Racism. Allegations related to the R-word have been in our face recently—on the pitch, on radio waves, in a Nobel Prize winner’s quotes. Race always had play on ad fields too. Billboards of a white model grabbing the face of a black model marked the launch of the Sony White PSP (PlayStation Portable) in an overseas market, in the past.
Nearer home, a Neo Sports ad, quite a while ago, showed a West Indian couple snuggling in a boat in the middle of a lake. Suddenly the boatman gets up, throws the oar away and starts undressing. He then jumps out of the boat in his boxers. The West Indian man calls out “Hullo man?” Cut to: “It’s tough to be a West Indian in India,” and Indian and West Indian teams playing cricket.
Some found this amusing and some denounced it as plain racist. Brand gurus say that such “shock” tactics may help a brand grab attention in today’s clutter and generate buzz—good or bad.
There’s an ad running on TV which I find entertaining with its claymation figures and bouncy music. Some folks, however, found the spot for Veneta Cucine’s kitchens racist, since the maid was shown as dark-skinned while the masters were fair. Clearly, different people view the same ad from vastly different mental seats.
Indian fairness cream ads have been deemed racist by some viewers, with their “you need to be fair to get a good job or boy” planks. Their whiteness pegs have, however, been getting softer with promises of “softer, more alluring skin”. Curiously, ads for men’s skin-whitening products are now more regressive. Want to attract women’s attention? Get fairer. Colour and race issues start from birth. A homegrown company once proudly presented ad visuals of dark and fair babies, as proof of the power of their baby products. Racist? The marketing chief’s response was telling: “Why blame us for the way people think?”
In India, stereotyping of communities is the other side of the racism coin. Each state is like a country in itself and characteristics of the North or South are often exaggerated to comic or emotional effect in ads. The fine line: advertising has to be sensitive. But crying “racist” for every bit of creative licence could reap bland advertising with little drama, idiosyncrasy or humour. Forget brand recall, the ad itself may not be watchable.
Marion Arathoon is Mint’s advertising editor. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org