The magic of mythmaking

People are seen outside a Tanishq jewellery store in Mumbai. File   | Photo Credit: Reuters

Social historian Daniel Boorstin, writing in the 1960s, called advertising “the most characteristic and remunerative form of American literature”. Writing around the same time, Marshall McLuhan ranked advertising among the 20th century’s greatest art forms.

As it has played out, neither man was exaggerating. The ‘persuasion industry’ is well entrenched today, and it is hardly surprising that the 45-second commercial created by jewellery brand Tanishq should have taken up so much mindspace these past few weeks.

Also read: Tanishq store in Gujarat puts up apology note over withdrawn ad

We are no strangers to religious controversy nor has fanaticism been the preserve of any one community. From the exile of M.F. Husain to the blacklisting of Taslima Nasreen to regular book burnings and film bans, the fanatics excel at outrage. But this time they outdid themselves. The ad that was viciously trolled showed a Muslim mother-in-law celebrating her Hindu daughter-in-law’s pregnancy with Hindu rituals. In other words, they were offended not by intolerance but by tolerance.

A tenuous argument

Besides the usual commentariat on either side of the debate, a third stream emerged asking if brands need ideology. This argument is tenuous. Through the 20th century, as advertising took upon itself the role of shaping the aspirations and desires of entire societies, its function expanded vastly beyond the mere selling of products to selling a way of life. The streaming images — beautiful woman, muscular man, uniformed chauffeur — point not just to a car but to mindsets and life choices that can make that car come true. That’s why Roland Barthes called advertising the supreme mythmaker of our age and ads the closest modern approximation to ancient myths. When Nike uses Serena Williams to relate the story of women in sports, it isn’t just selling sports shoes, it is selling the myth of women’s empowerment — the social condition that lets women play sports and buy sports shoes.

Also read: Viewer complains against Tanishq ad for ‘promoting communal intermingling’; ASCI junks it

By ‘selling’ at this subliminal level, advertising insinuates itself into everyday customs and practices, and becomes popular culture. It defines social constructs, such as ‘modernity’ or ‘success’ — ‘modern’ men load washing machines; ‘successful’ women use food delivery apps. And via these definitions, advertising is able to construct new social mores — where men aren’t ridiculed for washing clothes, nor women for not cooking. The motive might be commercial, but that advertising is constantly moulding and reflecting society is indubitable.

Creating desirable myths

Less than 3% of marriages in India are inter-religious, and this figure is unlikely to change dramatically anytime soon. A majority of Indians will continue to marry within their own religion and community, just as a majority of women will continue doing the household chores. But by depicting an inter-religious marriage, advertising creates a certain desirable myth — not of a society where such marriage is a norm but one that accepts it when it happens. When online portal ‘Myntra’ featured a lesbian couple in its 2015 ad, it essentially conjured up a society that accepts a non-heterosexual relationship. By placing them within conventional tropes of shopping, clothes and parents, it erased the taboos and ostracism such couples face in real life. It allowed them social sanction.

As society gets more secularised and modernised, we begin to seek our moral markers from places other than religion. Cultural studies scholar Judith Williamson said, “Advertising has a function which I believe in many ways replaces that traditionally fulfilled by art and religion — it creates meaning.” This meaning-making is not optional but intrinsic to advertising. The Amul girl doesn’t just innocently sell butter — she sells an image of the nation, reflected through sporting triumphs, national tragedies, election results or, increasingly, even Rafale plane deals. As we consume, we subconsciously also seek such reflections that let us reimagine ourselves and the world we inhabit through the lens of the ad.

Whether the Tanishq commercial or the Surf Excel ad last year that showed a Hindu girl protecting a Muslim boy from being splashed with Holi colours on his way to namaaz, both propose a myth of harmonious co-existence — of the kind an Amar Akbar Anthony created — which could well be self-fulfilling in the long run. (Just as men who load washing machines are no longer unicorns.) These myths reflect not just who we are but who we want to be. The trolls shut down these stories not because they are real but because they could become real. It might no longer be possible to eradicate trolls in this hyper-malevolent era, but we need to cling at least to our myths. If we meekly let these be destroyed and the dream factories shut down, we will foreclose for good the possibility of our cultural reinvention. And that will signal our final bankruptcy of imagination. Yet, it’s more clear than ever now that imagination, after all, is also a nation.

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2020 9:30:13 AM |

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