Aishwarya Ramesh

Learning from the Tanishq episode: When ads cause controversy, should brands stand by the work or apologise?

After being trolled - unfairly, one may argue - for an ad that portrays Hindu-Muslim harmony, Tanishq has withdrawn the creative. Was that the right move?

Smart marketing, when combined with an ad that employs creative storytelling, can help shape a consumer’s thought. A common theme that advertising has used is unity, especially across religions. However, for jewellery brand Tanishq, its ad promoting oneness, as a part of its ‘Ekatvam’ campaign, has been facing backlash on social media.

The ad was created by the agency What's Your Problem, and has drawn criticism for showing a Hindu daughter-in-law pregnant with the baby of what appears to be a Muslim man’s son. The ad in itself does not make any explicit references to religion, but the implicit visual cues were more than enough for social media to take offense.

A Tanishq spokesperson issued a statement in response to the backlash.

"The idea behind the ‘Ekatvam’ campaign is to celebrate the coming together of people from different walks of life, local communities and families during these challenging times and celebrate the beauty of oneness. This film has stimulated divergent and severe reactions, contrary to its very objective. We are deeply saddened with the inadvertent stirring of emotions and have withdrawn this film, keeping in mind the hurt sentiments and well-being of our employees, partners and store staff."
Tanishq Spokesperson

The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) received a complaint against the Tanishq ad, calling it objectionable since it promoted communal intermingling.

A press statement from the body mentions that the ad in question was viewed by an independent stakeholder panel, The Consumer Complaints Council, which balances viewpoints from industry, civil society, lawyers, consumer activists, as well as domain experts.

Learning from the Tanishq episode: When ads cause controversy, should brands stand by the work or apologise?

Expert Opinions

Rahul DaCunha, managing director and creative head, DaCunha Communications (Amul's ad agency), says that creative agencies and marketing companies face unexpected hurdles in (what he calls) ‘new India’.

He says that a toxic atmosphere has been created on social media. That, combined with the sensitivity of people and the immediacy of social media, means that people will take offense and communicate this easily. According to him, no more can a creative person create content without being extremely conscious of the environment he’s creating it in.

Rahul DaCunha
Rahul DaCunha

“In ‘new India’, staying clear of community and religion is advisable. Brands should think about big ideas, without having to bring religion into it. The cost involved in making the ad, and having to pull it down so soon, would be an expensive affair. But I do feel that it will be interesting to see how sales are affected because of this issue. I think it will help sales.”

“Marketers and brands can’t possibly be surprised by a backlash, given the nature of the characters and the situation being depicted. To show a Hindu-Muslim union of any kind will always invite controversy. If they had, say, a Gujarati girl going into her Sindhi husband’s home, there wouldn’t have been an issue. The moment you show a Hindu wife, a mother-to-be, in a Muslim home, you’re likely to create a controversy,” says DaCunha.

“The fact remains that as marketers and advertising professionals, one needs to tread carefully. It takes very little for people to take offense, and armed with this megaphone called Twitter, they can say anything. In the pre-social media, no way could a 16-year-old juvenile have tweeted threats to MS Dhoni’s daughter or tell a sick Amitabh Bachchan that he should die," he elucidates.

He adds that at Amul, they have always stayed clear of current topics that are about religion. “This (Tanishq ad) is a very lovely story about marriage and love.”

“According to me, the big idea is not the Hindu-Muslim angle, but that Tanishq unites people from all communities. It brings together people, who normally are on opposite sides. In this case, the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law, and it emphasises the warmth of their relationship," says DaCunha.

Anupama Ramaswamy, managing partner and national creative director, Dentsu Impact, confesses that many times in the past, she tried to bring a beautiful story with a religious or cultural angle to the table, only to have it shot down by the client because it’s too risky.

She would never hear things like this 10 years ago. In fact, at that time, it was quite welcome. She adds that off late, people have become extremely sensitive and social media gives people the right to say whatever they want and react in whichever way they want. This makes marketers really scared.

Anupama Ramaswamy
Anupama Ramaswamy

“Tanishq’s ad film is a beautiful one and I found there was nothing wrong with it. It shouldn’t have been taken down. The ad film’s main message is about happiness. It is just that its context happens to be a religious one. I don’t see anything wrong with that. There are no rules, we’re in the business of storytelling. People should take it like that. If it was derogatory, then I would understand, but this ad is nothing of that sort.”

“If you ask me, this campaign has done more good than harm for Tanishq, even though it’s garnering so much hue and cry because people are noticing it. They might have not even seen it if it was a regular Plain Jane ad,” she mentions.

Ramaswamy adds that when she (and her team/colleagues) works on a brief, she prefers not to have any guardrails on creativity, because a creative person would rather work and create something that suits the brand and creative brief.

“As brand leaders, we tell our teams and colleagues to steer clear of religious contexts. It’s not about whether we like it, or not. If it makes for a good story, we should publish. But having said that, I don’t think anybody nowadays wants any kind of bad PR. Marketers are quite scared of how people will react and how the brand imagery will be affected,” she says.

Suman Srivastava, founder and innovation artist at Marketing Unplugged, says that we live in a highly polarised world, and it is impossible for a brand to remain neutral in times like these.

“Every aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to the festivals we celebrate, has been politicised. In such a climate, a brand can’t remain neutral,” he says.

Suman Srivastava
Suman Srivastava

Srivastava recalls a study done by Marketing Unplugged and explains that Indian audiences can be classified into two groups. For arguments sake, he called them Yin and Yang.

“There will always be one group that embraces change and another group that opposes it. A brand has to decide which one of these groups it will cater to. There is a polarisation in attitudes, which is coming through in marketing messages too.”

He takes the example of Nike showing its support to American footballer (NFL player) Colin Kaepernick in 2018.

Kaepernick posted a creative on his Twitter handle, which was a black and white close-up of his face superimposed with the words. “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” It was a tribute to his act of protest of kneeling during the US national anthem to make a statement against police brutality in his country.

“Nike had the best quarter ever, that year. Its stock went up, and it became more popular. A brand can’t capture 100 per cent market share anyway. So, the people who did like Nike, liked it even more that they took a stand on such an important issue,” says Srivastava.

He adds that Tanishq has taken a bold stance with its advertising in the past and points out that Tata’s brands – such as Fastrack – have always adopted bold marketing messages, going against the grain.

Kiran Khalap, MD and co-founder of chlorophyll, a brand consultancy agency, also uses Nike as an example of a brand taking a stand. He points out that the Kaepernick ad led to millions of netizens setting their shoes on fire, including US President Donald Trump.

Kiran Khalap
Kiran Khalap

He adds that Nike made its stance clear and did not pull off the ad, despite people threatening to boycott the brand and burn its products. In the end, Nike’s market cap increased by $6 billion.

“It's an incredibly tough choice for brands. And it boils down to how deeply they are committed to a cause. If it is an advertising gimmick to draw attention to yourself, you will burn your fingers on the troll fire. If it is part of your business strategy, you will be like Patagonia, where you refuse to sell to fake consumers.”

Patagonia's ad
Patagonia's ad

Khalap adds that how a brand reacts in the face of backlash depends on how deep the brands conviction is. “Is it a gimmick to get attention in communication versus a brand's belief in the cause that reflects in every aspect of the business? If it is the latter, the brand would shrug off the trolling, like Nike did,” he concludes.

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