Why we can’t outsource social change to advertisers
Often our celebrities whether movie stars or sportsmen are accused of being silent if not indifferent on social issues and not using their popularity to drive social change. Every now and then, there’s a rare movie or a commercial that comes with a social message, perhaps to gain mass appeal in the first place. Hence, this piece in the Mint Lounge by Sandip Roy argues why we shouldn’t rely on celebrities or advertisers with specific reference to the latter, to drive social change. Roy starts with the reference to a jewelry ad featuring a wedding of a transwoman in a seemingly traditional setting.
“The ad is transformative on many levels. It features a trans woman coming to terms with herself, transforming from a lonely adolescent boy into a radiant bride. It’s transformative because it features an actual trans person in the role. And it’s transformative because it’s a story about a family’s loving acceptance instead of the more familiar transphobia. A bit too idealistic? Perhaps, but in the end it’s a feel-good ad that wants to sell us jewellery, not a documentary. We cannot mistake social messaging for social change. The heavy lifting social change requires has to come from us. It cannot be outsourced to an ad, which can at best just nudge us in the right direction.”
He then recalls last year’s controversial Tanishg ad featuring which resulted in some of its stores being vandalised for showing a Hindu-Muslim wedding, which Tanishq eventually withdrew.
““This is just an ad. It celebrates love. If you don’t like it, don’t buy the product but you cannot intimidate the company,” rues Salil Tripathi, chair of the writers in prison committee of PEN International. “The government should be protecting the right to life, right to property. But instead the right to being offended has taken precedence over all other rights.”
Best-selling author and ad professional Anuja Chauhan says that in some ways it is a sign of how far we have regressed that a Hindu-Muslim love-all message was even regarded as brave and revolutionary in the first place. Tanishq’s backward flip, she says, made it worse. “If you are not going to keep your ad out there, don’t make your ad. It’s an injustice to the cause.”
…In fact, it is a mistake to read these ads as a show of courage. The ad-makers might have their hearts in the right place but they probably also believe they will be feted and patted on the back for their progressivism. When the backlash gets too much, they will drop the issue like a hot potato.”
He then adds the international context:
“…if we are looking for courage in advertising, we will have to look beyond the rainbow. Nike weighed in on Black Lives Matter protests by turning its own famous motto on its head. It said: “For once, don’t do it. Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America. Don’t turn your back on racism.” Its arch rival, Adidas, retweeted that message. Barely a week after the then president, Donald Trump, signed an order to temporarily close America’s borders to refugees in 2017, Airbnb, which had battled its own charges of discrimination, put out an ad during Super Bowl that took direct aim at his order. It said “We Accept” everyone no matter “who you are, where you’re from, who you love or who you worship”.
Before concluding why it is harder in India:
“Equivalents of that in India would be much harder to find. At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, many companies in America felt compelled to put out some kind of message about racial justice, even if it was lip service. When citizenship Act protests were rocking India or lynchings had spurred Not in My Name demonstrations, advertising largely steered clear of the minefield. As Sidharth Bhatia wrote in The Wire in 2020, even the utterly Butterly Amul girl has come a long way from 1976 when, during the Emergency, she put on a nurse’s uniform, held up a packet of butter and cheekily said, “We have always practised Compulsory Sterilisation.” By 2020, she was standing in front of the Ayodhya temple, her hands folded, saying “Monumental Occasion: All Are Invited”.”