More on the continuing controversy over festive ads

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I wrote a long post about the basics of marketing communications and the recent controversies around festive ads in India – particularly those of FabIndia and Fem. Last year too, Diwali ads faced social media backlash.

The media discussions on this issue continue. I came across a segment featuring adman Bharat Dabholkar in a news channel video discussing the recent ad controversies. I agree with him on a a few things while disagreeing on others.

I agree that advertising’s business is to sell. I also agree that religion, politics and ‘degrading women’ are topics best avoided by advertising. But I have another perspective on ‘selling’ and ‘societal issues’. 

Advertising should sell but there is no ‘one way

There is no one way of selling. It always cannot be ‘buy me because of these product features’. Very often advertising is dealing with a parity product where there is hardly differentiation between one brand and another. Media clutter too has increased. So one has to be creative to gain attention. But as Mr. Dabholkar said, it has to be done in a relevant way. 

Ages ago, ’Surf washes whitest’ was the line. It was just a bland statement or claim, right? In that media environment ‘tell it straight and direct’ was perhaps OK. Later, the brand (called Persil in the UK) switched to ‘Dirt is good’ or ‘Daag achche hain’ as a proposition. It would evoke a double-take at first: why is a detergent brand saying that? Then it goes on in a roundabout way to say that children should be given the freedom to play and experience the outdoors. And in that bargain if their clothes get dirty – Surf can take care of it. The idea and the execution resonated with parents and was relevant to the product. It was a ‘societal message’ in the sense that it urged parents to not admonish children for playing and being themselves. 

However, personally speaking, I find it a bit jarring and too much of a stretch when the same detergent brand pegs itself as an enabler of religious harmony (a laudable intent on its own) in an ad meant for Holi. Some could interpret it as taking a condescending view of one community’s celebrations or guilt tripping them.

In my view when a brand is pitched amidst such highly emotional framework, it is the latter which gets remembered and not the brand. An agency team may see inter-faith marriage, LGBQT issues, diversity & inclusivity and more as issues close to their heart and must be itching to weave them into a brand story. Sure, those are real issues faced by the society but we must ask if pegging the brand communication on any of these will create brand preference and achieve sales. It very well might but chances are that the brand and its features will take a back seat and become incidental to the story.

A brand promise stretched to a higher order benefit is not new. But when it’s stretched too far, it can result in loss of credibility. In 2012 (yes, that far back), Tom Fishburne captured it so well in this cartoon. I feel that’s what is happening when everyday products see themselves as catalysts of world peace and inter-galactic harmony.

Whatever happened to the single minded proposition?

An early lesson in advertising (sadly not practiced often) is to convey just one message in an ad. Because that’s all the capacity a consumer has in terms of receiving. It is like throwing five tennis balls at one go at a person – only one will be caught, if at all. To me, many of the ads have so many layers of messaging in them that it is hard to concentrate on or take away one message.

Advertising must reflect societal trends

On ‘societal issues’ it is too broad a term and brands have to tread carefully – it cannot be ‘anything goes’ kind of an approach. And by caution I am not referring to just sensitive issues like religion. A soft drink brand talked about exam pressure of children. I don’t think any parent would have found that credible even though the issue of exam pressure is real. 

However they are many good examples of ads reflecting societal trends. After all, that’s the job of the advertising industry – to know the pulse of their consumers. A washing machine can endear itself to consumers by speaking about the need for water conservation. It doesn’t have to only be about washing load capacity or some other feature which can be easily matched by competition. Sometimes a brand’s stance can create affinity. Of course it all boils down to (a) what’s relevant to the audience – current and future buyers (b) credible to the brand & product category and (c) the likely business impact. In all this the common thread should be to respect the audience’s intelligence and don’t talk down to them.

A Benetton can court controversy. It was built into the brand’s DNA. They showed imagery related to religion, politics, societal issues – the works. And did not flinch after the controversy. But that was in the print media age. Maybe in the social media age they too may have found the going tough. Also not all brands have that DNA. 

Changing consumer mindset or behaviour is a legitimate task of an ad campaign. Getting people to stop drinking & driving, give up smoking, follow traffic rules, practice safety measures during COVID times  – they are all real societal issues. And brands can build affinity by raising them as long there is a connect back to the brand. 

