Advertising as politics?

By Santosh Desai

The controversy surrounding the Tanishq ad has attracted a lot of comment.

Both its contents and the company’s decision to withdraw it have met with fierce criticism, albeit from different quarters. 

The criticism of the company for withdrawing the ad is misplaced for a number of reasons.

Like any other brand, Tanishq’s primary allegiance is not to the abstract notion of freedom of expression or to the building of communal harmony, but to its own business success.

If it encounters resistance to its communication, it is well within its rights to step back and try something else.

Advertising is a form of communication that is designed to please and works with the permission of its intended audience. Its primary role is not to confront its consumers or stand up for a larger truth and expecting it to do so is naïve.

Just to put things in perspective, a few months ago, Titan reportedly met with a similar backlash in Tamil Nadu, where its advertising for a new range of watches designed specifically for the state was found to be ‘too brahminical’ and even there, it chose to withdraw rather than stand its ground.

Here the attack was from the other side of the ideological fence, and the company’s reaction was similar. The matter did not come to national attention nor was the company panned in any significant way for lacking courage. 

Also, the fear that the company and its people would be in physical danger is hardly far-fetched, and we have seen examples of intimidation in this case in different parts of the country.

It is a now a well-established pattern that in any such instance of ‘feelings being allegedly hurt’ by any constituency, the government in question, whichever party that it may belong to, offers little protection to those under attack.

In any case, it is a bit rich for the company to be criticised by so many media outlets, given how craven their own response has been to intimidation.

Corporations do not carry the burden of speaking truth to power, media does. And it is a sign of how desperate the times are that we expect that our democratic right to dissent should be protected by brands. 

We have to come to terms with this new reality. In a world where everyone has access to a broadcasting platform, public pressure will become much more of a variable that will impact all public-facing actions.

We are today living in a ‘hot’ democracy; as against its ‘cooler’ counterpart of an earlier era, here the pitch of all conversations is higher, the reactions more instant and emotionally charged, and the vocabulary angrier and more assertive. 

“Why couldn’t the ad feature a Hindu family and a Muslim bahu?”

Where the company erred was in not fully appreciating that its communication was an act of politics.

On the face of it, a message that promotes a spirit of goodwill between communities and one that finds the humanism embedded within every religious ritual should be universally welcomed.

Tanishq has also historically promoted a more progressive face of tradition, so it could have possibly told itself that it was just another brand promotion campaign. However, in today’s polarised environment, no brand message exists completely detached from the larger political context. 

The arguments made against the ad are that it promotes ‘love jihad’ by presenting a very rosy picture of how Hindu girls are treated in Muslim households and that the Hindu bride is shown in an ‘inferior’ position as she is overly grateful for the consideration shown to her.

Questions have also been raised about why couldn’t the ad have featured a Hindu family and a Muslim bahu?

‘Love jihad’ as a formulation is difficult to take seriously. And the fact that it does not exist has been asserted by this government on the floor of Parliament. And it would make little difference if the roles were switched and the girl were Muslim. The anger then would have been directed at the fact that ‘Hindus were going out of their way to appease the Muslim girl but Muslims would never do that with a Hindu girl’.

Also, the idea of a Hindu family performing Islamic rituals would have been anathema to the critics.

The problem with the ad is not its content but its intent- any attempt to show amity between the two communities would have met with the same objections.

The trouble with the decision to withdraw the ad is that it unwittingly strengthens the hands of those that stand for the opposite of whatever the ad is trying to communicate.

By stepping into a political minefield without having any real commitment to the position it was taking, the brand has emboldened those that wish to divide the communities. It will in all probability, lead to others being more circumspect in the kind of messages they create, and to the rise of self-censorship, not just in advertising but in other forms of creative expression.

The debate over whether the ad should have withdrawn or not is not meaningful for that is exclusively the company’s decision. But the decision to create and run an ad like this without thinking through the consequences is where the real problem lies.

Today, advertising is politics, and it is important for the corporate sector to wake up to this reality and act accordingly.

Internationally we have seen enough instances of brands taking strong positions and standing their ground even when they come under furious attack.

Even in India, we have some examples of corporations taking a stand, most recently on the issue of not advertising on news channels that run toxic and hateful content. Social media attacks can feel overwhelming, but in most cases, they are transient.

Corporations don’t have to surrender to every wave of criticism, no matter which side it comes from. Every form of creative expression will have to find a way to navigate this new reality, for otherwise, between the outrage wielded by different constituencies, creative freedom of any kind will be squeezed out.


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