The commercial stands out effortlessly among all the insurance ads jostling for mind space in tax-saving season. The advertiser has clearly hit the jackpot. It’s just become public that your brand ambassador has cancer—exactly the sort of utterly unforeseen calamity that you have been warning people about for years: anything can happen, so better get insurance. And here your star is even hinting at his illness in the commercial. How much luckier can you get?
Birla Sun Life Insurance is being accused of cashing in cynically on the malignant lump in Yuvraj Singh’s lungs. Senior advertising executives have gone on record saying that Birla should have withdrawn the ad. From the Birla Sun Life corner, Ajay Kakar of the Aditya Birla Group told The Economic Times: “As long as our intention is good and conscience is clean, criticisms don’t matter, especially when they are not based on facts, but perception.”
What are the facts? They are, from what I have gathered from information available in the public domain, quite extraordinary. We should be talking about what Yuvraj was thinking, not the advertiser.
In the commercial, Yuvraj stands in an empty stadium recalling being at the top of the world: India won the World Cup and he was Man of the Tournament. “But life bowls you such googlies...”; he had health problems and found himself out of the team. He ends with the signature line (also used in the commercial aired last year): “As long as the bat moves, you are king. But when it stops…” The average viewer is left shaken, for he knows that the man is undergoing chemotherapy.
Now, please note the timeline. According to Kakar, the commercial was shot in September, to be aired from January through March. At that time, perhaps even Yuvraj did not know about his cancer. He had been injured in a test in England in July and had to drop out of the tour. In November, two months after the commercial was shot, he asked the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) not to consider him for the one-day international series against the West Indies because he wanted time to regain fitness.
In December, he revealed that “a golf-ball-sized tumour” had been found in his lungs, but it was not malignant. On 5 February, one of his doctors in Chandigarh announced that the tumour was in fact malignant, and Yuvraj had travelled to the US in late January for treatment.
The story now becomes really interesting. Kakar says that the commercial, as originally shot, had Yuvraj talking about “injuries” (obviously the finger he broke in England). But in January, some days before he left for the US—when he undoubtedly knew he had cancer—Yuvraj contacted the advertiser and replaced “injuries” with “health problems”.
The timing of the official cancer announcement is also significant. Just a day before, Sahara India, owner of the Pune Warriors, of which Yuvraj was the captain, had angrily withdrawn the team from the fifth edition of the Indian Premier League. The most contentious issue: since Yuvraj had declared himself unavailable, Sahara wanted to bid for an extra player, and BCCI had refused. Clearly, Yuvraj decided to make the cancer announcement immediately to pre-empt rumours about his condition cascading out of the ugly Sahara-BCCI fight. He needed to control the information environment quickly, and did so. The commercial had just started appearing on television.
I have known several cancer patients closely. In India, the disease is treated as a deeply private challenge. Rarely have I seen anyone admitting what was really wrong till they had no option left—when the chemotherapy started, and the patient started losing hair. For a public personality like Yuvraj, news of his illness getting out has huge implications—commercial ones being hardly the least of them.
What is astonishing is his masterful handling of the situation. First, he scotched rumours (already floating) by revealing that yes, he had a tumour, but no, it was not malignant. Second, sensing that news could leak out once he checked into a US hospital, he made a critical change in the commercial that would be airing while he was undergoing treatment. If news leaked out and the commercial was talking “injuries”, it could lead to a trust deficit with cricket officials and sponsors, and make him an object of pity for his fans. But “health problems” made it a win-win situation. If no news leaked out, it would be seen as just an appropriate phrase—he had already spoken about his tumour. If news leaked, the phrase would dramatically boost his heroic image and popularity (the by-product—which he may or may not have spent much thought on—being a jubilant bottom line for his advertiser). And finally, he delivered the coup de grâce, by having the cancer announcement made at just the right moment, crushing the rumour mills even before they started operating.
The controversy on the ethicality of running the ad is redundant. Yuvraj Singh, faced with the most fearful crisis in his life, has just shown us how to brilliantly manage perception, and come out stronger and bigger. We want to see this man, with his wonderful talent and now-evident titanic willpower, back on the field for India, as soon as he thinks he is ready.
Sandipan Deb is a senior journalist and editor who is interested in puzzles of all forms.
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