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Dalits Dehumanised in Indian Ads: A Teaching Moment for Caste and Marketing

Corporate India's marketing strategy often replicates cultural biases of overrepresented castes & causes disasters.

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One must be living under a rock if the latest Zomato controversy hadn't caught his/her attention. As someone who holds an MBA in Marketing Communications, has previously worked in the advertising industry, and taught management students, not only do I find the campaign by the food delivery app overtly problematic and prejudiced but also feel that it should be a 'teaching moment’ within India for brands to follow.

The marketing campaign launched on the occasion of World Environment Day made it to the headlines, clearly for all the wrong reasons as it drew ire from several quarters.

Featuring a Dalit character called ‘Kachra’ from the early 2000s Bollywood film, Lagaan, the Zomato campaign essentially implied a human personification of garbage or kachra that is associated with everyday household items.

Almost immediately, the campaign was rightly flagged as deeply 'casteist and offensive', and ultimately Zomato had to withdraw it and issue an apology that itself was criticised by many as being ‘half-hearted’.
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Casteist Content Marketing Is ‘In Poor Taste’

Most management programmes in the country today are deeply hostile towards any social science discourse. Management professors with Savarna pedigrees often mock socio-politico commentaries as "anti-profit” and “communist” in their orientation. This is a boring, repetitive, and non-innovative analysis by professionals who otherwise swear by buzzwords of "thinking out of the box” and "disruption”.

Corporate India’s marketing largely still relies on dated ideas such as "SEC or Socio-Economic Classification“ or "a day in the life of” non-scientific psychographic profiling techniques to "identify” their customers. Too often, it leads to the replication of the cultural biases of overrepresented castes and creates disasters like the Zomato campaign.

However, beyond avoiding tone-deaf communication, by not using caste as a variable to understand social identities or behaviours, brands are also missing out on major possibilities for maximising returns for themselves. For instance, the icon of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar is today being mainstreamed across a vast section of India. Across multiple states, his very likeness is celebrated passionately.

One is yet to see major brands utilise ‘Babasaheb Ambedkar Jayanti’ as part of their marketing calendar in any significant way, preferring instead, to pour huge budgets during the already cluttered Diwali and IPL marketing windows where there is little chance of a brand to stand out in a crowd of big-ticket campaigns. Similarly, understanding the local deities, community and cultural iconography, family dynamics of gender and identity across communities and use of hyper-local dialect/micro languages can only create more intense brand reach and loyalty.

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How Tech Boom Influences Branding

Too often, the term "aspirational” is used in the context of marketing to avoid getting into the granularity of caste and identity. This is very misleading. An early Vodafone/Hutch campaign featured an adorable ‘pug’ in very urban settings. This was a telecom brand in the midst of India’s telecom revolution, which had nearly universal utility from the highest income groups to the lowest, so can one ask what was the marketing justification of building a national brand campaign around imagery relevant to a very small percentage of the population?

The deeply internalised hatred for the 'poor and marginalised’ among elite urban Savarna groups manifests in many brand managers wanting to take their brand into a "luxury space”. 'Luxury branding’ is one of the most popular sought-after specialisations which B-school students want in a country where 90% of the population does not make Rs 25,000 per month.

The insularity of management cohort, reproduces in associated domains of tech and startup culture, where too we see an approach which is very often technocratic (and one might even say fascist in its deep love for avoiding regulations, democratising worker dignity and safety/well-being of communities within which they operate as issues of Zomato/BlinkIt delivery partners and Ola/Uber drivers signify).

With the rise of tech, one hears a lot of discourse around leveraging big data analytics, machine learning, AI, and coding being thrown around casually in the name of 'innovation’. While these tools and approaches have in many domains revolutionised entire business models, this leaning on technocratic magic-wand fixes, without a deep dive into the communities which constitute a bulk of the 'market’ directly or indirectly, reeks of a non-meritorious and non-serious cohort.

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The ‘kachra’ needs to be recycled and upgraded. But not the callback to an offensive character from a film in the early 2000s (one wonders what is the justification of building a whole campaign which fails if you do not remember/have not seen a film from over two decades ago). The ‘kachra’ of mediocrity within the larger industry and academia of management needs to be reworked and upcycled.

This sparked reactions in the film industry as well with Bollywood director Neeraj Ghaywan succinctly criticising the campaign and the character of ‘Kachra’ itself as incredibly dehumanising, and his resurrection as a human prop within elite households as deeply problematic.

Writer and comedian Anurag Minus Verma also explained that corporate advertising is a complicated process with multiple stages of execution and approval. He rightly pointed out that the very implementation of a campaign like Zomato’s points to a systemic malaise of corporate decision-making that comes from over-represented privileged urban Savarnas who have little to no understanding of caste sensitivities.

Lessons for Indian Marketeers

Maybe, this Zomato fiasco will be the teachable moment where big brands/businesses finally decide that leaving money on the table by not micro-engaging with caste and identity variables is perhaps "bad capitalism”. And caste is not just a social justice variable that they need to engage with only to avoid Twitter backlash.

In the mid-2000s, there had been pressure from many Ambedkarite and Social Justice groups for introducing reservations for underrepresented castes within the private sector.

However, the casteist and unscientific view that 'reservations are bad’ has long been normalised within Savarna circles and as such, India’s corporate sector resisted formal legislation by vowing to self-regulate and increase caste diversity.

Almost 15 years later, maybe in the interest of economic growth and market diversification (not just social justice), it is time to perhaps revisit that conversation else we will be repeating the discussion again and again.

(Ravikant Kisana is a professor of Cultural Studies and his research looks at the intersections of caste with structures of privilege and popular culture. He is available on Twitter/Instagram as 'Buffalo Intellectual'.)

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Topics:  Lagaan 

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