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Public as judge and jury


After Fab India, Dabur, Surf Excel, Tanishq, Manyawar and others, Jaipur-based AU Small Finance Bank has become the latest brand to face the wrath of Indians after some sections of Hindus found its latest ad “hurt Hindu feelings”. .

The advert, featuring Bollywood actors Kiara Advani and Amir Khan, depicts a Hindu wedding but attempts to reverse traditional gender roles in an alleged attempt to promote feminist reforms within the Indian family structure. Instead of the wife moving into the husband’s house, as is tradition, the ad shows the husband, played by Khan, moving into his wife’s house after Vidaai. The slogan states, ‘Budlaav Humse Hai‘ (The change comes from us). The ad ends with the couple promoting AU Bank.

What could have been seen as a commentary on regressive customs and may have served as a springboard for a more in-depth discourse on gender stereotypes and roles in Indian society, however, quickly became an “attack” on sentiment and beliefs. Hindu customs with several sections of social media immediately seeking to boycott both AU Bank and actor Amir Khan, who has been doubly criticized as a Muslim man for promoting “anti-Hindu” sentiments. Bollywood director Vivek Agnihotri, known for his “anti-liberal” tirades, also criticized the ad and called it “bakwas”.

However, this is not the first time that a Diwali announcement has angered Indians.

Festive angst

A little like Gujiyasfairy lights, diyas and the cracker ban debates that have inadvertently become customary in India’s annual Diwali traditions, controversial advertisements seem to have become a staple of the ‘Festival of Lights’. Last year, clothing brand Fab India had to issue a vehement clarification after its ‘Jashnn-e-Riwaz’ ad campaign for a clothing line launched around Diwali was branded ‘anti-Hindu’. The company later said it was not for its Diwali collection after trolls attacked the company for using Urdu words like “Jashn” to mean the Hindu holiday of Diwali.

Prior to this, Tanishq had to pull a Diwali advert featuring actresses Nina Gupta, Shayani Gupta, Nimrat Kaur and Alaya F due to outrage over Shayani Gupta’s post to celebrate a “cracker-free” Diwali. Netizens claimed the ad unfairly attacked Hindu festivals.

It’s not just Diwali. Dabur last year had to withdraw an advert for Fem featuring a same-sex couple celebrating the Hindu festival Karwa Chauth following Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra’s warning for legal action. against the company. Many on Twitter called the ad “anti-Hindu”.

Prior to this, Surf Excel faced a massive boycott campaign after its 2019 Holi advert depicted a couple of Hindu-Muslim children celebrating the festival in a bid to represent communal harmony. This advertisement was also described as “anti-Hindu”.

A Durga Puja advertisement for barber shop Javed Habib depicting Durga and other deities lining up to have their hair cut at Habib’s has also been widely criticized for being an insult to Durga and Hindus in general.

Last year, Red Lable’s Ganesh Chaturthi ad depicting a Hindu changing his mind and buying a Ganesh idol from a Muslim manufacturer after drinking a cup of tea with it also drove some audiences crazy. The ad has been accused of portraying Hindus in a “bad light”.

Moreover, festival or no festival, advertisements illustrating regressive or progressive feminist positions are often labeled as anti-Hindu. The controversy over the latest UA ad, for example, recalls a recent controversy over the Manyawar ad featuring actress Alia Bhatt. The ad, which depicted Bhatt as a bride at her own wedding, commented on the custom of “Kanya Daanwhich did not sit well with some sections of Hindus.

The incidents show how religious cancel culture has become a staple for Indian social media trolls who jump at the slightest sign of reformist discourse of any kind and often shield their deeply problematic views on gender, caste , class and religion with tirades against alleged “anti-Hindu” campaigns and content. These are not just advertisements. Such arguments go so far as to call for a boycott of films, television or web series, discredit comedians and actors playing certain roles or expressing their political opinions, and cancel social gatherings or events.

But like all social phenomena, there are two sides to nullifying culture.

Not always bad

To be fair, not all boycott calls are ill-conceived. Some actually aim to inspire brands and models to make conscious and progressive choices.

Recently, Akshay Kumar joined actors Ajay Devgn and Shah Rukh Khan to support a brand of pan masala. The actor, who is a fitness enthusiast, was widely mocked for his “unhealthy” endorsements. Kumar eventually had to take to social media to apologize and later apologize for the brand association.

