2 min read.Updated: 20 Oct 2020, 05:50 AM ISTLivemint
The ad in question violated no law, nor did it discernibly offend the basic tenets of either faith, but its spotlight on a mixed couple was seen by some trolls as an endorsement of 'love jihad'
Last week’s episode of the withdrawal by Titan Ltd of a TV commercial for its jewellery brand Tanishq, which evoked an online backlash over its portrayal of a baby shower held by a Muslim family for a pregnant Hindu daughter-in-law (as popularly perceived), may have thrown many advertisers in India into a quandary on what is okay to show today and what is not. The ad in question violated no law, nor did it discernibly offend the basic tenets of either faith, but its spotlight on a mixed couple was seen by some trolls as an endorsement of “love jihad", an oxymoron that seeks to cast such post-normative relationships as an Islamist plot. Titan could plausibly have ignored those social vigilantes, had it not been for the public ire and threats faced by its outlets and staff. A showroom in Gujarat was reportedly forced to paste an apology at its entrance. Rather than risk further trouble, the company yanked its ad off air, saying that it was “deeply saddened with the inadvertent stirring of emotions", and that it was doing so “keeping in mind the hurt sentiments and well being of our employees, partners and store staff". That Titan is part of the $110 billion Tata Group has made its U-turn all the more piquant. So, what lessons should advertisers draw?
While Tanishq has long espoused progressive ideals and has therefore been berated by some observers for its capitulation to what they consider an ultra-conservative fringe of society, the brand’s rear-guard action was probably pragmatic from a profit perspective in the current socio-political context. Indeed, a corporation’s primary responsibility is to its shareholders, and if a social message puts off enough people to disrupt its ability to sell its wares, then action would have to be taken to ease that disruption. Most advertisers opt for neutrality, staying away from religion, caste and other references, aware that a storyline that finds favour with one audience could fall foul of another. As social analyst Santosh Desai pithily put it, “Today, advertising is politics, and it is important for the corporate sector to wake up to this reality and act accordingly."
Indian politics in recent years has been fraught with issues of identity, and so touchy topics cannot escape the glare of social media. Yet, brands are not merely labels. They represent values that must stay consistent, and it is the job of advertising to position these in the mindspace of a chosen audience for the long term. That is how brands attain high salience, differentiate themselves, command a preference, and thus gain the advantage of a premium image. Marketers that see eventual business value in taking a “woke" social stance need not despair. Instead, they should rethink their market-addressal strategies in a way that compromises neither their objectives nor their employees’ safety. The lazy way out would be to stage a tactical retreat each time protests erupt. Done overtly, this could set an advertiser up for flak from all sides. Also, brands that are found to waver too much risk losing their appeal. Another option would be to drop ad campaigns that make too obvious a song-and-dance of an ideal to be conveyed, and adopt strategic subtlety to get the idea across to discerning consumers who might appreciate it. Artistic ads are not always those that are boldly innovative in their approach, but often creative works of nuance that convey what they must without literally saying very much. A great advertisement is like a diamond, as Ogilvy’s late chief in India, Ranjan Kapur, used to say. Different angles reveal different glints.