The Tanishq advertisement controversy carries lessons in branding for every company
One of my college professors loved to use the words, 'omniscient' and 'omnipresent' in all her lectures. Whether it was while teaching Keats or Coleridge, these two favoured words would find their way into her English classes. My friends and I would chuckle at the frequent use of the words but as is with most things that are oft-repeated, they get ingrained in memory. Most likely used to describe God-like powers of knowing everything and being present everywhere, the larger meaning of the words would depict an unfathomable power that only God could wield. This week, these two words kept breaching my consciousness. What in our current lives could exercise some incomparable influence? The answer comes easy — social media.
This week had two case studies of social media and branding. One, the innocuous roadside food stall, Baba ka Dhaba, in Delhi. Run by an octogenarian couple, the food outlet had fallen on hard times due to the pandemic. A video that showed the old couple crying went viral on social media garnering enough support from the Delhi government, common people, and food discovery and delivery startup, Zomato. An unknown story but one that heart-warmingly created awareness of the food stall's offerings and raised funds; all through the omnipresent powers of social media.
The second case study is more controversial. Tata Group's Tanishq stuck its neck out with an advertisement that showed a Muslim family celebrating a baby shower ceremony following Hindu rituals for their Hindu daughter-in-law. What was meant to be a symbol of religious tolerance and bonhomie ahead of the festive season turned into an online hate campaign to boycott the brand. Faced with the virtual chagrin, Tanishq decided it would be better to simply withdraw the advertisement and apologise for offending delicate religious sentiments. The fact that inter-religion marriage is a reality in India and that the outcry on social media hardly bears a wide enough stamp of national disapproval was overlooked.
In both cases, however, we see the importance of the digital world. It can resurrect failing inconspicuous businesses but can also cause one of the richest groups in the country to meekly place its tail between its legs and run home to mommy.
It's not hard to trace the rise of trolls and hate campaigns, both just over half a decade old in the Indian context. But the case of the Tanishq advertisement and its subsequent backlash is not a new one. Brands have faced the heat for portraying a liberal side of India that has not gone down well with the hyper-national fervour currently gripping the country. Surf Excel faced it while releasing a Holi advertisement that promoted Hindu-Muslim harmony. Celebrities and brands associated with them bear the brunt as well as was seen in the case of Aamir Khan and his infamous comment of feeling unsafe in India.
So, the question arises, should brands use religion or sensitive topics to sell their wares? Some ad gurus argue that if the objective is to run a business, then why ruffle feathers? Changing the world is not the adman's job, opine a few others. While they may be right in their view, I disagree. Over the years, we have seen creative agencies and corporates take a stand on various issues through their advertisements. Whether it is to promote religious harmony or breaking the taboo surrounding homosexuality, there have been several pathbreaking advertisements in recent times; sometimes released selectively on YouTube rather than going the national TVC (television commercial) way.
Therefore, it would be shocking then to assume that the creative agency and the company itself had no clue that the negative campaigns could be a possible outcome. Given the presence of online troll armies and daily Twitter wars, you'd have to be living under a rock to not know that! So, perhaps Tanishq should have never released this advertisement or once released, should have held its ground and ridden out the troll attacks. Well, given the likely sharp contraction of over 10 per cent in the Indian GDP, I guess, even the behemoths aren't taking any chances. Otherwise, when fanatics would call the advertisement a portrayal of 'Love Jihad', Tanishq should have said, it's 'a thing called love' and we're sticking with it.
The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal