This week, Tanishq, Tata's jewellery brand, released a video ad online that showed a Muslim family organising a baby shower for their Hindu daughter-in-law. While the advertisement intended to make a social commentary about inter-faith marriages, a huge backlash from right-wing social media users and protests at some of its outlets led the company to withdraw the ad. The company in a statement said that the advertisement had 'hurt sentiments' and threatened the well being of its employees, partners and store staff.
Following the withdrawal of the advertisement, Titan, the Tata company that owns the brand, came under heavy criticism for succumbing to pressure tactics from online and offline mobs. Several commentators expressed disgust at the Tatas not displaying the courage to back its creative team and the inclusive message of the campaign.
The controversy surrounding the advertisement raises questions about the creative liberties a brand can take when they're trying to promote their product. Should a brand create social awareness or limit itself to only promoting its products?
In a discussion with BOOM, brand expert Ambi Parameswaran, founder of brandbuilding.com, a brand advisory, and Harish Bijoor, a brand domain specialist, elaborated on the nuances of advertising in the digital world, especially at a time when political and ideological polarisation have led to tension between communities.
Will This Controversy Stifle Creativity?
While brand experts don't think copywriters will have to watch every word they write, they do think brands should tread lightly when it comes to sensitive topics like religion.
Parameswaran elaborates, "I think copywriters and brands have to be a little more sensitive to society, they have to understand that everyone is not like them. But this doesn't mean we are all going to be living in some kind of isolation, writing very boring scripts."
Bijoor says that copywriters are consciously asked to let go of the unconscious gender stereotyping norms they have. Similarly, they have to learn to be sensitive about religious sentiments.
"Though copywriters have to learn to be a bit more sensitive, it doesn't mean they're going to be locked up in chains to write scripts," added Bijoor.
Mind and Mood Check
"Must brands tread where angels fear to tread?" asks Bijoor. "By that I mean what the brand's role? Is the brand-defining for itself a larger role than it has of approaching social causes? Given the fact that we live in a sensitive society, where we are still climbing the basics of marketing and branding and trying to grapple with food, clothing, shelter issues that we have, we should not tackle sensitive issues."
Parameswaran says, "We used to do this big study called mind and mood. So, given the mind and mood of the nation, are you going to be upsetting someone? If they get upset whats your next move? I think Tanishq has done the right thing by pulling the ad out quickly. I think it is unfair on a lot of social media personalities attacking them for pulling it out so quickly."
Deconstructing the Advertisement
Yet Parameswaran thinks the advertisement was a good one, and something that reflects the regular lives of people. He cites an example of one of his students - a Muslim, married to a Hindu woman who had a similar baby shower for his wife. The student told Parameswaran that while Muslims don't follow the Hindu rituals, they did the ceremony for his wife as she follows the Hindu faith and wanted to practice it.
Parameswaran further adds, "But maybe, some semiotic cords triggered this because it looked like a North Indian Muslim family. And maybe that pressed some wrong buttons, but suppose the same thing in a Malayali Muslim family or a Tamil family, then things would have got a little bit friendlier because religious sentiment is stronger in the North."
Digital Is Now Mainstream
Bijoor says, the 31% of the total advertising revenue that comes from digital is going to grow to 50%, which means digital is not a niche anymore. "Digital is mass, very mass, as mass as WhatsApp. You know the number of people who are getting your commercial on a particular screen." says Bijoor.
With this, it's important for brands to develop digital sensitivity, so brands know if their advertising is affecting their real customers or not. "This means having the ability to mine and find out who is a troll and who the real consumer out there is. And if you're able to distinguish between the two, there will be more confident I say cutting edge advertising coming in the future," Bijoor added.
Does the ad and the controversy surrounding it, mean Tanishq's reputation as a brand has been soiled forever?
Parameswaran says, any publicity is good publicity for the brand and loyal customers will come back to the brand because of empathy. He adds, "I don't think a brand like Tanishq has been being built so assiduously so carefully by Titan, is gonna get majorly tarnished by this one episode."
You can watch the whole video here.