Campaign India Team
Oct 31, 2021

'When brands try being progressive, they will always risk facing a backlash from some quarters'

After calls from a Minister in India's state of Madhya Pradesh to take prior permission before shooting scenes that could potentially harm religious sentiments, Campaign checks in with adland if it's viable.

'When brands try being progressive, they will always risk facing a backlash from some quarters'
The week has been pretty tumultuous for the Indian media fraternity as ad campaigns by Dabur India (for Fem Bleach), and designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee (Intimate Fine Jewellery) have been trolled immensely on social media. The former was taken down after Madhya Pradesh Home Minister, Narottam Mishra objected against the ad and threatened legal action as it showed ‘objectionable content’ (a lesbian couple celebrating the Hindu festival of Karwa Chauth).
Dabur’s film coincided with Mishra also objecting against Prakash Jha's web series Ashram which was allegedly showing the wrong portrayal of Hinduism.
Following these two incidents, MP home minister Narottam Mishra said that going forward, scenes that could hurt Hindu sentiments should not be shot and that there would be permanent guidelines for brands and prior permission that they'd require, for the shooting of such scenes.
Following this, we asked adland two questions:
After Dabur released (and pulled down) its ad for Fem Bleach, ANI reported that Madhya Pradesh Home Minister stated that prior permission would be required by brands for the shooting of scenes that could hurt Hindu sentiments. What's your take on this? Can this ever be a reality?
With the boycott trend getting stronger than ever, do you think brands will steer clear from topical ads using festivals?
Here’s what they had to say:
Agnello Dias, ex-creative chairman, Dentsu and co-founder, Taproot Dentsu
It seems like the Minister was talking about shoots in MP requiring permission, in which case most production houses could strike it off their list of shoot destinations. Because the notion is not practical, it involves cost delays, time delays and most importantly subjective interpretation of the script which could lead to chaos. Because you end up having an ideological censor approval before the shoot, a legal censor approval after the shoot and after all that you could still end up with social backlash that pulls the film off screens.
On topical ads, I guess the choice seems to be clear. It's either pure jingoism or steer clear of religion and culture. The ads could be topical merely because they release at that time and nothing more.
Gautham Naryanan, MD, Wieden+Kennedy, Delhi
I think Dabur and its agency were trying to strike a progressive and diverse note, portraying modern India in 2021. When brands do this, they will always risk facing a backlash from some quarters. Diversity is what India is built on and closing this down seems antithetical to the foundations of our country.
The process of pre-approval is standard in some countries. For example, in the UK, all TV ads need to be pre-cleared at the script stage to ensure they are not misleading, harmful or offensive. The script is again checked against the final film pre-broadcast, to ensure no material deviation. Importantly, this is judged against an established advertising code, is conducted by an independent party, and not done by any elected, political or legislative body. So, it does happen and the campaign development and production process account for this. The key is how the ads are vetted, by whom and on what grounds. That process needs to be fair, transparent and objective.
I think brands should continue to try and authentically connect with their audiences. In a way that is representative of India today, their consumers and that is true to the values of the company. And topical ads, whether they feature festivals, sport, or any other aspect of our culture are really important for brands to tap into. I can't see that stopping and I hope it doesn’t as the world would be a poorer place if that cultural resonance stopped.
Ninad Umargekar, chief marketing strategist, JG Hosiery
Boycotting an ad makes people’s desire to watch it stronger. The one demanding the boycott also gets attention. Both parties are using it as a win-win situation. We should not read too much into it. Brands will continue to make statements and those who object to it will continue to disrupt the proceedings.
Poran Malani, director of operations, S4 Capital
Brands will continue creating ads for festivals. Festivals are a time of family and celebration and brands will always have a role to play in that. I think the question is about courting controversy. Generally, the rule is not to engage in political or religious controversy as a brand. The only exception to this is if the brand itself courts controversy as part of its DNA. Brands such as Benetton have been doing this for decades. If the brand position is in this area, then it must be prepared for the expected fallout.
Poulomi Roy, CMO, RSH Global
From a creative point of view, I didn't find the concept and creative appreciative rather I feel this was more like addressing regression with progression, quite a force fit.
