It’s now pretty clear that religious bigotry has become a drag on the economic future of the country. While communal tension, and the riots that follow, create economic lockdowns, few realize how paralyzing religious/caste intolerance and hate is on the creative faculties of a nation. Nothing is more illustrative of this in recent times than the now-withdrawn Tanishq ad. The 55-second television spot is built on the company’s ‘Ekatvam’ campaign promoting communal harmony. The ad agency ‘What’s Your Problem’ has sensitively built a promotion of Tanishq jewelry around the message of a Muslim family celebrating the ‘Godbharai’ or baby shower of their pregnant Hindu daughter-in-law with the full regalia of Hindu custom.
Instead of welcoming the message of communal harmony, bigots churned up a huge online hate campaign claiming the ad promoted ‘Love-Jihad’, and bullied the Tata Group company to withdraw the ad film. In a statement Tanishq said it had no option “keeping in mind the hurt sentiments and well-being of our employees, partners and store staff.”
Indeed, it is a dark day for a country where the $120 billion Tata Group was forced to bow to the perceived power of a couple of trolls. Looking beyond this absurdity, where is the commercial freedom when creativity has to seek certification from a variety of pressure groups before it hits the market? Feature films have been for years been subject to both ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ censorship. The tragedy is that now even serious commercial and marketing campaigns have to bow to shadowy gobbelsian control.
Much of the anger of these purveyors of ‘religious goodness’ is selective. Where are these custodians of ‘clean culture’ when raunchy advertisements tease men’s libidos and reduce the women to the level of sex objects. The Amul Macho underwear ad of yore has a bride washing the garment, and in full public display before a bevvy of other women, gets into orgasmic contortions. Another ‘Axe Deodorant’ ad has hundreds of women, wearing next to nothing, pursuing a man’s scent through jungles and rivers with such gusto that would put wild animals to shame. How is it that thousands of hours of such crass ‘sexist’ marketing is tolerated? Aren’t these TVCs polluting our Hindu mores and customs?
It is to the credit of various industry bodies that they stood behind Tanishq and the freedom of entrepreneurship. The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), for instance, said “that nothing in the advertisement was indecent or vulgar or repulsive.” The India Chapter of the International Advertising Association (IAA) took a stronger line, calling on the government to safeguard the right to freedom of expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. The statement called for ‘exemplary action’ by government, and demanded that businesses be provided a “safe environment to communicate their brand and advertising messages.”
What was disappointing was the meek surrender by Tanishq itself. The Titan Group company, a subsidiary of the Tatas, has both brand and commercial power behind it. The Tata Group is not known to bend to bullying easily. Perhaps it was fear that its employees would be harmed. The Tatas are aware that these troll armies are paper tigers with barks worse than their bites. An IT cell of 100-200 persons can generate 2,000-3,000 tweets of ghost people, enough for a hate hashtag to trend. By the same measure all Chinese phone makers should have fled India by now!
In fact, after Union Minister for Home Affairs Amit Shah put out the signal on the Tanishq controversy that “there shouldn’t be any form of over-activism”, the jewelry company should have dug in its heels even more. It is unfortunate that a whole lot of seemingly liberal industry pundits took to playing ‘neutral’ and pretended that Tanishq had crossed the line into ‘political’ and ‘religious’ territory. Brand ‘expert’ Harish Bijoor pleads that “brands need to take a step back. return to the basics of branding, rather than push the envelope of ‘woke’ at this point of time.”
Samit Sinha, managing partner of Alchemist Brand Consulting, warns creative agencies that the “backlash against their communication can gather momentum very quickly and spiral out of control with severe unintended consequences.” These defensive positions are allowing the culture marshals to put a foot in the door; and before long the advertisement industry may have to accept censors sitting in their offices, vetting the ad copy and certifying the creatives.
The time for push back is now. Amit Akali, creative head of the agency What’s-Your-Problem? that produced the ad film, says that there is a counter movement of thousands who, despite the ad film being withdrawn, are watching it on YouTube, and sharing it.Thousands are buying Tanishq jewelry in support of the brand. These kinds of informal movements need an institutional voice.