Storyboard18 | From brief to boycott: Is advertising being rewired for an era of intolerance?

Brands want to stick to a 'safe' narrative now and are scrapping progressive pitches out of fear of backlash. Is this the new normal?

Updated: Nov 1, 2021 05:03:02 PM UTC
Online, the trend of boycotts is alarming and now brands are being pushed to pull the plug on campaigns with progressive narratives. Image: Shutterstock

Just a couple of months ago, Milind Soman shared a throwback picture of Madhu Sapre and him starring in a Tuff shoe ad that was shot in 1995, on his social media. The poster had both Soman and Sapre in the buff, wearing nothing but Tuff shoes and a python. Yes, they were in a naked close embrace, wrapped by a reptile.

Soman asked a question with the iconic throwback image. He wrote, “I wonder what the reaction would have been if it had been released today.”

Along with Soman, there are millions of others including, advertisers and people at creative ad agencies who have the same question. Are bold and progressive advertisements a thing of the past amid bans and boycotts?

In the past two years, brands from Ekatvam By Tanishq, to Fem’s ‘Glow with Pride', more recently, have faced severe backlash online and offline for their ads which were deemed offensive on either religious or cultural grounds. In some cases, it got so bad that people at the agencies and brand managers at the companies that made these commercials lived in fear for the time they were in the spotlight. They didn’t want their names out or to be connected to the work out of fear of reprisal.

Online, the trend of boycotts is alarming and now brands are being pushed to pull the plug on campaigns with progressive narratives.

Ad executives say brands’ approach to such issues have changed and they are now focusing on mainstream and “safe” advertising, and in the process, rewiring creativity for an era of intolerance, perhaps.

The safe pitch vs the bold pitch
“Brands are scared of putting their weight behind a bold idea. No one wants to push the boundary in fear of boycotts and backlashes. As creative agencies, we are now designing a ‘safe’ campaign pitch and placing it in front of brands when they give an out-of-the-box idea a pass,” says a creative director from a popular digital agency in Mumbai.

“We are always calculating in terms of how much backlash we will receive as opposed to how much happiness and positivity we’d be spreading. We created this culture for ourselves where we are always looking for the worst case scenario,” he rues, looking about the current state of affairs.

“Purpose-driven marketing is definitely taking a backseat at the moment,” he adds.

While some marketing experts who’ve always been critical of purpose-driven or cause-led advertising and communication might rejoice, the point is not to debate the merits and demerits of purpose in advertising. Creatives and brand managers should be free to pursue the kind of work they wish to put out there without the fear of a backlash, boycotts and online hate turning into offline violence.

Take the case of Dabur that had to withdraw its new commercial for its brand Fem that showed a same sex couple celebrating Karwa Chauth. The company also issued an apology over the controversy, stating how they are striving to stick to their values of diversity and inclusion, and that the campaign’s intention was not to hurt sentiments, beliefs and customs of any community.

The ad showed two women preparing for Karwa Chauth and talking to each other about why it’s an important tradition for them. The preparations, of course, included using Fem. It is only towards the end of the commercial that we find out the women were fasting for each other's long lives as is the tradition of Karwa Chauth.

From a positioning perspective and target audience point of view, the film narrative revolved around two women in a contemporary Indian household, celebrating the tradition of Karwa Chauth, with a maternal figure representing acceptance.

“The brand stands for embracing a progressive mindset while respecting traditions and also evolving to represent an inclusive perspective. The concept of the commercial was to be accepting of love of all kinds, and not show a homosexual relationship in a different, shocking, or ground-breaking way. It came from a place of open-mindedness,” says an expert closely involved with the making of the campaign.

For a traditional company like Dabur and a product like Fem, this was certainly a bold move.

Even amidst backlash and criticism, the campaign that is now officially withdrawn from all social media platforms is still being shared by netizens who support the progressive narrative of the ad film. Celebrities and other agencies are all praises for the ad.

“Karwa Chauth is about celebrating love and longevity. When we object to ads like that of Fem, we are saying the fundamentals of Karwa Chauth only apply to heteronomous relationships; that the rest shouldn’t live long and prosper,” says Priyanka Gopal, senior creative director, Kinnect.

She adds, “The ad we saw featured two lovely women, dressed in finery, sharing an affectionate moment, and being celebrated and supported by their families. To be able to find offence in this takes a special skill.”

But don't throw purpose out. Instead, own it
When Arun Iyer, founder and creative partner at Spring Marketing Capital, worked at Lowe Lintas, he had overseen a campaign for Fastrack that featured two women tumbling out of a closet. That was 2013.

Iyer tells Storyboard18, "We live in times when social media has become very vocal and lots of opinions do the rounds on almost everything. But interestingly there is also a parallel trend of riding on this culture. It has somehow become very fashionable to do things that trigger this kind of behaviour."

Recollecting his days with Lowe Lintas and Fastrack's 'Come out of the closet' campaign, he says, "When Fastrack happened, it also attracted lots of POVs but the brand was clear about why they are doing what they are doing.”

In Iyer's view, it all comes down to owning a purpose and then letting it manifest through your brand. "There has to be a solid reason behind the narrative a brand sets in their campaign and a connection with the tone of the campaign. Whatever you say as a brand in the campaign has to be in sync with how you want to sound in front of the world," he says. Nike's campaign in 2018 with Colin Kaepernick is an example of how brands should own and back their purpose and ideas.

"Nobody can predict reactions," Iyer says, "So the easier way around is to have a clear thought and reason behind a campaign in the first place."

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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