Zomato’s Kachra and McDonald’s Date

Back in my agency days, I clearly recall an interaction with a young planner because my jaw dropped to the ground.

We were discussing a client’s brief and within the context of sharing an idea for that client, I referred to Enid Blyton.

The planner asked me, “Who is Enid Blyton?”.

My jaw dropped to the ground and it took me some time to pick it up.

Now, I don’t mean to say that people should like Enid Blyton’s body of work (which is a LOT!). But not knowing Enid Blyton’s legacy and existence is distressing, to put it mildly.

Not knowing Enid Blyton’s legacy, while being a planner, in an ad agency, and servicing products that cater to children… is quite something else.

When I saw the recently withdrawn ad by Zomato that featured Aditya Lakhia’s character ‘Kachra’ from Lagaan, the Enid Blyton conversation came to my mind considering how less self-aware it was about what narrative it was aiming for, and more importantly, how it went about making its point. Not knowing the context of the Kachra character within the film’s universe and the larger context of how Dalits are relentlessly mistreated and then going on to show the same character in dehumanizing situations just to sell their eco-friendly credentials! I don’t know how many people were involved in this script or decision, but I do wonder if, at some point, someone raised a concern at all.

This is usually communications 101. If I’m servicing a gaming client in a PR agency or an ad agency, even if I don’t particularly like gaming, it becomes my job’s priority to know as much as there is about the gaming industry, the phrases, memes, and issues involved, and the brands that exist in that ecosystem. Ditto with a brand that targets children – Enid Blyton is just one of the things I should know about even if I don’t read her books anymore; I should at least know that for a fairly large set of kids that I’m supposed to communicate to, an early life passage would be reading Enid Blyton (besides other kinds of books and comics, both Indian and global, even if they may wear off pretty fast these days with relentless mobile and internet onslaught early in life).

Zomato usually gets things right(er) in most of its communications. The tone of Zomato’s communications is usually young, irreverent, and insouciant. It’s not as edgy as Fastrack, for instance – it usually feels just at the right side of the border of the edginess while not taking itself seriously.

The ‘Kachra’ video wasn’t edgy, but it lacked self-awareness on the part of Zomato.

I wouldn’t attribute it to intentional edginess, just to evoke polarizing opinions, since Zomato wouldn’t have withdrawn the ad when faced with criticism (they need not have withdrawn it actually, but that’s an entirely different topic).

But the usually adept team at Zomato perhaps did not think it through.

This not thinking through is something I find very, very often in pan-Indian print ads that use Hindi, written in English script at that (because it is an English newspaper!), for headline or caption, and release the ad also in cities that do not particularly care for Hindi (even though they can understand it grudgingly). Like Chennai. Or Kochi. Or even Bengaluru. Advertising is not about mere comprehension (or merely conveying transactional information). It is about persuasion. When it comes to persuasion, as David Ogilvy says…

Back to Zomato.

The Kachra ad was a rare miss from Zomato. And I said so in so many words.

But close to Zomato, another brand’s ad got criticized too, on similar lines of not being thought-through: McDonald’s India.

This one, by the agency DDB Mudra:

To be sure, it seems largely harmless, and also kind of sweet.

Can’t women who work at McDonald’s (and other such places) like a customer at the outlet? Of course, they can – they are human too.

The customer seems adequately besotted (befitting that age) and not creepy.

But, in a country that is known for creepy men who don’t understand consent—no doubt accentuated by decades of movies where matinee superstars have played that role n number of times, inspiring countless youngsters—showing yet another young man’s advances, however seemingly benign, seems mostly unnecessary, particularly when the actual product or store is completely disconnected to the proceedings.

To frame it as a date is even worse since the girl’s perspective is only very, very mildly hinted at. She is at work, (for heaven’s sake!) if I may add. And since it is an ad, it completely lacks any more context that could add background details that could make it seem better than what it now is, in just 25 seconds.

One ad isn’t going to make things worse, of course, but an influential brand using this kind of framing and using a lot of media money to ensure it is widely seen demonstrates a lack of thinking it through.

A fairly fool-proof way to not make such mistakes is to not be besotted with one’s own work and question it by putting on the shoes of your own worst critic: “How would our worst critic/cynic tear this apart?”. Once you get the worst possible reaction, the agency team can work their way up in finding the best way to frame/articulate the narrative so that the chances of it landing wrongly, or being misinterpreted are minimized.

This is not rocket science. In public relations, we use the worst-case scenario to frame questions and responses for senior management that would eventually face the media. We used to think of the worst, harshest, most abrasive questions, and frame appropriate responses that the CXO could respond with. If we assume that journalists would ask harmless and soft questions, we would be fooling ourselves.

But the advertising function is very different from PR. PR has to face the brunt in quite obvious ways directly from the media, while advertising’s feedback mechanism is much more controlled. Before ads are released, there are test audiences. But after the ad is released, particularly for video/TV ads, the feedback is directly from the public, and to the brand, not even the agency. The agency’s name is hardly in the viewing public’s mindspace and only the brand is blamed in case things go wrong.

That an agency had not thought through the narrative of an employee of their client being wooed by a customer at her workplace, and framed it as a ‘date’, demonstrates a complete miss in terms of thought process.

At least the Zomato ad was made in-house, and you may—possibly—understand young internal team members lacking self-awareness or larger exposure to the world. But the McDonald’s ad is made by a professional ad agency that is paid to bring in an understanding of the world in which the ad would be released.

To understand how differently the same ad could have been framed, just take a look at this McDonald’s Spain ad by the agency TBWA Spain.

It’s not short (at almost 3 minutes), adds generous context (including both the leads’ names) including the girl’s point of view, and even has an ending that could be argued as the McDonald’s employee just doing her job by ensuring the customer comes back 🙂