Indian advertising: Submit to my world-view, or else…

Note: An abridged version of this post appeared in The Hindu, today (November 3, 2021). See at the end of this post.

“An Indian woman, without sporting a bindi, wearing Western clothing, is seen dancing unabashedly in public to celebrate her boyfriend’s (not husband, since she isn’t wearing a mangal sutra) success. This ad is against Indian culture!”

Wonder which ad? The 90s Cadbury’s Dairy Milk ad that was recently recreated with a wonderfully topical gender swap. No, no one has actually offered such an absurd opinion. Yet. Thankfully. I merely used the bizarre objections I have seen recently for multiple ads and extrapolated the absurdity.

Sounds improbable? Hardly.

A recent ad for JBL where a woman uses noise-canceling headphones to shut the noise of Diwali crackers got this reaction: “No prizes for guessing what the ad agency teams anchor a creative idea for a noise-cancelling headphone this season.”

Vivo’s new Diwali campaign that features a story about a family coming together to celebrate is being outraged against for a throwaway line by a guest who opines that he came to the mountain resort during Diwali because cities are noisy and polluted.

A new ad for an automobile insurance brand set in a garage where the new car owner has invited a pandit to perform pooja for the car got comments that go, “The person is wearing shoes while breaking a coconut”, and “Why to target Hindu tradition in name of slapstick comedy? Why copywriter cannot think beyond targeting Hindu traditions?”.

The much-derided Fabindia ad also got brickbats for other things besides the so-called cardinal sin (or Mahapataka, to use a culturally sensitive word instead of borrowing from Christianity) of using an Urdu phrase (literally meaning, ‘Celebration of traditions’) to denote a Diwali-related collection: that some of the models were shown to be not wearing a bindi, and that some models were draped in green-colored clothing (the color associated with Islam), or black-colored clothing (the colors traditionally considered inauspicious in Hinduism).

These are all actual comments – I’m not making them up. But while we are it, let me extrapolate the hurt sentiments and make up more.

We could use these filters to go back in history and look at many older campaigns differently! For instance,

‘How dare Fabindia misrepresent Carols to sell furniture of all things?’

‘How can Westside use Diwali to mix Western clothing with Indian traditional clothing? This is an insult to Diwali.’

‘Ajio says ‘dazzling Diwali sale’ but the models are wearing inauspicious colors and that too without sporting bindis, an integral part of Hindu culture!’

A South Indian who values pious Deepavali rituals could say, ‘Look how Diwali is reduced to playing cards, that too by women who do not sport bindis!’

‘Why is Aza recommending Diwali pooja be done in such clothing? This is against our culture!’

All these are one influencer or one Minister away from becoming full-blown boycott campaigns.

And there is a whole lot of outrage waiting to be manufactured out of how brands fall upon each other to create imaginative depictions of the crescent moon during Eid – it could be either, ‘How dare they reduce Eid to a moon (or biryani) depiction to sell their products?’ or ‘Why are Indian brands falling over each other to please a minority in the name of secularism?’, depending on your ideological orientation.

The gloves seem to be off. Anything that can be outraged upon, will be outraged upon, even if it means picking up voices from the obscure corners of social media, relayed by the ultra-powerful on social media and seconded by the ruling party ministers. Sure, such outrages used to happen earlier too, but the dam seems to have been broken now, given the alarming frequency with which this is happening. Last year’s outrages around Tanishq Ekatvam, which saw the brand’s employees getting phone threats and the stores getting visited by friendly neighborhood thugs ‘requesting’ the store managers to write apology notes, seems to be a precursor.

There are a couple of vectors that this narrative has been mounted on.

1. Hurts Hindu religious sentiments

This is the most obvious, lowest-hanging fruit. A lot of outrages can be manufactured using this vector, including when an ad actually conveys something that is pro-outragers, like the Ceat ad featuring Aamir Khan where he advises the people in an apartment complex to avoid the roads to burst crackers after a cricket match, and to do it inside the apartment complex, to avoid disturbing the flow of traffic. The ad did not ask people not to burst crackers, a sentiment that will be quickly tagged as ‘woke’. And Ceat has been consistently referring to things that hinder traffic movement in its ad campaigns, not just crackers.

So what was the outrage? It was that Aamir Khan is a Muslim and since Muslims take up public space for their Namaaz (something being vocally outraged upon in Gurugram these days), Aamir cannot be advocating even ‘burst crackers in a way that doesn’t affect traffic’ without first calling out the prayer-in-public.