Amitabh Bachchan has courted similar controversy for participating in a paan masala campaign. The veteran actor said he was unaware of the surrogate publicity and immediately returned his sponsorship money. Amitabh Bachchan’s team had shared a statement which read, “Mr. Bachchan terminated the contract with the brand, wrote to them of his termination and returned the money received for the promotion.”

Actress Madhuri Dixit landed in a similar soup a few years ago when she appeared in an ad for a brand of 2-minute noodles. The Uttarakhand Food and Drug Administration sent her a legal notice, asking her to substantiate her claims about the “nutritional value” of the foods she guaranteed in the advertisement. PILs have also been filed against Preity Zinta and Amitabh Bachchan for their promotion of this product.

When Shahrukh Khan’s daughter, Suhana Khan, spoke about colorism, many reminded her quite harshly that her father was the face of fair trade cream brand Fair and Handsome and had appeared in several advertisements promoting colorism.

Earlier this year, ads for deodorant company Layer were pulled after widespread criticism for promoting rape culture and shining a light on violence against women.

These examples show how a responsible audience can respond to toxic ads and speak out against problematic or regressive content and hypocritical celebrities promoting unhealthy lifestyles or stigma.

The public as judge and jury

In recent years, there has been a global push for brands to lead social change by creating ads that not only have shock and retention value, but also contain relevant social messaging to appeal to new segments of the market. younger audience, especially when it comes to gender portrayal. This can be tricky because traditionally, the advertising world‘s embrace of toxic masculinity makes it difficult for audiences to digest this new socially reformed class of advertisers. The Gillette campaign a few years ago faced similar questions. And second, with the advent of social media, audiences today have the ability to confront brands directly and impact their sales if they don’t like what the brand is saying. This means that brands need to be all the more careful to maintain inclusiveness when trying to project themselves as an instrument of social change.

According to experts, the key is in consistency. The public is not stupid and can often distinguish a publicity stunt from a real commitment.

MG Parameswaran, founder of Brand-Building.com, told Financial Express in a 2021 interview that “Sometimes brands unnecessarily portray social change, when they should just be trying to sell their products.” This raises questions about the credibility of a brand. He further backed up his argument by citing the example of State Street Global Advisors, the company that commissioned the “Fearless Girl” statue on Wall Street in the United States. After receiving a lot of praise and adulation for “breaking the patriarchy”, the media revealed that the brand was underpaying its employees.

The company ended up paying $5 million in compensation for unequal pay claims by 305 women. “As brands pick causes they want to espouse, they need to make sure they’re loyal to them,” Parameshwaran said.

This argument is valid for all brands, including AU Small Finance Bank. While brands have agency and should in fact reflect from time to time on the values ​​they espouse and may even try to affect social change, the real path to social change is not through gimmicks but through structural re-engineering. Advertisements, in this regard, are important drivers of change. But change, as the AU Bank ad succinctly puts it, has to come from within. ‘Budlaav humse hai‘.

An example of brands alienating the public through “positive toxicity,” as “Gen Z” today calls it, is the rainbow that magically appears on brand logos every year at the time of Pride month, only to quickly fade from all brand messaging for the rest. of the year. Or the feminist ads with messages about Women’s Day once a year that do nothing to promote gender equality on the ground but help brands reap the benefits of years of subordinate movements fought at personal cost. high for stakeholders.

UA Bank’s announcement may be a sincere attempt at social reform or simply a “Diwali Dhamaka”. After all, Diwali is a big time for marketers and businesses, and brands and advertisers are on edge to beat the competition. With younger audiences increasingly preferring “progressive” influencers to legacy brand ads, the pressure to stay on top of the game and reinvent with the times while maintaining a “woke” brand image is all too real. . And brands are doing everything they can.

But what MG Paranameswaran may have been trying to say in 2021 is that with great power comes great responsibility. And today, that responsibility lies not only with the creators of advertisements, but also with the consumers of those advertisements. With the growing presence of “troll culture” and the expansion of right-wing identities on social media, audiences need to be constantly aware and observant of the content they consume and walk a tightrope between market forces and political forces to filter the swill of the true Creative.

At a time when cancel culture is often used to silence minorities and dissenting opinions, audiences need to be aware of their own power over brands and choose battles more carefully.