Recent events with brands like Manyavar, CEAT, Fabindia, Dabur Fem, and Sabyasachi – with their ads being called ‘anti-Hindu’ and Ministers threatening legal action in some cases – have led to prime-time debates on NDTV, 'important' op-ed pieces such as this one, and living-room discussions on “Are brands being battered by the moral police?”, “Should brands have taken down their ads?”, and “Why did brands make the ads if they only wanted to take them down?”
Some find it extreme that legal measures are necessary to ‘tackle’ ads featuring men and women leaning on each other wearing black-and-gold threads. But some others can easily explain what’s wrong with the ads: “As per Sanatan culture,” tweeted one Monica Singh about the Manyavar ad that touched upon a Hindu wedding ritual called ‘Kanyadaan’, “the parents of a girl who get an opportunity of ‘Kanyadaan’ are considered to be fortunate #Boycott_Manyavar”.
Bending the Truth
Still others defended the ad just as breathlessly: an article for Republic World argues that the Manyavar ad honours tradition and is "CERTAINLY NOT an assault on rituals", citing Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who held that Kanyadaan is a later addition to Hinduism that was not mentioned in the Vedas.
Some other times, it takes a special talent to articulate the problem. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Anantkumar Hegde wrote about a CEAT ad starring Aamir Khan, "Nowadays, a group of Anti-Hindu actors always hurt the Hindu sentiments whereas they never try to expose the wrongdoings of their community."
Khan may literally be an actor, but he was far from playing an “anti-Hindu” in the ad, what with the Indian flag smeared on his face and the national cricket uniform as his costume.
But his religious identity outside the ad is deftly wielded to make arguments about the film itself, and then again extrapolated outside the film to the 'wrongdoings' of his community (in this case, the Muslim practice of offering namaz, which, incidentally, takes places within mosques on roads and not on roads itself).
Similarly, the fact that Fabindia did not launch a Diwali collection with an Urdu title does not matter. That the collection was meant for Diwali and that an Urdu title was hence problematic were all decided by some people online and Ministers from India's ruling party.
Are the Legal Threats Enforceable?
How valid then are their legal threats against some of these ads? As per the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986, advertisements are prohibited that depict "in any manner the figure of a woman, her form or body or any part thereof in such a way as to have the effect of being indecent, or derogatory to, or denigrating, women, or is likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality or morals". Advertising in India is also self-regulated by an industry body called the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), whose codebook outlines guidelines. Chapter II is about ensuring ads are not offensive, in that "they should contain ... nothing repulsive which is likely, in the light of generally prevailing standards of decency and propriety, to cause grave and widespread offence." Chapter III, titled "against harmful products/situations", says that "no advertisement shall be permitted which ... tends to incite people to crime or to promote disorder and violence or intolerance."
As per these dictums, and the "grave and widespread offence" these ads caused – clearly indicated by Indian Twitter and its hashtags, created by less than 1.5% of the country's total population – the ads are in tricky territory (particularly Dabur Fem's and Sabyasachi's). Contrary to the idea that "brands must stick by their stand", they have to take down the ads to avoid legal action not only for fear of tangible material loss but also the risk to doing business and other costly inconveniences the government can create.
Manufacturing Consent, Twisting Arguments
But these very debates, of what brands should or should not have done, of the rights and wrongs of their sales messages, are illusory. In having them, we, as consumers and citizens, are given the sense that we not only have a voice and are part of an active democracy with lively debate and plurality of opinion, but also that these are the issues to discuss. As Noam Chomsky writes in Manufacturing Consent, any society’s major institutions – the government, business elites, media – are in cahoots in "setting the agenda", through the selection of issues, their framing, and the bounding of debate.
By both decrying the slightest variation to tradition as anti-Hindu and also “tolerating, unlike any other religion” some new ideas, and then holding national debates on the merits of both sides, the establishment appears to balance any conservative bias with a supposed liberal bias – while ultimately bounding the conversation to its desired confines: Hinduism or not, and religiosity.
But Are Brands Really Absolute Victims?
Keeping in mind the marketing adage that no publicity is ‘bad’, many have wondered whether brands are intentionally courting controversy. Brands certainly always want to make ads that connect with an audience emotionally. And in online media, where virality is a measure of success, content that plays to "high-arousal emotions" (both positive, like awe, and negative, like anger and anxiety) is likelier to go viral.
But the original intent of purpose-driven advertising was to connect with a new-age audience that cares about social issues.
But, as ad-film maker Prahlad Kakkar suggested in the NDTV debate, if the brands in question had really believed in the power and purpose of their creative message, they might not have been so quick to take the ads down.
In 2021, we hailed a 30-year-old Cadbury ad for replacing a male cricketer character with a female one. By throwing in religion, the ads by Manyavar, Fem, and Sabyasachi have risked regressing the modern female character to her role within the Hindu family unit. Far from pushing boundaries, they cement them further. In asking whether the “moral police” is battering the creative freedom of India's leading brands, we make it seem like they are otherwise using it.
Brands may have little room to do better, however, given our current socio-political climate. Described as a challenge facing them, “taking a stance” has already risked employee safety. A truly ambitious, provocative ad could jeopardise a brand’s ability to operate, create livelihoods and provide to consumers. And brands are ultimately only appealing to (their understanding of) the average Indian consumer – who is faced with the real challenge today. Should we truly believe that the environment is better off without firecrackers or that women deserve autonomy, no matter what their religion, or that ads should be able to raise these issues without trolls from a subset of the population forming the basis for legal action, we need to live in a different environment, one where creativity and dissent are truly fostered – for that, the consumer needs to vote differently in upcoming elections.
(The author is a writer, marketer, and electronics and software engineer by training. Her writings on business, tech and culture can be accessed on her website. She can be reached @ramachandranesk. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)