2. Makes for poor, ineffective marketing communications

Some of the more erudite participants offer a nuanced argument – ads that disregard the majority view are poor and ineffective, based on the basics of marketing and advertising. That they do not depict what-is, and instead try to ‘change the world’ by showing what-could-be.

Ironically, there are a LOT of ads that show the what-is – this has always been the case. A few ads use the what-could-be framing and make people consider for a different scenario. So, while a lot of jewelry brands place their ad narratives in conventional festive stories, complete with fully compliant Hindu rituals, a Tanishq Ekatvam wanted to stand out and showcased a Hindu daughter-in-law being treated with love and affection by her Muslim in-laws. ‘Why can’t they show a Hindu family treating their Muslim daughter-in-law with affection? Why show only Muslims in such good light?‘ was one prominent line of thought as part of the outrage, without considering the potential counter to that, ‘Why show Hindus as pandering to Muslims like this? Would they dare show a Muslim family treating their Hindi daughter-in-law with affection?‘ (and we are back to square one!).

To even argue for marketing effectiveness, one would need to know how a campaign that was heavily outraged upon actually performed! In the absence of such data, to mount academic theories on marketing effectiveness and then conclude that ads that don’t satisfy someone/a group of people (based only on social media outrage) are ineffective is both myopic and naive.

And in any case, if it was about marketing effectiveness, what’s the worst that can happen to a brand that puts forward a message that does not take into account the majority view or propagates a new line of thought that is not agreeable to a large section of its target audience? The advertising money is toast, the brand sells poorly and is forced to think of other narratives to advertise differently!

So why shortchange that process by seeking a collective boycott? That’s because it is not about marketing effectiveness at all – that’s simply a polished veneer for deeper insecurity.

The sum of all these fears seems to be rooted in one thing – that advertisements may influence people and change their minds towards assorted things like opting for colors that are not in line with Hinduism, being casual about religious rituals during Hindu festivals, encouraging intermingling of religions, among others. And why is all this objectionable? Because some people have taken on the mantle of being the guardians of Indian culture and their culture codes should appeal to all. If someone doesn’t adhere to their codes, they would ensure that the brand submits to their worldview.

Do advertisements influence people’s behavior on a massive scale? If you take the examples of ads for causes—ones that do not sell a product or a service, like the Pulse Polio vaccine campaign, anti-smoking campaigns, campaigns to discourage drunk driving—there has been some good influence. But when it comes to product/services selling, the result is less about influencing people’s behavior in terms of something in the culture or the society, and more of the core of what advertising is about – sell the product/service! The narrative story of the ads is just a wrap-around to sell.

If ads are so effective in changing people’s minds en masse, why isolate people’s behavior in terms of the so-called cultural disconnect alone? Why not consider actual sales too? That’s not necessarily the case since ads for all kinds of brands—appealing to what-is and what-could-be—do equally well or poorly based on so many factors including product/service benefits, availability, price, etc. Advertising is just one of the many elements, after all.

So the real reason for the outrage is not marketing effectiveness at all. It is the fear that an alternative worldview may gather momentum.

To stop ads from influencing people, the outrage happens at two levels.

One is a coordinated outrage campaign. This is entirely legitimate; after all, if brands can launch a coordinated campaign, can’t people do it too, using the viral power of social media? Of course, they can. This is a civil disagreement with an internet edge. This puts a counterview to what the ads propagate, and just like the ads get picked up by people based on the narrative strength, the counterview’s success too is dependent on the narrative strength and the follower-base and offline clout of people supporting this view.

If there is a concerted backlash and if it comes without threats or coercion, the brands could pick them up, aggregate them and engage in a conversation by putting forward their counterpoints. But advertising agencies have never been good at conversations – they are very good only at broadcast. Brands would need to work with their PR agencies to prepare for the worst-case scenario, instead of simply working with advertising agencies for the best-case scenarios in terms of adulation and sales. To some extent, Zomato is perhaps the only brand that engages in a conversation even when the feedback is negative.

The second is a coordinated boycott campaign. This too is legitimate but is an uncivil disagreement. Why?

Because brands invest money not to get people to follow their world-view – brands rarely have world-views (with glorious examples like Patagonia, which is also part of an exception), people do. Brands have a sales-view. And brands advertise positive narratives – they do not ask anyone to boycott, hate, or hurt someone.

