Daag Acche Nahin Hain!

Just as I was checking my Twitter feed this Sunday morning, I saw the #Surfexcel trending. Initially I ignored attributing it to some sponsored marketing campaign. But when I saw a whole bunch of individuals from the Right to the Left tweeting on the same, I decided to check it out. There, I could see other hashtags calling for a boycott of Unilever products and so on. The reason for the furore being, this ad (watch here) which Hindustan Unilever (HUL) has made for Surf Excel for the upcoming Holi. I watched the ad and I thought it was a brilliant ad though the theme has got a bit repetitive particularly with HUL these days!

People calling for a boycott of Surf Excel and Unilever products though, had a different take. They questioned the need for the company to pick up on a Hindu festival (Holi) to push their product. Few also quizzed if Unilever would do an ad around any Muslim festival. There were also many other tweets with images of Muslim festivals photo shopped with Surf Excel and its now famous tag line – ‘Daag Acche Hain’!  Notwithstanding all this, the ad achieved the purpose of creating a buzz and finally going viral.

This comes closely in the heels of another ad from the same company created during the Kumbh Mela! This ad (Watch here) for their Brooke Bond Red label Tea literally kicked up a storm in the social media tea-cup! . Though extremely well made, it is clear from the ad that the product and its attributes were secondary while the primary objective was just to ride the buzz around the Kumbh. While the commercial went viral on many WhatsApp groups as a great ad, on Twitter though, folks derided the company HUL for hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus. The supers that appeared at the end of the ad said, “Kumbh Mela is the largest religious gathering in the world. At this holy gathering, many elderly are abandoned by their families”!

I am not sure what kind of research went behind, to make a statement like this.  Nevertheless, the ad, I repeat very well made and executed, came across as a botched attempt where just to bring in the “Kumbh” story, you build a very touchy and probably insensitive narrative. I would rather prefer the approach by Fevicol in a similar context for the Kumbh where, they weaved a positive story (watch the ad here) around the event while plugging the attributes of the product effectively.  In the Red label ad, the product got thrust upon in the story at the end. With the massive uproar about this ad in social media, I am told that the company decided to take down the same. However, it didn’t stop it from going viral on social media platforms where it got trolled heavily.

These days, companies when they brief the agency for their commercials, I think must be outlining their 1st objective as “It should go viral”! As I had written in my earlier posts, “Stir up to sell” is an old ploy in marketing and advertising.  Achieving the objective of getting ad go viral is of late falling into very predictable tropes like Hindu – Muslim unity sentiment, Indo – Pak emotion and so on.

The larger point I am trying to put forward though, is different.  Few days back, I received as a forward on WhatsApp a clip which, I then gathered was a trailer for an upcoming web series titled ‘Metro Park’. Watch it here. I watched it, had a hearty laugh and forwarded the same to few other WhatsApp groups as is the wont these days. Little did I realise that, even for what I perceived as a routine comedy clip, I would receive some critique questioning, if the makers would dare to make fun of any other religion’s practices in a similar way!

A few years back, the Surf Excel Ad and the Red Label Kumbh ad would have just got beamed across homes through your television sets and the agencies would have just walked away with awards galore. But today, there is no such getting away easily. Though personally I thought that the Surf Excel Holi Ad is a brilliant one which weaves in the product attributes into the Holi story, while at the same time talking of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood… the extreme reactions against the ad actually conveys something else. That of bringing to the fore the fault lines that exist/existed all along in our society.

First of all, the repeated emergence of these themes in ads is itself an aberration in my view. A Unilever company in another country say in the US or in Europe I feel, will not take pains to come up with an ad promoting Hindu-Muslim unity in the guise of promoting their product. After over 70 years of Independence and declaring ourselves as a secular nation, if we have to keep clutching at straws (read as films and TV Commercials) to promote self-belief as a secular nation, something has gone wrong somewhere. Secondly, the extreme reactions a TV commercial promoting harmony evokes among us, also is worrisome.  While social media playing the role of a watch dog is good, more often than not, it is barking up the wrong tree.

‘Daag Acche Hain’ (Stains are good) may be a good tag line for a detergent.  However, “Communal”, “Bigoted” as tags are stains. And as a country we could do without such stains. Kyunki woh Daag acche nahin hain!

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Time to shoot the messenger?

“Don’t shoot the messenger” is a cliché often used to decry when someone criticizes the media which is the bearer of bad news, instead of the one who was responsible for it. In the context of what’s been happening in India in the last few days, I am tempted to relieve this cliché of the word ‘Don’t”! We all now know that, media all over the world in general and India in particular is only headed towards abyss! And what we saw in India in the past few days only put a stamp of confirmation on it!

