A smiling Bipasha Basu is lying on a couch on her stomach, looking away from the camera. She is in her inner wear. A hunky Dino Morea, bare-torso and in just his shorts, hovers over her, trying to pull off her underwear with his teeth. The sexual undertones in the photograph are hard to miss. The year was 1998. And winds of change, brought about by the liberalisation of 1991, were blowing through the country when Swiss innerwear brand Cadilla dropped this ad-bomb on the country. The ad raised the hackles of a few women’s organisations and it was later withdrawn. India’s emerging middle-class too didn’t find Cadilla to be a good fit and the company’s products disappeared from the country. But the ad—bold and beautiful—remained in our memory as an example of raw sexuality packaged as a promotional campaign.
Fast forward to 2021. It’s a new India, they tell us. The rules have changed. And social media sets the agenda. As Dabur India, a household name in the country and abroad, found out when it tried to push the envelope of creativity and inclusivity in an advertisement for its Fem Creme Bleach. The ad, set against the backdrop of Karwa Chauth, shows two women celebrating the Hindu festival for couples—applying bleach on each other and then gazing at each other through sieves. Social media erupted in a frenzy. Many praised the company for the “progressive” ad but many more flew into a rage against Dabur for promoting same-sex relationship and what they called a mockery of “Hindu religion and Hindu festivals”. A Madhya Pradesh minister even threatened legal action. A chastened Dabur pulled down the ad and apologised. The company—an icon of the ‘Made In India’ brand—said it “strives for diversity, inclusion, and equality” and added that its intention was “not to offend any beliefs, customs and traditions, religious or otherwise”.
But Dabur is not the only company to have faced a backlash in recent times. And it is also not the first company to apologise and pull down a promotional campaign to soothe bruised sentiments and frayed tempers. An ad by tyre manufacturing company Ceat ran into a storm recently after a BJP parliamentarian said it had “created unrest among Hindus”. The ad shows Bollywood star Aamir Khan advising a group of people to burst firecrackers inside their residential colony and not on the streets. Khan was even accused of being “anti-Hindu” by a section on social media.
Clothing brand FabIndia found the pressure too much to handle and was forced to withdraw what was, in essence, an artistically-shot and thoughtful campaign that celebrates India’s diversity. What mostly irked the right-wing was the use of an Urdu phrase—Jashn-e-Riwaaz—for the company’s festive collection. The brand was accused of “defacing” and of “abrahamisation” of the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali. Faced with an online onslaught, FabIndia withdrew the ad and said it was not a Diwali collection.
As a renewed debate rages in India over what is considered by many as “inappropriate” promotional campaigns, industry experts view the social media trolling as targeted and agenda-driven attacks. With hashtags calling for boycott of companies, products or celebrities, there are also calls by many to regulate advertisements through a government panel, just like films pass the censor board’s scrutiny before release. Industry experts say that companies have been forced to bow because they had to protect their images and brands.
“Ads are pulled down because brands are scared… if they get into controversy, then it creates negativity which they cannot afford. They don’t want to get into a controversy. Even big brands like Pepsico, the moment somebody filed a case against Michael Jackson for being a paedophile, immediately removed him as their brand ambassador,” says Prahlad Kakkar, an acclaimed ad film director. He, however, has a word of caution. “If we continue to allow the ads to be trolled, then they will stop being progressive.”
(clockwise from top, far left) Sunny Leone for Mankind Manforce condoms on Navratri, Mother’s second marriage in Tanishq, Tanishq Diwali, Amul, Kent RO Atta and Bread Maker, Dabur’s Karwa Chauth ad.
Over the years, the Indian ad scene has seen some pathbreaking and progressive promotional campaigns which had earned accolades for their concepts and vision. In 2017, Procter and Gamble featured a real-life transgender, Gauri Sawant, and her adopted daughter in an ad for Vicks. Directed by Neeraj Ghaywan of Masaan fame, the heart-warming ad had gone viral on social media and touched millions of people—with its message about transgender rights and adoption. The ad was based on a report by a journalist. A year later, the Supreme Court passed a landmark judgment to overturn a colonial-era law that criminalised consensual gay sex, in a hard-fought victory for the country’s LGBTQ community.