When a brand showcases women without bindi or wearing black/green colored clothing during a festive season campaign, that is not to get more women to not wear bindis or adopt similar colors in their clothing choices. Far from it. Women would wear bindis based on their prerogative, not merely looking at ads for inspiration. And less said about the color choices the better – it’s an absurd argument in the first place.

When a brand showcases an Urdu name for a Diwali collection, that doesn’t mean it is an insult to the way Diwali is celebrated in Hinduism. It’s simply a different way to frame the same festival using a language that is very much part of the official languages of India. I can understand the annoyance if the chosen language was… say, Spanish.

The coordinated reaction, when it is about boycotting a brand is uncivil precisely because of that – it spurs hatred and divisiveness in response to a brand asking people to come together and look beyond their differences (Tanishq Ekatvam, for instance) or propose newer ways so thinking that is not illegal (as per India’s Constitution and law) or misleading/inaccurate (as per the guidelines of Advertising Standards Council of India) as part of the narratives devised to make people take note.

At the most basic level, brands merely propagate a message, in service of selling something. Brands cannot impose anything on people, only Governments are capable of that. So what if what a brand says does not sit well with a majority of people who think differently or may not find many takers among a larger group? Are those in the larger group not intelligent enough to (a) ignore that ad, (b) ignore the brand, (c) ignore the ad but buy from the brand? Where is this fear and insecurity that an advertisement would change minds against religion, rituals, or sentiments coming from?

Brands do appeal to specific target audiences and if they believe their target audience may find their messages appealing enough to buy their products or services, so be it. If not, the brand would anyway get the message loud and clear through the impact (or the lack of impact) in terms of sales.

Brands and marketers do not sit in judgement over any imagined mindset of their target audiences, or even the larger audience segments. Judging audiences is not even the point of marketing or advertising, but to imply that they do because someone doesn’t appreciate what one/few brands have propagated through their advertising is merely a narrow way of looking at marketing. Brands and advertisers make certain assumptions about their target audiences in the hope that those could help create memories and associations. These assumptions could be wrong, or right, based on the kind of research and information that has gone into the effort, but such assumptions are not a crime, to be outraged upon.

If a brand’s ad says something that one doesn’t like/appreciate, they have the full freedom to ignore the ad. They also have the freedom (and the right; just like the brand too has) to disagree vocally, by sharing a counterpoint. But when that disagreement is taken to an extreme like a concerted boycott call, that means only one thing – that the aggrieved person is not merely content with showing disagreement; they also want to force the brand to comply with their line of thought and submit to only how they think. That’s not just intolerance, that’s bullying! Mere intolerance stops with ranting or offering counterviews to consider the same subject that an ad proposes. But bullying extends the intolerance to force someone to only one perspective, and the logic is this: ‘even if the other perspective is perfectly legal and not factually incorrect, it shouldn’t exist because I/we do not like it’.

There is bound to be self-censorship as a result of this ‘chilling effect’. Brands and agencies are bound to think up as many situations and counterpoints themselves at the scripting stage and may want to avoid any kind of online backlash. That would definitely inhibit ideas and creativity eventually.

To be sure, people have been taking offense on the basis of ‘hurt sentiments’ for a very long time, it is not a recent phenomenon. But such hurt sentiments spread in very small, isolated circles before social media. Now, any negative perspective could be shared with the entire world within minutes. The ones who have a ‘hurt sentiment’, with a very low follower count, usually tag other highly-followed online personalities (who they know would support their cause/ideology). If the latter notice the outrage and reshare it, things could go viral in a matter of minutes/hours.

There have not been any documented examples of economic damages on brands that have faced online outrage, faced a boycott, or withdrew their ads in response either to outrage or a boycott call. Tanishq had faced two such boycott calls last year, but they posted healthy results in FY20-21. This could be another reason why the intolerance moves into bullying, seeing that the brand that dared to think unlike the so-called majority is not being ‘punished’ and people take it upon themselves to deliver such ‘punishment’ in the form of threats and shame.

In the end, brands should do what they believe in, based on what they believe is the best way to tell their brand stories, as long as they are not miscommunicating or misleading people. And if they happen to be using hot-button topics like religion, politics, or all-things-culture, it may help to plan out multiple scenarios of how their advertising narrative is likely to be received, by focusing on the worst-case scenarios, and then sticking to their communication even when there is a backlash. That conviction seems to be missing in the recent, persistent outrage cycle and could be the reason for many more future outrages and boycotts in the assumption that all brands would submit to any and every kind of ask from vested interest groups.

An abridged version of this post, in The Hindu, November 3, 2021:



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