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Activism is for activists, not advertisers

In their attempt to be politically astute, do brands end up belittling the very issues they champion in their commercials?

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint.
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint.

Inside a creative director’s cabin in any advertising firm, the air is usually heady with camaraderie and tobacco-breath discussions. Profanities are exchanged liberally as ideas are conceived or killed or resurrected from a pile of rejects. Brainstorming is under way; life, art, science and the supernatural are scanned for inspiration.

Politics, ripe with provocative content, provides an immediate repertoire for teams brainstorming over campaigns, particularly TV commercials and digital films—media that can swiftly turn brands into iconic representations of an era or a community or a state-of-mind.

For instance, the Pepsi commercial that released on 4 April—the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination—borrowed its theme and imagery from the African-American movement of protest, Black Lives Matter. The ad, starring model and TV personality Kendall Jenner, was described as “tone deaf" by the very demographic it had been created for—the young and politically conscious. Indignation on social media led to lampooning of the commercial and a trail of tweets, like: “If a black girl tried to give a cop a Pepsi in a protest march, I’m pretty sure he’d give her a Dr Pepper spray in return #PepsiLivesMatter" and, “me and yo momma would’ve never moved in this neighborhood if we knew you needed a pepsi to walk down the street" #pepsilivesmatter."

Perhaps the most damning indictment was a tweet by King’s daughter, activist Bernice King, who wrote, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi." She also posted a photo of her father being manhandled by a white male police officer at a protest.

The commercial, which has been withdrawn by Pepsi, exemplifies a disregard for the history of an oppressed community, or worse, ignorance. Jenner is posing for a photographer when she notices a group of protesters walking on the street. She removes her blonde wig and joins the march. They reach a line of police officers, and Jenner averts a violent clash by offering an officer a can of Pepsi. The crowd erupts in riotous applause, in a mockery of a 2016 photograph of Ieshia Evans facing police officers in riot gear, titled Taking A Stand In Baton Rouge.

There have been other instances of advertisers cherry-picking causes to build a brand that is ostensibly socially responsible. Kenco’s Coffee vs Gangs campaign, released by ad firm JWT London in 2014, is meant to change the trajectory of the lives of young people in Honduras—from joining local gangs to becoming coffee farmers. In the advertisement, a gang member’s tattoos turn into coffee fields—a slick graphic device that is meant to convince drinkers of Kenco that the brand is a serious do-gooder.

Budweiser’s 2017 Super Bowl ad, Born The Hard Way, is a comment on the difficulties faced by immigrants. It shows founder Adolphus Busch leaving Germany in 1857 for the US. Upon being asked why he wants to leave Germany, he says, “I want to brew beer." The commercial, released amid the controversy over Donald Trump’s travel ban, prompted the deliberately misspelt hashtag: #boycottbudwiser.

In India, activism or social commentary through the medium of a 30-second commercial is the natural outcome of living in a democracy always on the verge of detonating. Perhaps the most recent demonstration of this tendency is Procter & Gamble’s Vicks commercial, which tells the tale of Gayatri, an orphan who was adopted by a 37-year old-transgender woman, Gauri Sawant.

But it was Tata Tea’s Jaago Re campaign, first released in 2008, that may have triggered several other zealous, cause-driven advertising campaigns. The campaign uses the metaphor of waking up to suggest a collective awakening. A TV commercial, released in February this year, shows a girl reciting Tata Tea’s “pre-activism anthem" as young people snore in the background. The girl portends these injustices:

“Alarm abhi baja nahin,

Kisan abhi mara nahin

Khiladi abhi hara nahin

Aur abhi yahan, rape hua nahin."

Before a farmer dies, an athlete loses or a rape happens—warns the anthem—one must wake up. The commercial is well-intentioned; its anthem, an impassioned cry to act before it is too late.

“Brands, like people, have a point of view," says Amer Jaleel, chairman and chief creative officer at Mullen Lintas, which created the campaign. “When Nike says, Just Do It, people sign up for the philosophy the brand promotes," he explains. Jaleel also emphasizes that the Tata Tea Jaago Re campaign has, over the years, built a credible brand. “People have sensed the purity of our intention over the years—that’s why the campaign hasn’t led to a backlash," he says, adding that the commercial’s “dry wit" makes people warm to it. “It’s easy to tick people off; fortunately for us, we found a tone of voice that resonated well with people here."

