New Delhi: Ad agencies didn’t shy away from pushing the envelope when it came to highlighting socio-cultural themes in their campaigns in 2017.

Swachh Bharat topped the list with brands like Astral Pipe taking up the cause of sanitation for women in its ads and Hindustan Unilever Ltd’s detergent brand Surf Excel running an anti-littering campaign.

“We saw brands jumping on to nationalism bandwagon. Between Digital India, Swachh Bharat and Make in India, brands decided to milk the opportunity of riding the nationalist wave," said Narayan Devanathan, group executive and strategy officer, Dentsu Brand Agencies India.

Ayurveda became a bone of contention between Hindustan Unilever’s brand Ayush, Dabur India and Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Ayurved Ltd.

Throughout the year, multiple campaigns were waged by these brands claiming that their version of ayurveda was the most authentic. Patanjali was dragged to court by rival companies for ‘disparaging and downgrading’ their products in its advertising.

“Patanjali is the Nirma of this decade but with an image supported by a strong connect to yoga, ayurveda and public activism. It offers attractively priced products which the value-loving Indian consumer looks for...Therefore, Patanjali clearly takes the lead over its competitors," said Ambi Parameswaran, brand strategist and founder of Brand-Building.com and a Mint columnist.

Gender equality stood out as one of the key themes in advertising in 2017. Brands took the women’s empowerment narrative further, making gender equality more nuanced in their campaigns. Tata Tea, under its Jaago Re 2.0 campaign, pushed the gender sensitization agenda, stressing that more often than not, inequality starts at home. HUL’s fabric softener brand Comfort ad showed a mother teaching her son to do laundry and the Dalda spot featured Bollywood actor Tisca Chopra encouraging her son to try his hand at cooking. J. Walter Thompson’s campaign ‘My Daughter Will’ for the New-Delhi based NGO Haiyya also talked about allowing women to perform last rites.

“A decade back there were hardly any campaigns talking about gender equality. We decided to influence and sensitize the influencers (creative talent) in the ad industry. They not only write ads but also execute them where more often than not out of ignorance stereotyping can happen," said K.V. Sridhar, founder of creative outfit Hyper Collective. “For instance, insurance ads would always feature father and son. The objective was to sensitise creative talent about gender equality at various industry events such as Portfolio Nights and Goafest. Slowly, we have seen every agency rolling out gender sensitive ads every year and 2017 was no different. However, I will add that is just the beginning and we need to do much more in this area."

Apart from gender equality, there were also a host of ads on breaking stereotypes, Thomas Cook talked about how often we stereotype people from North East, whereas Benetton India’s united by half ad campaign and sports brand Reebok tried to combat various social and beauty related stereotypes associated with women.

Social inclusivity also stood out with multiple campaigns focusing on transgender community with the Vicks ad ‘Touch of Care’ on transgender motherhood going viral, a Calcutta Times activation on Sindoor Khela, a Durga Pujo tradition where only married Bengali women participate saw transgender and widows playing with vermillion along with them.

“A social campaign must change things on ground. It shouldn’t be a campaign that makes a great award entry because then the purpose is defeated. Advertising allows you to bring a societal change and that is way ahead for it. Consumers are increasingly looking for brands that they can not only just buy but also believe in. We are taking baby steps in walking in that direction," said Swati Bhattacharya, chief creative officer, FCB Ulka, an Interpublic Group-owned advertising agency.

2017 was also the year where mainstream brands talked about mental health issues. The Red Label campaign titled ‘Forgotten’ showed how people with a neurological ailment like Alzheimer’s face social alienation. PepsiCo-owned Mirinda, in its ‘release the pressure’ campaign and Tata Tea talked about exam stress which often leads to depression and suicidal tendencies among teenagers.

Countries with a huge population like India come have numerous societal problems that give brands an opportunity to do meaningful advertising and become a part of the consumers’ life, said Santosh Padhi, chief creative officer and co-founder at Taproot Dentsu.

“However, finding the right brand connect with the cause is critical. We have seen a large number of brands this year desperately trying to find a purpose in their marketing campaigns to a point that it almost came across as forced," he added.

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