Friday, Sep 22, 2023

Of Feminist Diwali Ads And 'Anti-Hindu' Brands: Audience As Judge And Jury

Of Feminist Diwali Ads And 'Anti-Hindu' Brands: Audience As Judge And Jury

The list of brands facing 'anti-Hindu' allegations has been growing and festivals like Diwali, Holi have become unwitting flashpoints for these brand vs audience battles where no one wins but cancel culture.

Controversial festive ads in the last few years in India
Controversial festive ads in the last few years in India

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

The ad, featuring Bollywood actors Kiara Advani and Amir Khan, depicts a Hindu wedding but tries to invert traditional gender roles in a purported bid 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 home after Vidaai. The tagline declares, ‘Budlaav Humse Hai’ (Change is 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 acted as a springboard for further discourse on stereotypes and gender roles in Indian society, however, soon became an “attack” on Hindu sentiment and customs with several sections of social media immediately seeking a boycott on both AU Bank as well as actor Amir Khan, who was doubly slammed as a Muslim man for promoting “anti-Hindu” sentiments. Bollywood director Vivek Agnihotri, known for his “anti-liberal” tirades, also slammed the ad and called it “bakwas”. 

This, however, is hardly the first time that a Diwali ad has left Indians riled.

Festive angst

Much like gujiyas, fairy lights, diyas and debates on cracker ban that have inadvertently become customary of annual Diwali traditions in India, controversial ads seem to have become a staple for the ‘Festival of Lights’. Last year, the clothing brand Fab India had to give vehement clarifications after its ‘Jashnn-e-Riwaz’ ad campaign for a clothing line launched around Diwali was dubbed “anti-Hindu”. The company later said that the was not for its Diwali collection after trolls attacked the company for using Urdu words like “Jashn” to signify the Hindu festival of Diwali.

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

It’s not just Diwali. Last year, Dabur had to withdraw an advertisement 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 firm. Many on Twitter called the ad “Anti-Hindu”. 

Before that, Surf Excel faced a massive boycott campaign after its 2019 Holi ad depicted a Hindu-Muslim pair of kids celebrating the festival in a bid to depict communal harmony. That ad was also called “anti-Hindu”. 

A Durga Puja ad for hairstylist Javed Habib’s salon depicting Durga and other deities waiting in line to get a haircut at Habib’s was also widely panned for being an insult to Durga and Hindus at large.

Last year, teach brand Red Lable's Ganesh Chaturthi ad depicting a Hindu man having a change of heart and buying a Ganesh idol from a Muslim maker after drinking a cup of tea with him also maddened some audiences. The ad was accused of depicting Hindus in “poor light”.

Moreover, festival or no festival, ads depicting digressive or progressive feminist stances are often pegged as anti-Hindu. The controversy regarding the latest AU ad, for instance, is reminiscent of a recent Manyawar ad controversy featuring actress Alia Bhatt. The ad, which depicted Bhatt as a bride at her own wedding, delivered a commentary on the custom of “Kanya Daan” which did not go down well with some sections of Hindus. 

The incidents show how religious cancel culture has become a go-to for Indian social media trolls who jump at the slightest sign of reformative discourse of any kind and often shield their deeply problematic views on gender, caste, class, and religion through tirades against alleged “anti-Hindu” campaigns and content. It isn’t just advertisements. Such arguments are extended to calling for boycotts on films, television or web series, discrediting comedians and actors playing certain parts or expressing their political opinions, and cancelling social gatherings or events. 

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

Not always bad

To be fair, not all calls for boycott are ill-conceived. Some are actually aimed at compelling brands and role models to endorse conscious and progressive choices. 

Recently, Akshay Kumar joined actors Ajay Devgn and Shah Rukh Khan in endorsing a pan masala brand. The actor, who is a fitness devotee, was widely mocked for his ‘unhealthy’ endorsements. Kumar had to eventually take to social media to apologise and subsequently excuse himself from the brand’s association.

