About the ‘reimagining traditions’ accusation on advertising

Let me start with a disclosure: I am a huge fan of McDonald’s Paneer Burger. They seem to have made it hotter/spicier recently compared to what it seemed to have been a few years ago, so I prefer it less these days. I have also asked if they can give me a paneer burger with their normal white sauce instead of the yellow sauce which seems to be the cause of the spiciness, but so far, I haven’t gotten my request fulfilled.

Now, let me come to the actual post. I will start with McDonald’s India’s new Diwali campaign made by the agency DDB Mudra.

The ad celebrates the coming together of families for festivals and the fact that when there’s coming together, there’s a lot of food. The indirect truth, of course, is that the food makes most of our festivals all that more happy and worth looking forward to.

But, there’s also a question worth asking: what are you most likely to eat during a festival?
An Indian festival, in specific?
Or, Diwali/Deepavali, in particular?
Burgers and paneer wraps?
Seems very unlikely.

Almost all Indian festivals have specific, local food items associated with them. And there’s no dearth of such items across any Indian state that celebrates Diwali/Deepavali in their own way for assorted reasons (like Lord Krishna’s Narakasura Vadham in Tamil Nadu vs. Lord Ram defeating Raavan in the North, and so on).

So why would McDonald’s suggest that a family would get together on Diwali and do all the same things year after year, and have burgers and paneer wraps in the name of the festive meal?

Is this reimagining traditions? Hardly.

I’d rather place it under ‘wishful thinking’. McDonald’s and DDB Mudra seem to be suggesting that it is acceptable to order burgers and paneer wraps as a Diwali meal. We are free to ignore this suggestion and do what we want, for our own family Diwali/Deepavali get-togethers anyway.

Many brands have tried such ‘wishful thinking’ in the past too. A Diwali-centric idea from another brand that comes to my mind immediately is Big Bazaar’s Paper Pataka campaign from 2015, again by DDB Mudra!

Was Big Bazaar and DDB Mudra trying to reimagine traditional crackers, associated so intimately with Diwali/Deepavali, and replace them with ‘a better and cleaner Diwali‘ (as per the press announcements in 2015)? Hardly. This too is a suggestion, hoping it may catch on as an idea. We were free to latch on to that idea of paper pataka, or do what we wanted to, as per the traditional constructs of Diwali/Deepavali.

Just like we are free to follow the actual tradition and not go by what Kiara and Aamir suggest within their imaginary (for the advertisement) family in the AU Bank ad that got withdrawn because of massive outrage. Did the AU Bank ad call the tradition of the bride entering the home first by keeping her right feet first regressive? Or, did it talk down to the audience? Not at all! It merely framed the context of why the groom was asked to enter first, by the bride herself – the couple was entering the bride’s home (as against the groom’s home). So, the groom is the new entrant to the home. And why was the couple entering the bride’s home? Because the bride’s father is wheelchair-bound.

McDonald’s did not call our traditional Indian food served during Diwali gatherings regressive or outdated either.

These are not very different from how a chocolate brand like Ferrero Rocher has captured the imagination of India as a premium Diwali gift.

The Italian confectionery giant has clearly made inroads into India as a Diwali ‘laddoo’ gift to replace or join the traditional motichoor laddoo because of the way it is packaged – in shiny, gold-colored wrapping!

See: Ferrero Rocher – The new laddoo (The Economic Times, Brand Equity).

It is not laddoo, it is not motichoor (one of my favorite laddoo varieties, besides coconut laddoos), it is not made out of pure desi ghee… but it is chocolate, that too of Italian origin (though it may be manufactured in India now given the long years the brand has been here). If Cadbury’s (now Mondelez) can replace the traditional ‘meetha’ of ‘Kuch meetha ho jaaye’, why shouldn’t Ferrero Rocher aim to replace the traditional Diwali laddoo with their premium, gold-color wrapped offering?

On that note, here is ITC Sunfest Dark Fantasy pitching its own Diwali-centric gift boxes!

But where Ferrero Rocher has at least a figleaf of relevance (the color gold is associated with auspiciousness that is appropriate for Diwali), McDonald’s has none whatsoever when it comes showcasing its burgers being consumed on a Diwali/festive table with the whole family.

McDonald’s (or Pizza, for example) is what you order when the family gets together for a birthday party; not for Diwali which has its own set of food items traditionally associated with it. McDonald’s may want us to order burgers and paneer wraps for a Diwali meal at home, as much as Ferrero Rocher wants us to gift their chocolates for Diwali instead of motichoor laddoos, or Big Bazaar wishing that we switch to paper patakas to reduce the air and noise pollution prevailing during Diwali time.

However, instead of seeing these suggestions from the lens of reimagining our traditions, as was evident in the case of outrage generated for the AU Bank ad featuring Kiara Advani and Aamir Khan—and initiating an orchestrated boycott campaign to force the brand to capitulate and withdraw the ad—there’s a far simpler option that involves much less effort: ignore the suggestion.

It’s only a suggestion, after all. Brands are not elected Governments with the power to force us to do things. At best, brands can only suggest. In fact, the entire advertising pitch is a suggestion, at best. When McDonald’s asks us to consider their burgers or Big Bazaar asking us to shop from them, they are merely suggesting that we give it a try. We ignore most such suggestions, so why hold on to the narrative suggestion alone when we don’t agree with some of them?

We can ignore that too, like the product or service suggestion itself, without the outrage and drama.

If the outrage is because of the fear that people may, en masse, accept the suggestion of a mere brand advertisement and adopt a new way where the tradition gets reimagined, then that fear reflects very poorly on those outraging because it also means they assume that our traditions are so very loosely held/believed. Shouldn’t the vocal and visible upholders of tradition trust our traditions to be a lot more deep-rooted, culturally relevant, and meaningful?

And on a related note, considering brands do not force people to adopt what they suggest in their ads, shouldn’t the commensurate response be to showcase the meaning and cultural relevance of the actual traditions instead of forcing the brands to withdraw their suggestions and enforcing a tradition through fear and intimidation of boycotts?

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