Having said that, I still believe the biggest boon to be living in a democratic country is the fact that we can exercise freedom of speech and expression. Creative communication for brands endeavours to give a distinct voice for the brand, and what the brand truly stands for. Sometimes these initiatives are successful, yet sometimes they fail to strike the right chord with audiences and convey the intention behind the campaign.
No religion is so fragile that some brand campaign could defame it. Also, rituals are actions performed during a ceremony and should be an individual's approach and beliefs. In this particular ad, I think the portrayal of a modern concept like same-sex relationships having been shown in age-old ways, has also bothered some boycotters, rather than the issue of same-sex companionship and the celebration of the same with a long-standing cultural tradition.
Hence, submitting scripts to people who still have a long way to go in understanding the true meanings of religion, rituals, and modern concepts like same-sex relationships, will further be detrimental not only for brands but also for society as a whole.
Now from a brand’s perspective, planning your campaign while speculating what boycotters might raise objections to, is not the right thing to do. Rather one should spend time understanding what the topics are, what the brand should speak about, what kind of relevance it has with the occasion and never try to force a concept into the creative just because it is gaining popularity.
Ramesh Narayan, founder, Canco Advertising
Firstly, I don't think it is practical for anyone to say that prior permission might be required for the shooting of scenes that could hurt Hindu sentiments. Even if some State pushed through such a rule, I doubt it would stand the test of legal scrutiny.             
The ‘boycott trend’ is a sign of our times. Social media has empowered consumers like never before. And I believe it is important for brands to think through their communication carefully. Any communication will be seen, interpreted and responded to. That is something one can be sure of. Such being the case, while I strongly support purpose-driven brands, there is a need to decide which purpose or cause a brand wishes to align itself with, ensure that it is relevant to its core, and then have the spine to stick to its communication. Aligning with causes because it is fashionable or because it may garner eyeballs may end up resulting in getting brickbats as well.
Raghu Bhat, co-founder, Scarecrow M&C Saatchi
Topical advertising is necessary for brands trying to accumulate impressions. But a brand needs to be clear about the kind of topical advertising it does. Understanding the nuances of what is offensive and what is woke is the key. For this, marketers and ad folks need to understand the public pulse. Unfortunately, this can’t be acquired by sitting in an air-conditioned office but only through actual interactions with various audiences across geographies. By and large, brands that are preachy while using a woke theme during Hindu festive occasions have suffered a backlash. It’s also important to be sincere and not formulaic as the audience has the uncanny ability to smell the advertiser’s intentions.
Vipul Oberoi, director- marketing, Dun & Bradstreet India
I think social media is at the core of the boycott culture, or cancel culture as some call it. Social media is different from traditional media in terms of heterogeneity, accessibility, and amplification. It is not a debate of right-wrong, right-left, old-new or orthodox-modern. The world is more heterogeneous than ever before, and content on social media is scrutinised by crores of people with different views and from different perspectives. Remember, each person on social media is applying his or her own set of filters to the marketing communication being put out. Both negative and positive views get amplified, and neutrality is pretty much absent on social media.
While social media is great for connecting with your target segment, there is a lot of clutter. Brands feel the need to stand out by either being ‘different’ or ‘starting a new conversation’. Brands need to be careful that the ‘different take’ on a societal concept has to be related to what you are trying to sell. Unfortunately, a few of the advertisements in question failed to make that tangible connection.
I am 100% sure that no brand manager or agency creates an advertisement specifically to hurt religious sentiments. If there has to be approving authority, then it has to vet scripts for their potential to be misleading or for showing obscenity also. If the idea is that every script is to be vetted and not the finished product, then it is not practically possible. Also, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) already has laid down guidelines that all advertisers are supposed to follow.
Brands should not clear from topical ads using festivals; in fact, they should always look for more innovative ways of story-telling. However, I feel they will become more careful about the topics they touch. I hope the practice of testing ads comes back into vogue because that would help brands get forewarning of how the communication is being received.
Campaign India

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