ACTIVATING ACTIVISM

Indian brands are discovering feminism and gay rights like never before. Not the least because they sell

Quartz india
Quartz india

In his career spanning over 30 years in Indian advertising, KV Sridhar has never before seen such a wave of bold, socially-charged commercials as he has in the past decade.

For the former chief creative officer of advertising agency Leo Burnett, and now founder of marketing agency Hyper Collective, India’s booming youth population and the growing spread of social media have completely transformed the business, demanding more forceful campaigns that take up a cause that consumers believe in.

“(The youth) don’t want to be left out of social decisions, such as politics, that impact them directly,” Sridhar told Quartz, adding that these individuals want purpose, and to feel like they are part of something big and important, even when shopping for tea or timepieces.

The last decade has, thus, seen Indian brands ditching the mundane product-driven ad approach, switching to campaigns that carry a social message on everything from gender inequality to homosexuality taboos to political apathy.

Just last week, two new campaigns hit television screens: one by Tata Tea, which since 2007 has highlighted anti-corruption crusades and urged more women to exercise their voting rights through its Jaago Re (“wake up” in Hindi) videos; the other by clothing brand United Colors of Benetton.

Tata Tea’s Jaago Re 2.0 is a step forward from its previous series. It mocks armchair activism, urging Indians to wake up and take a stand on burning social issues, such as farmer suicides and gruesome rapes, before they happen, instead of just waiting to react online after they do. Meanwhile, Benetton’s “United by Half” commercial promotes women’s equality. The advertisement pushes for equal pay for women and stronger representation of the gender in the workplace, as well as endorsing more choice in relationships.

In this way, Indian brands are echoing a global shift in advertising, with everyone from Starbucks to Uber spending big bucks to appear socially relevant, particularly among digitally-connected younger shoppers who are likely to reward a brand that appears more progressive than others.

Today’s millennial consumer is also struggling to make sense of a convoluted world where the threat of climate change and political instability are real and glaring. Social messaging, thus, is now far more relevant.

“Your ads have to be meaningful in the life of a consumer,” said Dheeraj Sinha, chief strategy officer, Leo Burnett, South Asia, explaining that brands that rely on social messages need to have a connect and the message needs to stay relevant instead of being viewed as “trendy” or “cool.”

Stand up, rise up

India has one of the youngest populations in the world, with 40% under the age of 20; it also has the world’s second-largest internet user base, and thousands of citizens regularly take to Facebook and Twitter to vent their frustration over everything from corrupt politicians to conservative social norms.

Alongside, India has also witnessed growing support for political and social campaigns in real life. In 2011, Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement took centre-stage in New Delhi, drawing thousands of protestors, and in 2012 the gangrape of a young woman in the national capital galvanised Indians to come out in full force against a misogynistic and patriarchal system.

In this context of dissatisfaction and the expanding presence of technology, advertisers have found a useful opening, with the potential of going viral with a well-designed video that conveys their support for social causes.

“With people now constantly commenting and expressing their outrage over issues, everyone considers themselves an activist of sorts,” said Amer Jaleel, chairman and chief creative officer at advertising agency Mullen Lintas, which has been at the forefront of many progressive campaigns, including those of Tata Tea.

Tata Tea first took on this approach in 2007, depicting a young man questioning the qualifications and work experience of a political candidate. That video echoed the widespread concerns over corruption in India’s political system.

At that time, “the undercurrent in the country was that the youth is looking for a change and for answers,” said Sushant Dash, regional president, India, at Tata Global Beverages.

Sridhar, too, believes that brands cannot afford to miss out on this sentiment.

“Brands don’t get to decide what they can sell, individuals do,” he said, adding that if a brand doesn’t relate to the lives of the young, they risk losing relevance to the competition, or even just anyone else who makes a viral YouTube or Instagram video.

In essence, Sridhar believes consumers want brands to take a stand because they’re (consumers) doing so as well.

Tackling taboos

The urban Indian mindset has evolved along with the country’s economy, influenced by global trends and greater awareness. Over the past decade, once-taboo topics such as menstruation, dating, same-sex relationships, and more have begun to be openly discussed, a sea change from the time when sanitary napkin ads were considered objectionable.

Take, for instance, homosexuality, which is still a crime under Indian law. The past few years have seen a number of campaigns attempting to normalise it on screen. It began in 2013 with watch brand Fast Track’s “Come out of the Closet” spot, which featured two women straightening their clothes as they emerged together from a hot pink closet.

Other brands followed suit, with often such videos going viral. In 2015, it was online fashion retailer Myntra that grabbed attention with a poignant video, titled “The Visit,” for its ethnic wear brand Anouk, that showed a lesbian couple preparing to meet the parents. Last year, eBay released a television and digital campaign titled “Things Don’t Judge” filled with several brief scenes of modern Indian life, including one of a man proposing to his same-sex partner in a park.

Another popular theme for ad campaigns has been women’s empowerment, echoing the rising number of working women in urban India, a segment with more cash in hands to spend. Brands such as Ariel and Tanishq have taken a feminism-friendly approach to their promotional campaigns, depicting young, independent women making their own decisions at home and at work, and challenging the archaic ideas of a woman’s place in India’s society. Ariel’s “Share the Load” campaign stressed on equality in household work, while Tanishq promoted women at the workplace. Consumer durables brand Havells, too, has incorporated similar themes, shifting the narrative over gender roles at home.

All of these campaigns were rewarded with media attention and the approbation of most of India’s online community, making a mark on public consciousness.

However, the result of turning a social message into a branding idea isn’t always positive. Some argue that the process has diluted the message, making it easy for viewers and consumers to disregard the real hard work that goes into transforming society over the long-run.

“I really don’t think the corporate market has become socially conscious,” Paromita Vohra, a documentary filmmaker and the founder of Agents of Ishq, told Quartz. “It’s merely recognising that there is a community of people who are propelled by certain identities, who have a relationship with those identities, and it’s converting those desires into brands.”

Vohra noted that the risk of this “consumer hashtag-ism” is that people are encouraged to just buy a product, instead of really thinking about the complex social and political factors that contribute to gender inequality and discrimination against queer communities, for instance, and then working to effect change in real life.

However, she does note that there are exceptions, for instance, Nike’s Da-da-ding campaign which raised awareness about a number of Indian sportswomen, beyond just the household names. These exceptions can sometimes break through the constraints of consumer politics and make a powerful statement, she said.

“One should not be confused that advertisements are about anything but selling product, but that doesn’t mean that from time to time an advertisement may (not) do something which could simply reflect a positive and generative change in society,” Vohra added.

A fine balance

Campaigns with strong social messaging also run the risk of offending viewers with alternate points of view. Last year, Havells, a brand that has consistently tackled social issues such as women’s rights and the caste system, was forced to withdraw an ad that critiqued the policy of reservation of seats in educational institutes and government jobs for minorities and backward classes. In the context of protests in the northern state of Haryana by the Jat community, which sought job reservation, the campaign was not well received by many viewers.

“We did not want negative publicity around the brand,” Vijay Narayanan, senior vice-president, Havells India, told Quartz.

And that illustrates the fine balance required while taking the social message approach. On the one hand, brands need to take a stand, and on the other, they must be careful about how far they can go.

There’s also the real risk that as more brands follow suit, fatigue will set in, prompting consumers to look for more exciting, unconventional approaches.

“Activism is active today, everyone wants to participate in it because activists are people who are different, and everyone wants to be different,” said Jaleel of Lintas. “But very soon a time will come when people will get off the activism thing, because sooner than later, everybody will become like that.”

And for all you know, Jaleel noted, that will give way to another trend.

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