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Last weekend, it was extremely heartening to see Mondelez India launch its festive ad campaign with actor Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) in the face of the flak the Bollywood star was getting ever since his son was arrested in a drug-related case.

The company, best known for Cadbury chocolates, engaged the star to urge consumers to support small businesses impacted during the pandemic. The company’s ‘Not Just A Cadbury Ad’ initiative is part of the ‘Iss Diwali Aap #KiseKhushKarenge?’ campaign building on last year’s narrative on the same lines. Mondelez made SRK the de facto brand ambassador for small, local shops.

Clearly, in a show of spine, brands are backing India’s favourite star despite the trolls. Television commercials of edtech firm Byju’s and pan masala brand Vimal’s surrogate ad, both featuring SRK, are being splashed during cricket matches. Vimal has full-page ads in print, too.

Interestingly, on Saturday, Dabur India also released an unusually bold ad for Karwa Chauth, the Hindu festival celebrated by women to pray for their husbands’ long life. Released online, the ad for its bleach cream brand Fem showed a same-sex couple observing Karwa Chauth. Hindu right-wing trolls, including a minister belonging to the BJP, swung into action almost immediately. Unfortunately, Dabur succumbed to the criticism and withdrew the ad. Much like Tanishq last year and Fabindia some days ago.

Gender and religious inclusivity seem to be sensitive subjects in today’s polarized environment. It’s not a rosy path for brands wanting to tell different stories or highlight an alternative narrative.

The indisputable fact is that trolling is the new occupational hazard for brands. “It has become all too easy for almost anyone to become a keyboard warrior. Sometimes, it’s just a member of the vociferous few who chooses to take offence and at other times it is orchestrated by vested interests," said Samit Sinha, managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting.

Consequently, the dilemma for brands, to ignore censure or succumb, is real and unprecedented. In most cases, so far, the latter has been true. Lloyd Mathias, business strategist and former Asia marketing head of HP Inc., said brands do not bring out ‘woke’ ads with a view to pull them back. The pullbacks are an unintended consequence. Mature brands will not deliberately court controversy only to get visibility, he said.

In fact, companies are increasingly attempting to make positive contributions to society in areas they believe will be beneficial to their brand positioning as well to their audience, he said. “Given their heft and reach, brands have become important elements in shaping culture and moulding opinion. It is, therefore, important for them to proactively do the right thing, though it may have short-term implications for their business," he said.

Any green shoots of resilience among brands under duress are welcome.

“Brand owners are also beginning to realize that if they succumb to each and every troller, they will eventually be in a state of marketing paralysis and end up resorting to toothless communication based on lowest common denominators," Sinha said.

It may be argued that Dabur’s digital film was promoting beauty stereotypes through its fairness bleach, yet it did make an honest attempt to reflect the shifts in society and the growing awareness about LGBTQ rights. Social change doesn’t happen overnight and the Fem ad was at least a conversation starter, though it was withdrawn.

“Brands that do bring out progressive ads with noble intentions can sometimes get caught in the crossfire in an increasingly polarized world," Mathias said. They cater to diverse segments and what seems like a justified stance to some may seem partisan and biased to another, he said. “I think brands should be more circumspect, but in no way should they hold back from doing the right thing," he said.

Sinha said though brands cannot please all, companies also have to discharge their responsibilities towards the safety of their employees, especially if the attacks turn vicious or violent.

It may be easy to sit on the sidelines and comment on how a brand should or should not respond to such attacks on social media, but the choice is often not that simple for brand owners, he said.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pre-ssing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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