In a land of matchless diversity, where 138 crore people live, it is perhaps not surprising that social conflicts run along several lines including caste, class, gender, language and religion. Deepening fault lines touch every part of life, and advertising, which at a basic level nudges a consumer to make a purchasing decision but also does social messaging, is learning it the hard way. With the start of the festival season, at least two companies, Fabindia and Dabur, have had to pull out ads days after the launch for “offending sentiments” and huge social media outrage. In the case of Fabindia, people protested against the use of the words “Jashn-e-riwaaz” for a new collection of clothes ahead of Deepavali. The brand later clarified that all its products in “Jashn-e-riwaaz” are “a celebration of Indian traditions” and that its Deepavali collection was yet to be launched. Yet it chose to withdraw the ad. BJP MP Tejasvi Surya led the campaign against Fabindia calling for an economic boycott; a hashtag #NoBindiNoBusiness also did the rounds, in protest against the models in the ad without bindis . Dabur’s Fem brand had to pull out a Karwa Chauth ad which showed a same-sex couple observing the rituals. A Ceat ad featuring Aamir Khan asking people not to burst crackers on the roads too upset the right wing which said it should have also addressed the “problem of blocking roads” for namaz .
While advertisements which do not stick to the script can be a breath of fresh air, there are some which miss the mark completely with the messaging. So, if Shah Rukh Khan’s latest Cadbury ad urging people to buy from small kirana shops this Deepavali is making the right noises, Kent RO’s atta and bread maker ad last year and its tone-deaf portrayal of house-helps was decried. Tanishq, a jewellery brand co-owned by the Tatas, had to withdraw an ad last year that showed a Muslim family organising Hindu baby shower rituals for their Hindu daughter-in-law. It got vitriolic comments with some accusing the Tatas of promoting “Love Jihad”. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor and others were aghast that a symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity could irk a section of people. They cried foul that nuance was getting lost in the cacophony of perceived hurt sentiments. If advertising is about selling a product, no company will willingly put out a campaign that may hurt its brand. The messaging must be sensitive, and that comes when a marketing team has its ear to the ground. It is nothing unusual for some ad campaigns to fail. But, worryingly, many brands have had to withdraw their campaign material after manufactured social media outrage that was fed by intolerance of progressive values and religious bigotry of the worst order.