Let’s Talk About Zomato’s 'Tone-Deaf' Ad and the Conversation It Started
Why the outrage against Zomato's latest ad campaign featuring Hrithik Roshan and Katrina Kaif needs perspective.
Not too long ago, a sea of online criticism had befallen on the food delivery app Zomato as many delivery workers took to social media to protest against their job insecurity, a constantly fluctuating variable pay, low base-pay, no long-distance return bonuses, and alleged absence of the first-mile pay, along with poor treatment.
The food delivery app has had to bear the brunt of Twitter fury yet again after the launch of their latest campaign around delivery personnel, starring actors Hrithik Roshan and Katrina Kaif. The campaign ‘Har Customer Hai Star’ features a Zomato delivery partner delivering food to these actors. While the advertisement with Katrina Kaif managed to garner frowns, the one with Hrithik Roshan started a chain of outrage.
Roshan addresses the delivery personnel as ‘Jaadu’ (The alien in Koi Mil Gaya), as he delivers his food despite bad weather and heavy rain. “…Ek selfie toh banti hai", says the actor, but the delivery executive leaves as another call of duty arrives. The ad film with Kaif has a similar narrative.
The Zomato ad, as countless netizens argue, romanticises the inhumane working conditions of the delivery personnel, having them overworked, and not permit them even a quick break from the run. It has been said to be in poor taste and a mere gimmick to shift attention from the previous allegations by making their workers heroes. They have been criticised for spending huge sums of money on damage control with big celebrities instead of rectifying the accusation and providing delivery partners better wages and working hours.
Zomato, known for their clever digital marketing, also took to Twitter to put forward “their side of the story” with what can be called a non-apology.
This is not the first row of online frenzy for the brand. A few weeks ago, Zomato had released another video featuring Bengaluru comedian Danish Sait, where he is seen as a delivery agent, riding around Bengaluru to deliver food. The film, clearly scripted, was tone-deaf. It whitewashed the realities of their working conditions with a famous internet star, prepping for his one-day long job while sipping coffee in his fancy apartment, clicking selfies with customers, chatting with real delivery agents and comparing their jobs to those of actors as they too are “delivering” a performance. This campaign drew an outburst of social media fury, so much so that Sait took it down from his social media with an apology. The film, however, is still available on Zomato’s YouTube handle.
Zomato’s advertising has increasingly been focusing on delivery partners and their stories since the first backlash, which only makes them come off as insincere. They recently began an episodic series called ‘Humans of Zomato’, featuring delivery agents speaking their stories, reiterating the love for their jobs and are that they are paid well.
While the accusations made against Zomato may not be untrue, the furious backlash against their celebrity-studded ads may be unwarranted. The conversation has to focus on Zomato’s calls-to-action, and whether there has been any change instead of dissecting the storyboard of an ad or the intentions of the actors who are certainly not the ones to be blamed for the alleged exploitation of the delivery persons.
Advertisements by brands featuring Bollywood stars have been used too many times to outgrow a controversy and have done tremendously well. Case in point, Amitabh Bachchan for Cadbury when they were accused of having worms in their products and unhygienic factories. Oftentimes, the celebrities get caught in a controversy or a burning issue that they are not responsible for but become the centre of the discussion.
Aishwarya Rai's Jewellery Commercial
Coming back to problematic ads featuring celebs, a 2015 campaign by Kalyan Jewellers featuring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan—their national brand ambassador then—was put under fire for being racist and regressive. The ad showed the actress reclining under a parasol held over her head by "a dark-skinned slave-boy", as described in the open letter slamming her for choosing to associate with the ad and its poor portrayal of romanticising child slavery. The ad was withdrawn within a day.
Here, the actress was made the scapegoat in the controversy. Although the ad showed her lack of awareness and responsibility, the poor representation was the doing of the jewellery brand. Many times, actors have posed for an ad not entirely knowing what's going to be put in the creative, which may have been the case here too. But the heated conversation was not about distasteful ads that normalise problematic and questionable ideas, but the actor's choices.
But several other blatantly tone-deaf ads with beloved celebrities put a question mark on every explanation, offending our sensibilities.
Ranveer Singh's Sexist Ad
A 2016 campaign by Jack and Jones featured Ranveer Singh slinging a woman on his shoulder with the tagline, "Don't hold back. Take your work home."
The ad was taken down as it was glaringly sexist and reeked of objectification of women. It seemed like a print ad from the '80s in the West with toxic masculinity portrayed as cool, and honestly, should be left there. In an official statement, the actor apologised for the ad saying "we got it wrong". Clearly Ranveer here knew the sensibility that the ad would portray while he posed for it.
Apart from brand advertisements, celebrities have made extremely problematic remarks on the Internet that damaged the conversation around the ongoing subject, lacking sensitivity, and well, sensibility.
Celebs and their Cringeworthy Social Media Posts
Very recently, actor Sidharth Shukla was called out for posting a callous picture with a caption expressing remorse for the Taliban's capture of Afghanistan, used only as a PR vehicle.
In 2020, following the aching incident of George Floyd’s death, several Indian celebrities took to social media to give their two cents, but their contributions were only counterproductive to the BLM movement.
Bahubali actor Tamannaah Bhatia created an uproar on social media with her ‘All Lives Matter’ post. In the photo she posted on Twitter, a black imprint of a hand can be seen on her face. Similar ‘All Lives Matter’ posts were made by Sarah Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor as well, only to be eventually taken down.
Even a deathly global pandemic didn't pause these social media blunders. In a time where insensitive displays of fortune and careless remarks could cause reckless conduct by the public, a few celebrities still thought it was a good idea to display their entitlement, and were thus asked to check their privilege.
When the country was still swathed by the ravages of the second wave in April this year, Pooja Bedi asked people to 'free their mind' as she took a private boat ride in Goa.
So while the actors might only be "doing their jobs" when they participate in an ad campaign, they should choose wisely what they represent. Whether we like it or not, celebrities—especially Bollywood actors—have an undeniable influence on people. Their endorsement of a problematic message could cause significant harm. They do hold some responsibility and accountability for the brand message with their face on it. So it is only natural that they will, by default, be dragged into the outrage. But like the ad, their faces must not be over the entire conversation.
I am not saying that brands should not be called out for their poor messaging or shortcomings. They can have larger negative implications and we must question them. But it’s vital to reiterate that the point of the entire conversation is not celebrity faux pas or a brand’s advertising strategy, it is the denial of sufficient wages and unfavourable working conditions to gig workers. It is to bring about a dialogue that elicits change. The conversation is propelled by outrage for the failings of the apps that we use every day, and it must. But the conversation is unending, and lest we forget, does not even reach the tip of the unorganised sector.
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