But when brands preach people how to lead their life when it comes to religious practices, faith or cultural issues it is going to be tricky. Hinting that somehow the consumer’s belief system about a festival or religion needs reform is going to invite criticism. Just as a movie or a book, an ad is also out there for all to see and criticise. And they will in this day & age – who is spared? 

Another common fear expressed in such discussions is that if consumers can ‘bully’ an advertiser into submission tomorrow there’s no telling what they might object to. The commentators mockingly say that someone may object to the colour of trousers or may find some trivial aspect offensive. We have to credit consumers with lot more common sense than that. Remember the controversy over Navratri ads from Eros Now? Was it because of a trivial reason? Of course the brand was not taking a stand on a societal issue or sharing progressive ideas – but they were definitely insulting the audience with their smutty approach to a religious festival.

They had to tender an apology later. Would this also be labelled as trolling and brands facing a backlash because of a stance? I am referring to this because there exists a segment in society – celebrities and brands included who go all reverential and respectful when it comes to festive greetings on Eid & Christmas. But they take liberties with other festivals in the name of creativity and freedom of expression. Such double standards do not go unnoticed and will manifest in anger or backlash at some point in time.

A high-end fashion brand like Sabyasachi caters to the affluent. Many among them view traditions and symbolism as oppressive and patriarchal. A mangalsutra is being sold to the same audience. Be that as it may, the presentation of that product is being seen by a mass audience who will find the ‘presentation’ uncomfortable. If someone asks if such a liberty would be taken in presenting a hijab collection or a Christian wedding dress they are labelled trolls.

Should brands buck into the pressure?

Some suggest that if an ad is found to be violating a law or industry guidelines, they must follow due process and register complaints with relevant bodies like ASCI or the police. In an ideal world, yes. But social media is an open, unregulated market square filled with many influential voices and anonymous faces. I feel it is not practical to expect orderly or courteous behaviour in a social media platform, especially Twitter.

Aside from ads, movies have faced a lot of criticism for similar reasons – something about the plot, dialogue or a scene upset one group or another. Some movie makers give in to the demands and make necessary changes in order cut their losses – literally and figuratively. Should brands do the same – take the ad off the air? I feel if a brand is truly convinced about its stance and execution they should not back down. If they do, it shows they lacked conviction in the first place or they were wrong about the output creating a positive consumer connect. Of course when there is a threat of violence to the company’s properties or staff then its too great a risk – that’s when it becomes a law & order issue. Tanishq had cited such a threat when they pulled a campaign off the air.

The ad industry often cites Nike as a benchmark of a brand taking a stance and not backing off after social media backlash – in the context of the Colin Kaepernick campaign. But ‘if Nike can, why can’t I?’ is a mis-leading question because not all brands have the heritage, equity, heft, stature, mental associations and deep pockets of Nike. Brands also differ in terms of their business goals, stage of brand life cycle and such like. When a brand is relatively small in a large category dominated by giants (like in the case of Fem) it is good to try and do something different. But we have to go back to relevance and context. With both FabIndia and Fem, I feel that was the issue as I have elaborated here.

In summary:

Marketing is the delivery of customer satisfaction at a profit: are you delivering customer satisfaction through all touch points: product or service and the communication.

Communication is about saying relevant things in a compelling way at the right time, on the right platform: does your campaign tick all those boxes?

In the pre-digital world, super premium, luxury brands and other niche brands could reach their target audience with minimal wastage or spillover. With social media that is not the case. It is impossible to limit your campaign’s exposure to only those who are your audience or potentials. Those outside of that purview will see and comment. There can be a disconnect with the two worlds. 

Do brands truly understand the core audience or is there a mis-match between a majority of them and those who create the brand communication? 

It all boils down to key message, relevance, execution, context aligned to a business objective. Is the communication package help the brand in meeting its business objective – whether it is creating awareness, changing mindset or behaviour, building affinity to drive sales and create brand preference. 

If some of the ads which faced backlash asked themselves these questions they might do a re-think. 

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