It was Scott Goodson, who founded advertising and marketing agency StrawberryFrog in Amsterdam in 1999, who unleashed “movement marketing" upon the world. Goodson, in his book Uprising: How to Build a Brand—and Change the World—by Sparking Cultural Movements, writes: “Home in on the core objectives of your concept or brand—and align these values with what people are for (or against)." In his 2013 TedxMillRiver address, he mentions the fact that “…movements can be created by all sorts of people. They can be created and led by politicians, by tech innovators, by community organizers, by artists, by creative individuals, and by businesses." He suggests business leaders “…who lead movements in the future are going to be able to effect the kind of change that we as citizens need…", a travel portal, seems to have been inspired by last year’s student protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi. Azadi, the digital film promoting its Yatra Web Check-In app, is a parody of student leader Kanhaiya Kumar’s Azadi speech at JNU. A young man requests a window seat at an airline check-in counter. He is told that all the window seats are occupied. Riled, the young man slams his boarding pass on the counter, picks up a microphone and addresses the crowd that has gathered around him:

“Bhaiyon, aur behanon, kya hame itni bhi azadi nahin hai, ki hum apni marzi ki seat par beth sakein? Arre, hame chahiyea, azadi…"

His theatrical call to action is reminiscent of Kumar’s speech, in which he clamours for freedom from an oppressive system. The commercial polarized viewers—while many, particularly students, felt it made light of Kanhaiya Kumar’s impassioned plea for justice, there were those who enjoyed the spectacle of a man crying out for the right to pick a window seat. “I didn’t brief my actor to mimic Kanhaiya," says ad film-maker Naren Multani, who directed the digital film. “But as a director, I should have the freedom to create a satirical film; after all, political satires are a reflection of society."

The Azadi commercial, written by Raghu Bhat and Manish Bhatt, founding directors at Scarecrow Communications, was released on Facebook in April last year. It sparked off comments from the twitteratti, ranging from “ ad is brilliant. Piggy backing on political issues can often be dangerous for the brand but Yatra got it right. @brumbyOZ," to “Yatra dot com is a Manuwadi Brahmanical organization whose name is inspired by Teerth Yatra. @bhak_sala."

“Brands don’t want to be seen unfavourably," says Raghu Bhat, who wrote the digital film. “But advertising needs to mirror the sentiments of people," he adds. He is, however, clear that brands that borrow ideas from the activism of the day, must tread with caution: “Brands are forever, while elections happen only once in five years! There is a tendency among us all to pronounce judgement very quickly, so brands must think hard about how they want to be perceived," says Bhat.

Perception is vital to whether a brand’s philosophy, or stance, will be accepted by a specific demographic profile. Tata Tea is perceived as honest; hence, its advertising is acceptable, and even enjoyable. This is deeply entrenched in the minds of the consumer, despite the reports of Tata Tea’s alleged violation of labour and human rights of tea workers on its plantations in Assam. The Compliance Advisor Ombudsman, an independent recourse mechanism for projects supported by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (Miga), which reports to the World Bank, registered a complaint in 2013, filed by three local NGOs in Assam. The complaint raises concerns about the working conditions of labourers at the company’s plantations., on the other hand, is perceived as a youthful, flippant and unruly brand. Subsequently, its digital film drew both censure and praise, the same way one sometimes swings between admonishing and indulging a boisterous child.

While both Tata Tea and have not had to withdraw their ad films, other brands such as Havells, the electrical appliances company, have been less fortunate. Its Hawa Badlegi campaign warmed the middle-class consumer’s heart, until it hit a raw nerve by touching upon the issue of reservations in educational institutions. A sequence in Havells’ 2016 ceiling fan commercial is about a young girl who refuses to fill up the “Quota" form that her father offers her, as they stand in queue in the admissions office of what is presumably a college. The catchy jingle of the TV spot proclaims:

“Main pankha hoon!

Bhale mein chota pankha hoon!"

The metaphor of the fan, albeit a small one, captures the spirit of small mutinies that make up a movement. “Main khuddar pankha hoon!" the jingle continues, reinforcing values of self-respect and the sheer idealism of a young girl who wants to make it on her own terms.

Clever wordplay notwithstanding, Havells was compelled to withdraw the anti-reservation sequence last year.
It was accused of offending Dalit-Bahujan sentiments, and trivializing the protests of students at Hyderabad Central University.

While brands are eager to be perceived as progressive, inclusive, astute and sensitive, sometimes their all-embracing attempt at communication can be interpreted as shallow tokenism. Activism is perhaps best left to those who clamour for change by storming Raisina Hill, or by mobilizing student communities with provocative speeches, or by fasting unto death. Brainstorming, then, should steer away from political agendas.

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