When brands run into a social media blaze, what’s the best way to douse it? Our guest author thinks aloud and holds a mirror up to netizens.
This recent ad on Instagram caused much anger on social media, even as the company withdrew it and issued an apology.
One could not help but notice the contrast, however, between this outrage on social media versus the concern expressed in closed WhatsApp groups about staff (house help, delivery boys) in condominiums travelling in the same lifts as the residents, post lockdown. In many condos, even in the pre-COVID times, there has been a practice of staff being made to use a different lift.
So, are these people protesting on social media different from those wanting separate lifts? And what about the much larger majority who are silently observing both without commenting? The truth, maybe, is a bit more complex.
In insights, we talk about ‘masks’ of political correctness we wear to hide our real selves from society and, often, ourselves. Growing up in a culture, we soak up the prevailing value signals, internalising them long before we can evaluate its correctness, or the lack of it. Faced with new, contradictory information later, it is not easy for us to completely discard the old one, so most of us operate somewhere in the grey zone between those two opposite points of view. This co-existence of conflicting value is the truth for most of us.
Social media platforms are much about those masks, for us to project our woke selves. Closed groups, on the other hand, can often reveal the more naked side of the society.
Be it points of view around gender norms, religion, caste, politics, sexuality, or any such sensitive subject, you have seen the contrast between more public versus closed groups.
In recent times, many (especially those from a younger generation) have expressed shock and disgust at the opinions they have come across in their family WhatsApp groups. Having grown up in a different era, many of them are unable to reconcile that their very own harbour views which seem problematic.
Twitter, perhaps, is one interesting platform where we see expressions often crossing the boundaries of correctness. There it is either done by faceless or fake IDs, or deleted after the tweet has done its bit with the right audience – a kind of dog whistle, if you please.
So, it is a real dilemma for brands – do they appeal to our real (if sometimes problematic) instinct, or do they take the moral high ground? Or is there a third right answer?
With rising (at least surface level) consciousness, much of what was alright till sometime back, is now considered incorrect/insensitive, so brands are forced to be more careful. At the same time, some of these carry the promise of impactful market result.
A few years ago, a foot cream brand’s TVC baseline went – ‘Chehrey se rajrani aur pairon se naukrani?’ Without creating an uproar then (in fact, doing very well for the brand in the market).
Apparently, the line met with some disapproval in the focus group discussions, being seen as insulting, but the client sensed the message had touched a raw nerve and went ahead with it.
Fair & Lovely’s line – ‘Kaash mera beta hota’ caused uproar, causing it to pull back an ad which did, however, help transform the brand’s fortunes in the market.
Dove, with all its egalitarian stance, came under fire for a body lotion ad which showed a black woman transforming into a white woman. Accused of racism, Dove apologised and pulled back the offensive post.
Today, with greater scrutiny and scope for overt public disapproval, when brands put out a message like this one, it can be a genuine slip up or, maybe, a cleverly designed one. Aimed to resonate with our deep-seated cultural instinct with a strategy in place to pull it back after the job is done.
(The author is the director at Learning Curve, a Gurugram based brand consultancy.)