When brands swim in the social media cesspool

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Titan Industries, known for its watch and jewellery brands, released an ad which evoked a polarised reaction on social media. While one group praised it, another group raised objections and called for a boycott of the brand itself. In response, the company decided to take the ad off air. 

No, I was NOT referring to the recent ‘Ekatvam’ ad for Tanishq jewellery but to the ad for ‘Tamil Nadu Collection’ of watches which came under social media fire in December 2019. According to a report, ‘Dravidian activists slam the watchmaker for passing off ‘Brahminical traditions as Tamil culture’. You can see some more strident reactions here, which led to the ad being taken off air. So public memory is short and many may not be even aware about that incident. 

In contrast, the same company’s ‘Ekatvam’ ad continues to be dissected in the media weeks after its release. While the initial storm may have died down, opinions continue to be expressed and the ‘divide’ is apparent. The storm may not be as intense as it was immediately after the ad was pulled off air but isn’t the contrast in reactions and ‘visibility’ for two similar incidents (people objecting to an ad and the company taking it off air) apparent? In the previous case, those who objected to the ad are not referred to as ‘trolls’ and the entire incident did not create much of a furore in social or national media. Sure, there were differences in the intensity of social media reactions, but outrage over one and silence on another reflects the polarised world we live in.

Regular ad, tricky context and avoidable reactions

I didn’t find anything offensive (or extraordinary) about the Ekatvam ad. Others may disagree but I found it predictable from the moment an inter-faith situation was established. I did not find the denouement to be jaw—dropping or emotional either. However, it ticked all the boxes in terms of production values and the intent of conveying inclusivity – in line with the product concept. 

Some felt the Tanishq ad does not reflect reality and took offence (which is SOP in today’s world). An ad does not have to be realistic – we all know that ads exaggerate and dramatise. No one believes that using a particular talc or perfume guarantees success in a job interview – ‘suspension of disbelief’ is at play. However, when an idea is anchored on serious, emotional subjects such as interfaith relations, people are unlikely to see it as a world of make-believe. They want the stories to be true – to resonate with them. In such ads ‘suspension of disbelief’ does not come into play as it is meant to be a realistic portrayal of the world around us. It has to evoke that ‘yes, I agree with or feel for this sentiment’ or ‘it has happened to me too – I relate to this’. The famous ad for Google Search (‘Reunion’) handled interfaith relations of another kind with aplomb as it resonated with a lot of people – not just those who have personally witnessed the pains of partition. 

Ads, society and PNLUs

Effective ads understand the consumer pulse, reflect consumer trends and resonate with a majority of their target audience in a positive way. Tanishq’s own ad showcasing re-marriage was one such.  But in my view, the Ekatvam ad appealed only to a niche audience. The Tanishq storyline has evoked gushing reactions such as ‘this happened to me too, so it must be the reality’ or ‘I know couples who have gone through this, are happy and hence it must be true for all’. Such generalisations and speaking for others is likely to evoke intense reactions from people who disagree and give vent in social media which anyway takes offence to the most innocuous of things. 

Stereotypes are common in movies and ads – it stems from the view ‘those people must be like that’ (‘people not like us’) without understanding the ground reality. Depiction of a South Indian in most ads produced in Mumbai falls in this category – they all must be sporting that white horizontal paint on their foreheads and speak in heavily accented Hindi or English. 

Yes, several effective advertising ideas are anchored on real-life situations or personal experiences. But ‘this happened to me so it must be true for all’ is unlikely to hit the bull’s eye always, especially with sensitive subjects such as religion. Some viewers may have felt that the Ekatvam situation does not reflect reality or true of a niche audience who they cannot relate to.

Different strokes for different folks 

Social media platforms then became the battle ground for camps, notwithstanding the fact that business battles are won in the marketplace. In advertising case studies we see vanity metrics of ‘social media conversations’ and imaginary sums of PR value shared to cue an ad’s success. In the critical festive season when jewellery is part of the shopping list in many Indian households, the intent was perhaps to evoke a feel-good factor – always an important element in festival advertising. But viewing ‘social media love’ as a measure of success is losing the business perspective of advertising. The famous Christmas ads from big retailers such as John Lewis, Harvey Nichols and others in the UK work hard at evoking such a feeling. They don’t risk sales by fuelling polarisation. 

In my view, while people are free to dislike an ad for whatever reasons and express that feeling on social media, they crossed the line when social media profiles of some of the executives involved in the brand were put out – literally inviting others to ‘target’ them. That was just vile and unacceptable – even if such ‘doxxing’ has been resorted to on the other side of the ideological divide. 

In that context, the company’s decision to pull the ad was the right one. It does have consequences though as it sets a precedence, makes brands unsure of taking a controversial stance and emboldens those who think they can ‘take down’ a brand if they feel offended for some reason. In a country like India where there are so many fault lines to be exploited, I wonder what will people take offence to next. 

