time.
It’s been 10 years since I started to ignore Shah Rukh Khan, thanks to a slew of bland releases that rode on little more than his stardom and endorsements as saccharine as the bottled fizz they promoted. My need to distance myself from his current body of work doesn’t arise from any disdain for his brand of cinema. Quite the opposite, actually. For me, Shah Rukh Khan is a notion frozen in that magical time and space where he wasn’t quite the strange disconnected phenom he grew to become.
The beginnings of Brand SRK can be traced all the way back to 1988 when Liberty Shoes roped him in for an ad campaign. But Shah Rukh Khan’s celebrity wasn’t as obvious until the post-DDLJ, post-liberalisation phase that struck India in the late 90s. In 1998, the automotive scene in the country had only just picked up. Amid the Suzukis, Toyotas and Fords making a beeline to invest in India, Hyundai, back then a lesser known Korean manufacturer, was looking to capture this young market. Their major launch for the year was the Santro, which was showcased at the 1998 Delhi Auto Expo. Unfortunately, the tall-boy design hatchback was unable to grab as many eyeballs as the Tata Indica – which hijacked all the headlines for becoming India’s first indigenously manufactured passenger car.
In order to capture the attention of the market, Hyundai bagged an SRK endorsement. The actor, fresh from the success of winners like DDLJ and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, managed to make the impact the brand badly needed. But what truly hit home with the resulting series of TV commercials was that they didn’t just ride on Shah Rukh’s star value. The advertisements were strung together with a really simple and inherently meta storyline – Hyundai representative, a fictional Mister Kim, politely persuading a slightly cocky Khan to endorse the brand. The TVCs felt refreshingly honest and took advantage of Brand SRK without stealing the limelight from the car.
The series begins with Mister Kim making Shah Rukh Khan a nearly Corleone-sque offer. He presents a bolt as a symbol of the authenticity of each component used to build a Hyundai car to help the actor make his decision.
At that time, despite the other options available in the market, most families usually homed in on Maruti Suzuki because of its extensive reach and network which other manufacturers were perceived to be unable to provide. Hyundai uses the follow up to the previous ad to combat this perception by showcasing its army of dealers, ancillary manufacturers and after-sales representatives.
The next episode cleverly plugs the Santro’s manoeuvring capabilities suited for the Indian roads by having a skeptical Shah Rukh Khan, astride a motorcycle, challenge Mr Kim to a race on a dirt track. Of course, a stunt rider stands in for the star during the off-roading scenes but the winning moment is when SRK takes off the helmet and gleefully concedes with the line, “Keys, Mister Kim!”
This one’s our favourite. We really wish we had better footage than this grainy video captured from the now defunct DD Metro. “So perfect, even I would stand in line,” declares Shah Rukh, after he (or a stuntman stand-in) slaloms in and out of a row of road cones manned by what appear to be Hyundai engineers, taking notes in lab coats.
Finally, Hyundai brings out the big guns with this ad featuring the Santro and some excellent chemistry between a dog and Shah Rukh.
18 years down the line, Shah Rukh Khan continues to be the face of Hyundai in India. Over the years, he has lent his stardom to promote the i10, i20, Xcent and more recently the Elantra. The association may have gotten stronger over the years, but none of the recent ad campaigns match the magic of these first few TVCs. Then again, it’s a changing market and I don’t get to dictate tastes.
Happy Birthday SRK! Thank you for serving as the most convincing Everyman for the average Hyundai customer, despite that Rolls-Royce in your garage.