Should brands buckle to boycotts? What if they don't stand down?

  •  October 14,2020 By IndianTelevision Team

New Delhi: Last week, #BabaKaDhaba went viral and showed the positive impact social media can have when used constructively. However, this week the internet was once again divided on an ad released by Titan Group’s Tanishq. The popular jewellery brand recently launched a new ad titled Ekatvam to celebrate “unity in oneness”. 

The 45-second Tanishq ad, released ahead of the festive season, showed a baby shower being thrown by a Muslim family for their daughter-in-law, who is a Hindu. When the young woman realised that the ceremony had been organised as per Hindu rituals, she anxiously asked her mother-in-law: "Par yeh rasam toh aapke ghar mein nahi hoti hai na? (But this ceremony is not observed at your place, isn't it?)," to which the latter replied, "Bitiya ko khush karne ki rasam toh har ghar mein hoti hai na? (The ceremony to make the daughter happy is held in every house, isn't it?)"

The description of the Tanishq commercial was as follows: “She is married into a family that loves her like their own child. Only for her, they go out of their way to celebrate an occasion that they usually don’t. A beautiful confluence of two different religions, traditions, and cultures.” 

No sooner was the ad posted than it was met with vicious trolling and expletives by a section of social media users who alleged that it promoted ‘love jihad’ and began trending #BoycottTanishq.

However, a section of users on Twitter also came in support of Tanishq, lauding its effort to highlight the beauty of interfaith marriages and upholding the idea of a secular India.

Amidst all the backlash, Tanishq pulled down the ad from its social media channels and later tweeted, “One as a Nation. One as Humanity.’ That is what Ekatvam stands for,” to reiterate the message of communal harmony in their ad.

It is not the first when trolls have attacked an ad. Various brands in India have faced a similar situation where they had to buckle to the collective pressure of social media. But should brands bow down to these boycotts?

Brand expert N. Chandramouli expressed the view that brands that have attempted to take a brave moral stance should anticipate the social media calls for boycott. "The portents are not good if a brand takes a step back, as it shows a lack of courage, conviction, and spine." 

He further said that a brand may pull back an ad under various circumstances, and not all of them are due to the boycott calls. “Sometimes there are certain calls that may get made that pressurize the management to pull the ad back. Sometimes, of course, the boycott calls are so vociferous, that the brand pulls back the ad on their own. However, in both cases, the brand image gets tarnished due to the pull-back.”

On the other hand, Brand-nomics MD Viren Razdan had a different take on the issue, asking: "If the ad has been pulled down, did Tanishq not foresee any such issues? Or were they okay with the controversy it would kick up? If it’s the latter then it’s really a new brand direction for them.”

Even though the brand pulled the plug on the ad, the film was cleared by ASCI's independent multi-stakeholder panel - The Consumer Complaints Council. The panel at ASCI was unanimous that nothing in the advertisement was indecent or vulgar or repulsive, which is likely in the light of generally prevailing standards of decency and propriety, to cause grave and widespread offence. The complaint was not upheld, as the advertisement did not violate the ASCI codes of honesty, truthfulness and decency in advertising. Therefore ASCI has no objection to the airing of this advertisement, should the advertiser choose to do so. 

Nevertheless, this is not for the first time that an advertisement was brutally trolled for touching on the idea of Hindu-Muslim unity. Before Holi 2019, Surf Excel had released an ad showing religious harmony between children but faced backlash for promoting love jihad and for describing the colours of Holi as daag (stain). 

During the same period, Tea brand Brooke Bond drew severe criticism from Twitterati for “portraying Kumbh Mela in a bad light” and “hurting the sentiments of Hindu pilgrims.”

Even after producing brilliant creatives and thought-provoking ads, the question that arose in light of the Tanishq episode is: whether there is no space for experimenting or going bold or touching grey areas in Indian advertising?

Chandramouli said that owing to the current state of affairs in the country, social media become highly polarized. Trolls who have seen their actions yield ‘results’ resort to the tactics of provocation and outrage to drive negative sentiment against whatever challenges their biased views. “It must be remembered that when a big brand pulls back, it further encourages the trolls, and sets an incorrect impediment for other brands attempting to venture something bold.”

Mirum India director of brand strategy and client services Mohit Ahuja also agreed that pulling down an ad sets a wrong precedent. "It not only bows to pressure tactics of trolls who get braver by actions like these but also encourages similar action by other brands. It will make communication as a whole poorer; if advertising does not foster love and inclusivity, what will? Is communication like this not one main reason what most of us remain in advertising?"

Using religion and politics in advertising is loaded with risk, as it requires a nuanced understanding of how the people of India, beyond one's Facebook friends, think. Scarecrow M&C Saatchi founder Raghu Bhatt opined that an ad is supposed to create goodwill and sales, not rancour and a product boycott.

“If an ad is offending people, every brand will be sensible about it, apologize, and withdraw the ad. The people who are criticising Tanishq for pulling out the ad have nothing to lose. Unlike brand creators, brands can't have egos. By withdrawing the ad, Tanishq is sending a message that it doesn't want to hurt anyone's feelings,” he asserted.

Rediffusion Y&R former president Dhunji S. Wadia wrote on his Facebook page: “Community before commerce has been the founding tenet of the Tata Group (of which Titan and Tanishq are a part). If the life of even one employee is threatened then it's prudent to act in the individual's interest. Check out the threats to the marketing person on social media. Withdrawing the ad seems far gracious than putting your employee's life in danger. Keyboard warriors can keep bashing on. It won't tarnish the reputation of the group whose humane quality remains unmatched, #TanishqAd".

Taproot Dentsu chief creative officer and co-founder Santosh Paddy declared that it’s high time for the industry to come and stand together. “Why is our industry being targeted every single time? Creativity is the core of our business and we cannot be pushed in the corner every single time, we are the soft targets as brands are involved, it’s high time we give a hard push back, to the law government for this biased behaviour, it’s creative freedom for some and beating for some?” 

We compiled a list of ads which have faced criticism in the recent past: -

Anouk Myntra

The ad with the tagline 'Bold is Beautiful' by Anouk fashion brand under Myntra was applauded as well as criticised for taking on the sensitive topic of homosexuality. The ad featured a lesbian couple preparing to break the news to one set of parents.

Kalyan Jewellers

In 2018, Kalyan Jewellers withdrew an ad featuring Amitabh Bachchan and his daughter after it came under attack for creating 'distrust' in the banking system. People threatened to sue the brand for accusing it of "casting aspersion and hurting the sentiments of millions of personnel" through the advertisement.

Gillette

The brand launched commercial asking men to be better versions of themselves, which sparked a debate about whether companies should simply stick to promoting their products or sell social causes.

Ola

Ride-hailing app, Ola rolled out an ad a few years back to promote the affordability proposition for its Micro service. The ad featured a young couple out shopping on the streets. The boyfriend, who is paying for his better half, eventually says: “My girlfriend costs Rs 525 per Km but Ola Micro costs just Rs 6 per km". The underlying message was that using an Ola Micro is cheaper than dating a woman. The campaign was attacked on social media for being sexist and was withdrawn by the company.