Not so simple!

EYE - May 13 - May 19, 2012

Why life is not all about yes and no in India

During my market research days, I used to work on global surveys, where the same questions had to be asked across countries and the answers compared. Implicit in this was the assumption that as long as the questions were identical, the answers were comparable. However this was usually quite far from the truth, as all of us with common sense can well imagine. "Can't say" in India was not "don't know" as elsewhere, because it was often "won't say". "Are you vegetarian or not", was not so simple because I could be vegetarian only at home or only on Tuesdays. A standard international price testing question was to ask people, "if the price of Brand B went up by Rs x, which brand would you switch to?" This data was then subjected to some rigorous maths to predict what the likely market share would be in real life. In India, such studies always produced inaccurate results. We eventually understood that the tightrope walking Indian housewife had several complex options to balance her budget, just one of which was switching to another brand. Other options included, "When my jam or cheese gets over, I will postpone buying it by a week and save some money", or "I will buy a cheaper brand also and use less of this one", or "I will go to the grocer some distance away, and not to my usual grocer, because his prices are lower." Of course solutions from north India and south India were different too.

I also remember working on a global advertising testing procedure that was designed to test advertisements before they went on air, and predict whether or not they would work. People were shown the test ad in a show reel, and asked questions that required simple yes-no answers. The test scores were calculated using a secret formula and performance predictions done by plugging the test score into a database containing test scores and post-launch performance scores of such ad tests from around the world. The head of the global company that developed this test insisted that this testing procedure be inviolable. It had worked well from Singapore and Sydney to Moscow and Mexico, and its genius was the simple, concrete yes-no answers that it worked with (e.g., "Is there anything in this ad that you will file in your memory and make it a point to tell someone about? Yes-No?"). The trouble was that in India we found that all ads tested had over 90 per cent of people saying "yes" to all the questions, leading to always-high test scores. It gradually dawned on us that simple yes-no scales were a problem in India. Consider this. "Would you like to go see a movie tomorrow?" "Haan, kyon nahin", "haan haan shaayad", "probably not", "maybe yes", "most likely not possible", "surely why not", "I have no objection", "dekhte hain"... anything but a YES or a NO. Unfortunately, the global company was not about to let us touch the holy cow and alter the globally tried and tested scales, and so we just gave up marketing the procedure.

I am sure there are several reasons why we don't say yes or no clearly. Some modern global Indians tend to disapprovingly label this as a "cultural" problem of woolly-headed thinking, and feel that we must learn to be precise if we want to become global. I think it is a many layered phenomenon that is deeper than it appears to be.

Recently the Infosys Science Foundation invited the brilliant Dr Michael Sandel of Harvard University to give a series of public lectures. Dr Sandel has a course called Justice, which is billed as one of the popular courses in Harvard's history — watch him on YouTube and you will be hooked forever. At his lectures, he poses a "problem" situation to his audience and asks them what they think is the right thing to do. In Mumbai, he posed a situation to a hall full of young students: a prestigious college, very hard to get into, wanting a new science lab facility, proposes to raise the money for it by offering a few seats to those who could pay a large donation. Instead of centering around fairness, merit dilution, and greater good for larger numbers, the discussion went off into a tangent that this proposal was not right, because people who could not afford the donation would have to pay up and burden their families with debt. Excuse me? If they couldn't afford it, why would they pay the donation? Answer, how else will they get into the college? Clearly life in India is not so simple!