Some have also suggested that such campaigns are created knowingly only to exploit the buzz generated. I tend to disagree. A company like Titan is unlikely to manufacture controversy. Decades ago, Benetton was known for provocative advertisements which got media coverage. Brands such as Diesel tried to follow that template later on. 

Industry seniors in India have suggested on social media that ErosNow too followed the same strategy – of provocation for profit. In my view, the ErosNow creatives (if they can be called that) were done because the price of repercussion was not felt. There is no ‘red line’ in their minds when it comes to certain festivals while the tone is all reverential for others.  

Nike did not backoff, why can’t other brands?

Long before Google resorted to mass media advertising for its search product a common question or ‘thinking aloud’ remark was: ‘if Google can build a business without advertising, why can’t we?’. The simple reason is that not all companies are Google and don’t have products of that stature or form which form an integral part of everyone’s lives. So what applies to one brand need not necessarily work for others. The PR value and buzz around Apple’s product launches must be the envy of many brand managers – but most brands don’t stand a chance of evoking such frenzy among media and consumers.  

Nike’s reaction after the Colin Kaepernick ad is being often quoted as an example to follow in the context of what brands should do in the context of the Ekatvam ad. There are a couple of differences: one is what I referred to earlier – the personal safety of a company executive and the other is a difference in business strategy. As a friend explained – Nike’s premium shoes are targeted at both the rich liberals and sporting & lifestyle communities. The ads message resonated with them the most as it did with mainstream media. In Tanishq’s case, the franchisee stores have to buy into the festival messaging whole heartedly. One has read about the importance of having key thematic communication ‘approved’ by bottlers of soft drink brands, automobile dealers and fast food outlet franchisees in the US. The Tanishq situation is similar. While the intent may have been right to create a feel-good ad, risking polarisation (which could have been discussed as a likely reaction) doesn’t feel right during the crucial season for sales. 

Have platform, will outrage 

Those who took offence to the Ekatvam ad (labelled trolls by the other group who found the ad to be beautiful) called for a boycott of the brand. Cancel culture and boycott culture, like so many other trends which seems to be phenomena of the digital age, are not new. These have only been given platform and oxygen in today’s 24×7 media. What’s more we all seem to live in news & views echo chambers where we trust only the sources we think are credible, while dismissing everything else as biased.

Groups across affiliations have taken objections to books, movies and more – some with violent, aggressive or extreme reactions. Popular movies such as Bombay, Viswaroopam (Tamil) and Gadar have faced extreme opposition. A leading publishing house was forced to cancel the publication of a book on Delhi riots recently.   Way before the rise of Twitter and social media outrage, I have seen rude comments – from ‘trolls’ shall we say, about the poor quality of a telecom provider’s network over at their YouTube channel as a response to a nice ad. The Mac vs PC wars would often degenerate into vile name calling on forums and comments sections of blogs years ago.  Beyond religions mere political affiliations can trigger polarised reactions. I remember a lot of self-proclaimed liberals expressing consternation at Ratan Tata meeting the RSS chief. If they can express their displeasure at such things, why can’t other voices (as long as they are civil) be heard? It cannot be a one-way street on social media and there is no delete button either.

Point is, people have always had an opinion about everything under the sun – from sports to movies. Social media platforms have given a voice to everyone, from the civil to the strident and the downright obnoxious. Do all brands have the stomach and patience to continuously fire-fight controversies & placate angry consumers? I think not. In a country plural like India it is better that brands steer clear from potential controversial topics such as religion. They can still make interesting ads with a higher order benefit or take up causes which are for the greater good and still sell the brand – the original goal of advertising. 

In my view marketers are chasing ‘being woke’ as the first priority, perhaps driven by research which indicates that young consumers love brands which have a brand purpose or take  a stance on societal issues. There could be many compelling reasons to persuade a potential customer to try a brand – product feature, an endearing story about its benefits or the brand’s stance on a topic dear to the core customer. The last stance – with brand purpose being a variant of that is a roundabout way of selling a brand. Persil has moved from ‘Dirt is good’ to ‘Real Change’ – ‘an opportunity to bake greater purpose into the earlier platform, by dovetailing with a promise to spend €1bn changing what it puts in its laundry and cleaning products to cut out ingredients made from fossil fuels.’. It also connects back to Unilever’s ‘Clean Future’ programme, thus going beyond a mere claim in an ad. 

Opinions on social media will continue to fly thick & fast as brands take it upon themselves to comment on societal issues. They should not stop doing so for fear of backlash but realise there’s no telling the intensity of reaction. We see so many brands creating endearing ads urging people to bring about positive change – topics ranging from gender equality, cleanliness, attitude towards women and more. But advertising can only do so much in bringing about large scale attitudinal or behavioural change. There is no escaping public scrutiny and being under the microscope. The chance to say ‘things are going swimmingly’ will not always exist for brands as social media is a cesspool in many ways. 

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