In the wee hours of 26th, India conducted a daring air attack deep inside Pakistan targeting some terror camps on what was touted as a retaliation to the Pulwama attack when over 40 CRPF jawans were killed by a suicide bomber of the Jaish. When we started hearing the news, incidentally first through cryptic tweets from the Pakistani side, journalists of all hue starting dialling up their sources and putting out more details – some true and rest hearsay accounts. In just a few hours, mainstream media and social media were engulfed with a tsunami of nationalistic pride over the attack, even when the Government or the forces never came out with the details in public. #Indiastrikesback, #Surgicalstrike2 and other hashtags started trending on social media and not to mention of the myriad memes taking pot shot on Pakistan!

There was a visible difference on the Indian response to Pak terror attack this time. Unlike in the past (particularly in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks) when India played the “responsible” card, this time the “Mirage” was for real (pun intended). Notwithstanding the valour and the efficiency of the armed forces in carrying out this attack, make no mistake, it was possible only because there was a go ahead for such a daring action from the political leadership of the day.  Unfortunately, in these days of a divided polity, opposition leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati and the like chose to be petulance personified as seen from their tweets! They all congratulated the IAF and chose to remain silent on the intention of the Govt. forgetting the fact that in situations like these, if there is no political will, there is no way! I am not sure, if BJP was in opposition under the same circumstances, they would have acted differently. Be that as it may, given that this is election season in India, the way media and some of the star anchors and journalists handled this was baffling.  In some of the channels, it was nothing but war mongering. War sets and props, anchors in army fatigues, prime time was unambiguously playing to the gallery. The pro-Govt. journalists had a field day frothing on TV, spitting venom on their social media handles without any responsibility.

The next day i.e. on 27th Feb, Pakistan now chose to retaliate just as their Prime Minister Imran Khan had warned. For many hours, it was not clear what exactly happened as the news trickled in bits and pieces. But soon it emerged that while we were able to put down one Pakistani F16, one of our pilots unfortunately ended up in Pakistan’s custody. Just as news of this emerged, the whole commentary in the media changed. The liberal commentariat which was cooling its heels the previous day came out with their daggers open, now blasting the Indian Govt. for war mongering and sacrificing its brave men with its mindless actions. As #SayNotoWar started trending, our country’s soft underbelly got exposed once again. During the Kandahar hijack, the same thing happened. And further when Imran Khan made a peace dove like statement in their Parliament that they were freeing our officer the next day, the exposure was complete, in my opinion.

From purely Optics point of view, there is no doubt that Imran Khan made most of the situation. While it was well known that they had no choice but freeing a POW, by doing that swiftly, Imran Khan won the perception battle. But to designate and celebrate him as an apostle of peace, just how some of the media personalities were doing on Thursday, was gross injustice to the 40+ jawans who lost their lives just few days back! Back then, the same Imran Khan did not have the courtesy to either condemn or regret the dastardly attack and just mouthed the same “show proof” rhetoric! Now this time it was the turn of the media which is against the BJP/Modi to pursue their agenda and were having their field day!

Neutrality in journalism is now passé. In addition to this agenda driven journalism which now we have learnt to live with, the behaviour of the politicians from both sides was equally regressive and repulsive.  While the ruling party taking this issue to the polls is not avoidable and partially understandable, counting the seat chicken before the border tension hatches as some BJP politicians were doing is highly condemnble.

So in India, we swing from one extreme to another so easily.  From one day shouting from the rooftop of “using our right to attack” in the verge of a terrorist attack to pushing for de-escalation and pull back the moment one of our officers get caught the next day, we proved that we are indeed a country of weak hearts.

Amidst all this, if we have to take lesson on response to these kind of situations, it must be from our defence forces. The same day evening when Imran announced that our officer Abhinandan would be returned to India, there was a presser by the armed forces team which I thought was brilliant, thoroughly professional and to the point. Even when prodded to respond to the so called “good will gesture” of Pakistan in returning our officer, Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor stuck to the fact that it was just an “act” which any country was supposed to do and that the IAF was happy to have the officer back. Period. And the whole presser had lessons for journalists and social media warriors on reporting facts, not giving own interpretations and not getting into matters which was not their domain. It is now part of folklore on how the officer Abhinandan behaved under custody. The training and upbringing certainly showed!

The big difference in the media today in situations like these is the arrival of the monster called Social media. Social media not just gives a platform to all of us to express ourselves, it also becomes a platform for professional journalists to display their loyalties and show where their heart lies. It is indeed great to note that our Govt. didn’t buy into the canard of those putting out their own opinions based on their loyalties this way or that way and stuck to their actions in this situation.

As Social media commentary feeds off into main stream media and vice versa and with government functionaries actively present in the social media these days, one gets concerned if governance becomes a prisoner of media’s whims and fancies. And if that begins to happen, time to “Shoot the messenger, folks!

Cartoon courtesy: Amul