Devil's Advocate is a rolling column that sees the world differently and argues for unpopular opinions of the day. This column, the writer acknowledges, can also be viewed as a race to get yourself cancelled. But like pineapple on pizza, he is willing to see the lighter side of it.
Not too long ago, Bollywood heartthrob and probable hysteria ambassador Ranveer Singh was criticised for featuring in an apparel ad where he is carrying a woman on his shoulder. The copy reads: "Take your work home." A lot of liberals, and perhaps even conservatives, cried foul over the sexist tone of the ad which clearly reduced women to objects that must be 'dealt' with like work.
Last year, after outrage and the one violent incident at one of its stores, Tanishq had to withdraw a rather well-made spot that purported secular ideas. This week, Zomato " who need to put outrage negotiators on retainer " has come under the cosh after an executive implied Hindi was our national language.
In the same week, Fabindia " that brand you hear about in most millennial stand-up sets " has been taken to the culture 'cleaners' for using an Urdu word " that too incorrectly " to describe a Diwali-related promotion. Left or Right, centre or off-centre, outrage or, in some cases valid criticism veiled as social media trend, can grip you from any direction.
But rather than feel sorry for themselves, brands must understand that they are only belatedly learning, the hard way, that piggybacking cultural moments is easy, but creating your own, especially absorbing its criticisms, is a whole other thing.
Let us get one thing straight about advertising: it is all appeasement. If brands could be voted for like elections, these ads would instantly qualify as poll campaigns. Most brands, in fact all of them, want to say what is right, seduce the customer with whatever literary or narrative device they can forge rather than shake them out of their slumber or crouched consciences. Which is why certain issues are safer, yet agreeably radical to touch while others are not. Brands do not intend to say that which is meaningful, but that which is already anticipated as 'not disagreeable.' Not that which might be considered dissent, but that which merely consents to an established and well-supported dictum. With the current, if you will.
Not too long ago, Cadbury was lauded for rearranging the gender roles of an old favourite ad, giving it a much-needed feminist update. It is a nice spot, honestly, one that was so simple you never knew it was staring you in the face. But gender, feminism especially, is at the moment, a commodity that everyone sitting across the table of an ad pitch feels satiated by. It makes their hearts race, palpitate with the excitement of a cheetah who has just spotted a labouring deer in the forest. I know this because I have been part of many such meetings.
The point is not that feminism is not a subject worth talking about, but every day, thousands of brands do the inessential by bandwagoning cultural ideas rather than attempting to create their own. The prospective risks for doing so are out in the open for everyone to see. So fair enough if they get it right, but also fair enough if they get it wrong. In the digital age of today where outrage is a tweet and share away, the chances of getting it wrong are far higher. But hey, welcome to the biggest challenge of dictating cultures or spawning movements, instead of you know, conveniently, copiously piggybacking that which already exists.
The fact that both Zomato and FabIndia have had to take invasive steps to reset their course is growing evidence of the fact that cultural criticism has been grabbed by the masses in a way like never before. You could argue that most of this is just outrage, and we could have let both incidents just roll by, but for brands that use the same tools to target us with ads, offers, and in a lot of cases, by condemnable marketing techniques " not to mention their own work culture " must also prepare to be adjudged by the same metric of speed and convenience.
Want to reach us with the click of a button? Prepare to see the other side of that one-way street as well. You just realise now, that for decades, brands have gotten away with murder in terms of service and cultural accountability. Today, the ground has been levelled to the point where institutions claiming to purport certain ideas can readily be dissected for not practicing what they preach.
None of this is to say all of us should just sit around all day and wait for a brand to slip up just so we can make a hill of this mole. But when they do slip up, it is okay to call them out. It is for brands to judge if they want to espouse a certain politics, or respond to the calling card of an ideological bent. Want the fruit? Learn to nurture the seed, defend it, and preserve it in the face of storms and disasters. The fact is there is no such thing as 'any publicity is good publicity' anymore. In the corridors of cultural discourse, you do not get to just swoop in, take what looks nice and safe, and make millions off it by commodifying it. Cultures, movements, and change must be incubated, cultivated, fought for, and built upon. Indian brands are only learning the hard way that borrowing is easier than creating, even more so than countering.
Manik Sharma writes on art and culture, cinema, books, and everything in between.