Advertising Bigotry And All That ImpliesOct 29, 2021 | Shalini Rai
Recently, several advertisements have been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. The ensuing brouhaha — over a missing ‘bindi’ in one ad and prominently visible cleavage in another — has made it clear that we are entering a minefield of political correctness which is littered with generous amounts of obscure, old-fashioned bigotry.
Let’s start with the most recent ad that raised some people’s hackles. The Dabur ad showed a lesbian couple celebrating the festival of Karwa Chauth. But it was later withdrawn and an apology tendered by Dabur to those ‘offended’ by the content of the ad, especially after Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra criticised it for showing “objectionable content” and said that legal steps would be taken if the advertisement was not withdrawn. “Today, they are showing two women celebrating Karva Chauth. Tomorrow, they will come up with an advertisement that shows two men getting married. We cannot allow anyone to show such objectionable content,” Mishra told reporters at a press conference in Bhopal on the morning of October 25.
“Fem’s Karwachauth campaign has been withdrawn from all social media handles and we unconditionally apologise for unintentionally hurting people’s sentiments,” Dabur India said in a statement released on its official Twitter handle.
The fact is that same-sex marriages are still not possible in India despite the Supreme Court decriminalising consensual homosexual acts and gay couples seeking a declaration to recognise them under the Hindu Marriage Act (HMA) and Special Marriage Act (SMA). Therefore, the MP Home Minister could say things like, “Today, they are showing two women celebrating Karva Chauth. Tomorrow, they will…. show… two men getting married.”
The second ad campaign which seems to have stirred a hornet’s nest is that showing a plus-size model with a prominent cleavage wearing a ‘mangalsutra’. This ad by the upscale clothing and accessories brand Sabyasachi has miffed people who are comparing the image in question with a B-grade Bollywood film. No mention is made of the fact that the depiction of the human body and consequently, its various parts in their natural state, does not constitute ‘vulgarity’ or ‘obscenity’. The offending of some ‘sensibilities’ in this case has trumped all arguments in support of the aesthetics of the ad campaign.
Fab India recently launched a clothing collection titled ‘Jashn-e-Riwaaz’ (celebration of tradition), ahead of the festive season but it was variously condemned as ‘damaging the Hindu festival of Diwali’ and attempting the ‘Abrahamisation of Hindu festivals’. Soon, the hashtag #BoycottFabIndia began trending on social media and needless to say, FabIndia removed the tweet with the ‘offending’ images and pulled the ad.
The fourth ad in question is that featuring Alia Bhatt for the clothing brand ‘Manyavar’, in which she questions the ‘Kanyadaan’ ritual — a staple of Hindu weddings — and wonders if daughters are ‘property’ to be given away (as ‘daan’). Apparently, this narrative too created quite a flutter among netizens and expectedly the hashtag #BoycottManyavar started to trend on social media. Consequently, this ad too was withdrawn and Alia Bhatt and the brand itself came in for much criticism.
#NoBindiNoBusiness has been making waves on social media in the last few days and for all the wrong reasons. The concerned ad shows a Tanishq model with no ‘bindi’ on her forehead and with what some believe is ‘an expression fit for a funeral’, under its ‘Utsaah’ collection. After the online hullabaloo on the same lines as all the other four ads mentioned above, Tanishq has re-launched its campaign, this time with a model wearing both a ‘bindi’ and a smile, standing beside a traditional brass lamp.
The cumulative effect of the publication and subsequent withdrawal of these advertisements shows both the growing clout of netizens in dictating consumer choices and a rising ‘intolerance’ of divergent depictions of traditional mores and rituals, however well-meaning they might start out as.
This manifests itself in the labelling of the Sabyasachi plus-size model as ‘obscene’ while wearing the ‘sacred mangalsutra’. Someone needs to ask why it is ok for the ‘mangalsutra’ to be considered ‘sacred’ but the treatment of your wife post-marriage (in cases of domestic violence) is not. Even the well-meaning concept of ‘Kanyamaan’, sought to be introduced instead of ‘Kanyadaan’, seems to have backfired, with the Twiterrati attributing all kinds of nefarious intentions to what is a well-intended revision of last-century rituals.
As far as FabIndia’s ‘Jashn-e-Riwaaz’ is concerned, the vitriol poured on the eponymous term itself is surprising, with parodies of the same making their way onto social media and eliciting scores of likes and supportive comments. The same holds true for the #NoBindiNoBusiness online campaign, which has seen jewellers in Maharashtra give in and re-launch ads with bindi-wearing models, in clear capitulation to the online brigade which started the hashtag.
However, the most damaging has been the aftermath of the pulling of Dabur’s ad showing a lesbian couple celebrating Karwa Chauth. What no one seems to notice or take umbrage to is the fact that the ritual of Karwa Chauth itself is a manifestation of a deeply-patriarchal society and its regressive traditions, where a woman has to fast for the health and well being of her husband (with the husband doing nothing complementary for his wife and partner in life). The Dabur ad went the whole hog and stuck its neck out by depicting such a welcome change in the ritualistic status quo. But instead of being greeted wholesomely and praised for its courage to shoot such an ad, it has been castigated with impunity. This is even more disturbing since the apex court of the country has already decriminalised consensual homosexual acts.
The kerfuffle over the content, depiction and revisionism attempted in the above-mentioned ad campaigns is deceptively politically-correct. After all, why would brands who owe their prominence and presence to the continued support and goodwill of their consumers not cater to their demands and attempt to alienate or insult their sensibilities? The moot point is rather complicated.
By naming and shaming, by boycotting and castigating ad campaigns launched by well-established businesses, some consumers might get the impression that they are making necessary ‘course-correction’. However, what they are oblivious to is the majoritarianism inherent in any such campaign of boycott. The nefarious nature of such public mobilisation against a company whose ads offend or insult a section of society may not be immediately discernible. That does not make them any less damaging.
The true resilience of a social system and therefore of a nation, is contingent upon its internal checks and balances. Checks on steering away from majoritarianism and balances ensuring an environment of healthy dissent and disagreement. Given our current trajectory (or flight path), we are on a collision course and do not even seem to realise it.