Amitabh Bachchan courted a similar controversy for appearing in a paan masala campaign. The seasoned actor stated that he was unaware of the surrogate advertising and immediately returned his endorsement money. Amitabh Bachchan’s team had shared a statement that read, “Mr Bachchan has terminated the contract with the Brand, has written to them his termination and has returned the money received for the promotion.”

Actress Madhuri Dixit landed in a similar soup a few years ago when she appeared in an advertisement for a 2-minute noodle brand. The Uttarakhand Food and Drug Administration sent her a legal notice, requesting her to justify her statements regarding the 'nutrition value' of the food she vouched for in the advertisement. PILs were also filed against Preity Zinta and Amitabh Bachchan for their promotion of this product.

When Shahrukh Khan’s daughter Suhana Khan spoke out about colourism, many reminded her rather harshly that her father was the face of the Fair and Handsome fairness cream brand and had appeared in multiple advertisements promoting colourism. 

Earlier this year, advertisements for a deodorant company Layer were pulled after widespread criticised for promoting rape culture and making light of violence against women.

These instances show how responsible audiences can react to toxic advertisements and call out problematic or regressive content and hypocritical celebrities promoting unhealthy lifestyles or stigmas. 

Audiences as judge and jury 

In recent years, there has been a global push for brands to become the harbingers of social change by creating advertisements that not only have shock and retention value but also contain relevant social messaging to attract newer, younger audience segments, especially when it comes to the depiction of gender. This can be tricky as traditionally, the ad world’s espousal of toxic masculinity makes it hard for audiences to digest this new, socially reformed class of advertisers. The Gillette campaign from a few years ago faced similar questions. And second, with the advent of social media, audiences today have the ability to directly confront brands and impact their sales if they don’t like what the brand is saying. This means, brands need to be all the more careful of maintaining inclusivity when trying to project itself as an instrument of social change. 

According to experts, the key is in consistency. Audiences are not stupid and can often tell a publicity stunt apart from true commitment. 

MG Parameswaran, Founder,, had told Financial Express in a 2021 interview that “At times, brands needlessly portray social change, when they should just be trying to sell their products". This raises questions on a brand's credibility. He further substantiated his argument by citing the example of State Street Global Advisors, the firm that commissioned the ‘Fearless Girl’ statue at Wall Street in the United States. After receiving much praise and adulation for “smashing the patriarchy”, media reports revealed that the brand was underpaying its women employees. 

The firm ended up paying $5 million in compensation over unequal pay allegations from 305 women. “As brands pick up causes that they want to espouse, they need to be sure they are true to it,” Parameshwaran said.

This argument holds true for any brand including AU Small Finance Bank. While brands have the agency and in fact should from time to time reflect on the values they espouse and may even try to affect social change, the true path to social change is not through gimmicks but through structural re-engineering. Ads, in that regard, are important drivers of change. But change, as the AU Bank advert succinctly puts it, must come from within. ‘Budlaav humse hai’.

An example of brands alienating audiences through "positive toxicity", as 'Gen Z' today calls it, is the rainbow that magically appears on brand logos each year at the time of Pride Month, only to promptly disappear from all brand messaging for the rest of the year. Or the feminist ads with Women's Day messaging once a year that do nothing to promote gender equality on the ground but help brands reap the benefits of years of subaltern movements fought at great personal cost to the stakeholders.

The AU Bank ad may be sincere attempt at social reform or just a  "Diwali Dhamaka". After all, Diwali is a big time for marketers and businesses and brands and advertisers are at their wits end to beat out the competition. With younger audiences increasingly preferring 'progressive' influencers over legacy brand ads, the pressure to stay on top of the game and reinvent with time while also maintaining a 'woke' brand image is only too real. And brands are pulling out all stops.

But what MG Paramameswaran was perhaps trying to say back in 2021 is that with great power comes great responsibility. And today, that responsibility falls not just with ad-makers but also the consumers of those ads. With the growing presence of “troll culture” and expansion of right wing identities on social media, audiences need to be constantly aware and observant of the content they are consuming and walk the tightrope between market forces and political forces to sift the swill from the truly creative.

At a time when cancel culture is often used to silence minorities and differing opinions, audiences should be mindful of their own power vis-a-vis brands and pick battles more carefully. 


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