Stigma in the age of social media boycotts

Photo: Bloomberg 
Photo: Bloomberg 


It needs to be understood in all its aspects for companies to respond with due social responsibility

Several companies and brands, such as Tanishq, Fabindia and Dabur, have been in the eye of a ‘stigmatization’ storm, with their ‘progressive’ advertising being criticized and attacked for upsetting certain social ‘norms’. In the case of Dabur, it was an ad showing a same-sex couple celebrating the Hindu festival of Karva Chauth, while Fabindia’s Diwali-themed ‘culturally inappropriate’ ad showed a collection named Jashn-e-Riwaaz. Last year, a Tanishq commercial depicting an inter-faith marriage faced a similar backlash on social media , as it was accused of promoting ‘love jihad’ and ‘fake secularism’. With #BoycottTanishq trending on Twitter, the company was forced to drop it. Other companies in India have also faced ire over advertisements, including Hindustan Unilever for Surf Excel, Mankind Pharma, Ceat Tyres, Manyavar and Myntra. While such attacks and ad withdrawals cause much consternation among intellectuals and liberals who lament the death of progressive values, the issue should be seen against the larger framework of marketing and the phenomenon of stigmatization in the marketplace.

Marketplace stigma has been defined as the labelling, stereotyping and devaluation by and of various commercial stakeholders— including consumers, companies and employees, stockholders and institutions— and their offerings, such as products, services and experiences. Stigmatization involves two aspects: One, it differentiates the stigmatized ‘object’/entity based on a perceived norm, and two, it devalues the deviant ‘object’/entity. Stigmatization is of concern because of unwarranted and exaggerated perceptions of actual product attributes, risks and associations, and its potential to hurt both the products/entities and users associated with them. Marketers need to understand this phenomenon and then address it.

Stigmatization in India typically draws upon historical and socio-cultural forces. However, marketers may also be guilty of fanning such stigmatization for their own commercial interests. Take the ‘Mauka Mauka’ campaign on Star Sports in 2019, or many of the cricket ads before an India-Pakistan match that rely on jingoism, stigmatizing Pakistan as ‘the other’. An Amul ad in 2020 to coincide with TikTok’s ban in India depicted the Amul girl fighting a Chinese dragon, thus ‘othering’ China in the process. Little wonder then that innocuous celebrations by Indians of Pakistani cricket victories possess the potential of transferring the stigmatization to the celebrating individuals. Commercial stigmatization could cost marketers dear at times, as Kent RO found last year when its ads for atta and bread makers showing household helps as possible covid-infection carriers came in for flak and had to be withdrawn. Marketers thus need to then understand that stigmatization is deeply democratic; it treats all ‘offending’ companies as equal, irrespective of their reputation and stature. Stigmatizing marketers may themselves get ‘stigmatized’ in the process.

Marketers may also need to watch new arenas where stigmatization occurs. Social media provides new avenues for it, with Twitter, Facebook and even Linkedin acting as battlegrounds where companies fight for their reputation and against exaggerated perceptions. While companies that sell widely-stigmatized products (such as fur and silk) may face rebuke via traditional media channels, companies that offer services and experiences seem to bear the brunt of social-media stigmatization. Recent examples would include Swiggy and Zomato, and even WhiteHat Jr and Byju’s.

The socio-cultural milieu in present-day India presents marketers with a unique challenge, as the marketplace features old and rigid conventional socio-cultural norms combined with new and powerful social media tools deployed by (sometimes fringe) groups desirous of rooting out ‘deviant’ behaviour. This would be even more true for companies selling particularly vulnerable products, like those designed for female menstrual hygiene and intimate use (such as contraceptives, especially female condoms), the ads for which often evoke emotional responses in seeking a behavioural change, because of their vivid imagery and salience. Their promotional efforts can result in further stigmatization. Marketers need to think up ways and means of reversing any such stigma through subliminal-level action.

A case in point is Cadbury India. In the midst of the pandemic, even as worried consumers shifted towards large branded products and services, to the disadvantage of small sellers, Cadbury ran an ad campaign using artificial intelligence and starring Shah Rukh Khan that aimed to drive shoppers towards small businesses. This may well have acted as a much-needed de-stigmatizing force.

Marketers of various products, services and experiences must not only recognize the potential of stigmatization and guard against it, they would have to play a proactive role as de-stigmatizating forces, challenging negative stereotypes and providing positive support. Advertisers could start with depicting girls (rather than boys) in ads that encourage victory and achievement, thus guarding against even small and unconscious forms of stigmatization. We need well-thought-out efforts. Simply tweaking an iconic TV commercial to replace a male with a woman in the role of a cricket star, for example, may not do much to reverse an old stigma associated with females excelling in the sports arena. For marketing to work as a force of social change, marketers should recognise their social responsibility in the ever-changing context of stigmatization.

The author would like to acknowledge the contribution to this article of her colleague Sunny Arora

Tulsi Jayakumar is professor of economics at Bhavan’s SP Jain Institute of Management & Research (SPJIMR). These are the author’s personal views.

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