Does religion stifle creativity?

By Ashwini Gangal and Sunit Roy , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Advertising | September 11, 2017
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That's what we asked a few creative experts, in the context of Jawed Habib's recently trolled ad.

Last week, an ad by The Meat and Livestock Australia Group was in the news. In the video, a group of Gods - including Ganpati - was shown eating lamb, the only kind of meat that's not forbidden by any religion. In that context, HGS Interactive's Prabhakar Mundkur wrote in a recent article on afaqs!: "...it would be wise for marketers to avoid material that will either cause widespread or intense offense to a small group; which is why I find clients shying away from using any religious reference in their marketing, however big the temptation..."

Soon after that, hairstylist Jawed Habib's timely Durga Puja-themed print ad that was published in a few dailies of Kolkata, found itself in the limelight. 'Gods too visit JH salon' goes the copy, accompanied by images of Hindu gods preening at the beauty parlour. Those offended - and there were many - went to town with angry tweets, and Jawed Habib's apology video did little to quell the fury.

In a 2015 interview with afaqs!, Rahul daCunha, maker of Amul's topical ads, conceded that in the world of advertising, religion is dangerous territory. "We take risks with politicians, not religion. We just don't go there," said Rahul at the time, referring to the news-based ads his agency daCunha Communications has been creating for Amul for decades.

Does religion stifle our creative juices? dacunha, says, "Religion, per se, is fine. But religion in its newest avatar of politics, Godmen and distortion doesn't just stifle creativity. It stifles the core of our being," adding about the role of social media, "Twitter is the new megaphone for a bunch of anonymous, repressed Indians..."

In fact, outside of social media, there's no way a newspaper ad in Kolkata can become this notorious, this quickly.

About Jawed Habib's ad, adman Partha Sinha wrote on Facebook: 'None of the venomous tweets about Jawed Habib's durgapuja ad came from the people who actually celebrate durgapuja in Kolkata.'

Will our creative talent always have to use their internal 'religion censor', one they develop over time, while crafting ads for their clients? Does this put us at a dis-advantage at a global level? Perhaps, at international awards, our ads might win more accolades if only we're allowed to think more freely?

Edited Excerpts.

Naresh Gupta
Managing Partner and Chief Strategy Officer, Bang in the Middle

Naresh Gupta Naresh Gupta

Religion and commerce are largely divorced from each other. There is no stifling that happens due to religious symbols. What matters is symbology that comes from mythology; the victory of good over evil; the bad effects of ego; and the loss of megalomania all of which are good things and have been used in communication. However, we must remember that brands have not completely banned hints of religion; they do exist all across the spectrum. Take the simple Ganesha on the dashboard of cars or trucks, people bowing down when they pass a temple or even the religious figures portrayed on TV enticing us to purchases.

Cultural sensitivity is a good thing; however, I don't think we need to apply a religious censor. If that was done, then many pop culture symbols would never have made it in advertising; for example the sindoor that was used by ICICI Prudential to build the narrative of security.

The first job of communication is to create a following for the brand; awards and accolades can wait. The ads that win internationally are those which remain true to local culture. Like the Australian ad for Lamb; if the culture of the land is religious equality then the symbology of sitting and having a meal together can't be faulted. Till ads continue to borrow and build on culture of a land, we won't have a problem.

That being said, it works both ways; they do stand and applaud when it suits them, however. Consider this, as brands we have always measured liking; we measure the awareness, the comprehension, and the impact. SM (social media) gives us unfiltered audience reaction. Sometimes the reaction from SM may not be the most relevant reaction or the firestorm may be premature, but that is the reality of the day. It's good to stay tuned to what SM says; it's bad to be a slave of it.

Sandhya Srinivasan
Chief Strategy Officer and Managing Partner, Law & Kenneth Saatchi & Saatchi

Sandhya Srinivasan Sandhya Srinivasan

If you observe minutely or just look at the big picture, there is clearly enough (and more) happening in this world, in the name of religion. This country has seen good, bad and the ugliest too in the recent past. Tempers get frayed, violence erupts, and people get hurt when a subject evokes a strong, often negative or difficult emotion. Why unnecessarily tamper with it?

Use religion, if at all, to impact change in a mindset, halting detrimental outcomes, in recognising that it's time to re-haul it, in promoting plurality perhaps or the need to elevate beyond that to 'humanity'. This is what the world needs right now. That is the only role for religion in advertising; the rest is just opportunistic.

Sumanto Chattopadhyay
Chairman & Chief Creative Officer, Soho Square

Sumanto Chattopadhyay Sumanto Chattopadhyay

Bengalis regard Maa Durga and her family like their own family. As with any close-knit family, there is love and devotion. But equally, there is also good-natured teasing, joking and laughter. It's all very light-hearted which, I believe, any mature person's relationship with religion should be.

I have seen Durga and her children portrayed in all sorts of tongue-in-cheek situations in books, films, art and, by extension, advertising. And I have seen Bengalis take it in the right spirit.

I am disappointed at the reaction to the Jawed Habib ad. I wish it had been taken in the light-hearted spirit it was meant. A picture like that would not have been amiss even in the typical Bengali children's magazines we grew up with. But with the trolling in social media, threats and court cases that seem to be the standard response these days, I suppose one has to think twice before bringing in any sort of religious reference in an ad. It would be prudent, given the times we live in.

Santosh Padhi (Paddy),
Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer, Taproot Dentsu

Santosh Padhi Santosh Padhi

We are a multi-dimensional, religious sensitive and emotional nation, which is the reason some of the religious parties are still stronger than some of the national political parties today. Most of these religious parties just wait for opportunity to flex their fake muscles by which such campaigns become a campaign for their parties and that's how they sustain.

Over the years, a majority of us have certainty matured and can evaluate what's really good and bad for society; nonetheless, some still get carried away without applying their minds. I'm hoping, in coming years, such things will see a decline.

It's not like brands and agencies are not thinking through the planning before they go ahead. They do apply all filters to be safe, but it's the job of many religious parties to dig deep and offer a new spin based on their own interpretations.

I have witnessed some of the best ideas get shot down and never got to see the light of day due to these reasons and I'm pretty sure many other creative teams have witnessed the same on their journeys.

My biggest reservation towards this is we, the advertising and marketing community, are soft targets when it comes to such issues. Many religious parties striping each other's religions openly are protected and there are no consequences. I have a bigger question here - Bollywood, which is far bigger than the ad industry and has a mega impact on society, are given many liberties compared to our industry; why? I'm not against them, but I believe we should get the same freedom of expression in a 30 second commercial.

Both social media and the media play a very important role in our society today, hence they have a big responsibility to shape the nation, how you portray the story clearly suggest which industry you're in.

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