A walk down the by lanes of history outline how saucy content, secularism, spiced up poses and political incorrectness were the nuts and bolts of ads in India. One would argue that the world has evolved, and India with it. However, it does seem to be as if the India of the past was a much broader-minded space to let creative juices flow.
In light of the Tanishq ad, the issue at hand is more ominous than just an ad being taken down. In our quest to call out the misogyny, injustice, and stereotypes that prevail in the Indian society, are we beginning to see the wrong in everything? Under the aegis of a democracy, we should be asking if democracy really does still prevail.
Tanishq ad stirs controversy in India
As a prelude to the festive season sale, the advertisement by the jewellery brand Tanishq underlined the message of secularism, as an inter-faith family seamlessly went the extra mile to make the daughter-in-law’s baby shower a happy affair. Though simply beautiful, the ad managed to trigger a row, as right-wing groups began to allege that the ad was in fact promoting ‘love jihad’, a popular conspiracy theory propounded by Hindutva ideologues which suggests that Muslim men deliberately marry Hindu women in order to convert them to Islam. What followed next was a #BoycottTanishq that took over Twitter.
Aneesh Menon who has worked in the ad-film and filmmaking industry for 7 years now, and has had hands-on experience with the Ad guru Prahlad Kakar himself, speaks of how creative freedom has taken a backseat to appeasement and political correctness. “Brands weren't afraid of thinking outside the box or being politically incorrect. Nowadays with dwindling budgets and social media trolls, brands and advertisers are becoming ever more conscious of the type of message that is being conveyed through their ads in India.”
Another endurer of this pressure to be morally right, Twisha Sharma, who has a decade’s experience in the industry, says “Good advertising done with the right intent can stir right emotions. India is not letting that happen. As a copywriter, I can say, only sometimes do you get to do what you want to do to truly see your creative idea through.”
Political correctness stifling ads in India
The rise of the cancel culture is something netizens cannot ignore any longer. A slight statement, a remark here or there, or even a mere tagline of an ad can overnight result in a public backlash, which is often fueled by political agenda. Social media erupts in a storm and we cancel out the person, the brand, the community or the trend. Rhea Ahuja has had the opportunity to work with the biggest names in the ad industry, such as Ogilvy, Lowe Lintas, Dentsu Webchutney, and has now started her own advertising and design firm Cocoon creatives with her partner Dhruv Talera. While you’d expect someone with experience as intensive as hers to find the political correctness just too much to handle, she says this isn’t the case.
“With every era, there have been constraints and restrictions to work with or around. In advertising, we always have restrictions, either from the client or boss or the region we're communicating in. Being politically correct has been there since the beginning of advertising, whether it was working around the idea of censorship or religion. Advertising and ads in India have always had to change with the times.”
Aneesh Menon meanwhile is of the opinion that ads should be considered as 30-second entertainment encouraging one to buy a product. “Something like a ‘Center Fruit’ can have a funny marketing campaign which is meant purely for entertainment while maintaining subtlety. On the other hand, brands like Fair & Lovely have marketing campaigns that promote regressive stereotypes that can have a negative impact on society. In such cases, brands need to be held accountable for the kind of messages they are conveying to the masses.”
Finding common ground between political correctness and creativity
Twisha voices her concerns that in an attempt to please everyone, the purity of the idea always suffers. “As a creative person, I can tell you that it finally manifests into something else, which is a much more diluted, if not a mutated version of what was originally thought.” Finding common ground can be extremely challenging, says this pro. “Religion or politics is a no-go area for most brands. What can I say! we have to walk the safe line, which is not always the best line.”
Highlighting how a majority of advertisers these days are giving up trying to persuade brands to think outside the box for fear of losing the client, Aneesh says most brands like to play to the tune of the 'suits' in the brand marketing department. “There are still some brands like 'Amul' who I feel have found the perfect common ground between both.”
What would be your approach, we ask Rhea, if you were to handle a challenging brand? Would you stick to morals, or let the creativity flow? While heaving a sigh of relief that she hasn’t ever had to work for a brand like Fair & Lovely, she says “The whole essence of the brand needs to change as well as their messaging in today's society - as fairness is no longer considered the epitome of beauty. But if I did work for this brand I would take it as a challenge and being a woman who supports this change I would love to create a campaign that would show an age-old brand in a new light creating a sort of win-win situation with the brand and the new-age consumer. This is why I love advertising as you not only sell a product, you sell a message. A brand is no longer just a symbol, it is a living being with characteristics, principles and conscience.”
Toe the line or break convention
As the lines between what is advertising and what isn’t, have blurred, brands often find themselves in sticky spots that require them to answer the impending question, of whether to stick to the norm or make new ones. Always being one to break convention and colour outside the lines, Aneesh comes from the school of thought that ads are meant to be 'fun'. “But if we look at it realistically,” he says “this is also nuanced as it depends on the brand and target audience. I think nowadays most brands that are centred on the youth would be more open to taking risks and breaking convention. Even newer brands would be open to it. But older and more established brands, especially those who pander to the larger demographic, would prefer to 'Toe the line', especially when it comes to socially conscious messaging that would be seen to be going against the agendas of certain political parties.”
Shedding the spotlight on ads in India that have broken boundaries and gone out of the way to convey what they had in mind, Rhea highlights Tanishq that is “promoting independent working women to buy their own jewellery, rather than depending on a man to buy it for them. Surf Excel's #sharetheload campaign tries to encourage men of the house to help the women out with house-old chores, unlike in the days of old where women were the designated house caretakers.”
“When a brand takes a step in the direction of change for the better it is something to be proud of and as an advertiser, an advocate of change, you have a responsibility to the consumer and the client to make them see eye-to-eye and live in harmony.”
Twisha is of the opinion that the brand needs to be honest and do what is right for it. “If that requires the brand to break convention, so be it. I wish more brands and agencies were gutsy,” she signs off.