Shaili Chopra, founder of digital media website She the People, says that ads serve as a medium for the message and has the power to change popular narratives. “We need more and more advertisements to make a point fearlessly. Silly ads, where women were simply props for men or just eye-candy, dominated the 80s. As women stand for themselves, they are speaking up and demanding more,” she tells Outlook.
However, making a point for the sake of being progressive is easier said than done. The country’s right-wing, more assertive now, believes that a section of people derive pleasure in denigrating Hindus and Hinduism. In 2020, Tata group’s jewellery brand Tanishq was forced to take down an ad showing a Muslim family throwing a baby shower for their Hindu daughter-in-law. The ad faced a severe backlash on social media. The year before that, Hindustan Unilever brand, Surf Excel, was trolled for allegedly hurting Hindu sentiments. The ad showed a young girl helping her Muslim friend reach the mosque ‘unsullied’ in the midst of Holi. Earlier this year, Manyavar-Mohey, a women’s bridal fashion brand, was accused of denigrating Hindu marriage rituals after its ad showed Bollywood actress Alia Bhatt questioned the tradition of ‘kanyadaan’. A hashtag calling for boycotting Manyavar also went viral.
Vinod Bansal, the national spokesperson of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), sees a “conspiracy” behind the ads that have run into controversy. “This is cheap publicity…In the past too, this had happened and they (companies) had to ultimately apologise. Sentiments of all communities must be respected,” he says.
Social media, for one, has totally changed the narrative around advertisements, giving brands a platform to showcase their products with minimal costs. But it has also left them vulnerable to mass trolling, that includes vile comments and even threats to life. Kakkar sees a pattern in the online campaigns against selected advertisements. “The trolling is so systematic and controlled that it cannot be spontaneous. It is targeted because there is an agenda. To protect the brand there is no other way but to remove the ad.”
With the country highly polarised along ideological lines, the centre-left sees the backlash against advertisements as an attack on the country’s plurality and inclusiveness. “We always had social ads and I believe they have a more far-reaching impact than movies,” says Sadaf Jafar, national coordinator of All India Mahila Congress. She refers to an ad by Google which shows two young girls using the search engine to reunite their grandfathers who were separated by Partition. “It was a beautiful ad. It talks about the friendship that goes beyond the borders.”
Despite the divide over ads, some promotional campaigns have managed to rise above the din and find universal acceptance. Like the ad by chocolate brand Cadbury. The just-over-two-minute-long ad featuring Shah Rukh Khan uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) and allows allows local kirana store owners to create advertisements for their own shops for free with the Bollywood star. Titled ‘NotJustACadburyAd’, the campaign is an attempt to help small brick-and-mortar stores that have been adversely affected due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
(clockwise from top) Durga Puja-themed ad by Jawed Habib, A play on Hindi cuss words in a Zomato ad, Milind Soman and Madhu Sapre for Tuff shoes, Bipasha Basu and Dino Morea in a Cadilla innerwear ad.
But then Cadbury is known for its iconic ads, including the achingly beautiful and heart-warming Kya swad hai zindagi mein campaign for its Diary Milk brand that remains as fresh today as it was launched in 1994. While the original ad had a young girl celebrating the success of her male companion in a cricket match, the latest version shows a young man cherishing the win of his female companion. The latest version is also a commentary on changing sensibilities in a country where women are rarely celebrated for their work or achievements.
“I believe progressive ads stem from an innate need to shed light on a topic. Regressive ads are a matter of point of view. What some may deem regressive, others would find inspirational,” says Kartik Bhupal Ramnathkar, a Mumbai-based ad film director. And it’s the point of view that matters, says Kakkar. “The brand leaders today are bold enough to reflect the changes in our society…like the approval of not-so-fair brides or of a daughter approving her mother’s remarriage or inter-faith marriages.”
Advertising experts say that societal norms change with every generation and ads too are changing with the needs of the society—with a greater push towards ridding the world of evils like racism or gender inequality. And this is coming from the people. From their new attitudes and mindsets.
And advertising is bound to reflect this reality. Sometimes even in the face of violent backlash.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Shoot the Message!")
—Edited by Anupam Bordoloi