Benita Chacko

“In the present climate of intolerance, brands need to stay away from religion”: Rahul daCunha

The man behind the Amul topicals for almost three decades, has closely watched how people respond to advertising.

Tanishq, CEAT, Mohey, Fabindia, Fem, Sabyasachi, and God knows what brand will be next. A new brand name gets added to this list every other day. The list of brands that have attracted the attention of trolls in India in recent weeks.

A common thread binding these names is the fact that they all showcased some aspect of a Hindu religious traditions in their advertising communication. But trolls seem to have taken offence to these, enough to threaten them or call for their boycott on social media.

With the brands having to tackle this flak on social media, have their creative processes now altered to suit these touchy sentiments? Do creative folks now need to think twice before creating a communication? Does the fear of trolls prevent them from speaking their mind to certain subjects?

Rahul daCunha
Rahul daCunha

To answer these questions and many others, we indulged in a candid chat with Rahul daCunha, managing director, daCunha Communications. Having led the team behind the Amul topicals for almost three decades, he knows the country’s pulse and has closely watched how people respond to advertising.

He feels that in the present climate of intolerance, brands need to stay away from certain subjects, and religion is one of them.

“There is no upside to delving into rituals and customs at the moment. They are likely to attract backlash. My job, as the head of the creative team of Amul topicals, is to create topicals that reflects what India is talking about. I strive to avoid controversy and focus on what makes India smile. The Amul girl’s personality is cute, she is a cheerleader and a social commentator.”

Having said that, when asked how it impacts his creative process, daCunha mentions that the fear of trolling doesn’t hinder it. In a country like India, there’s a wide variety of subjects to comment on, like sports, politics, popular culture, personalities and cinema.

“Every morning, the newspapers are filled with a variety of subjects. So, my decision is which topic to tackle first. Sure religion exists, but with so much going on, it’s only a small part of India now. Obviously, it’ll be on my radar for festivals – Dussehra, Dhanteras, Diwali, or Christmas. But for the most part, I steer clear of it."

Being a 58-year-old campaign, the Amul girl has a responsibility and a legacy to be preserved. It wants the new generation to relate to it and, most importantly, never come across as malicious.

“Our blue-haired, polka-dotted mascot is not just any girl, she’s not (late) RK Laxman’s cartoon. She’s the Amul girl, representing the Amul Butter brand.”

Speaking on the recent trend of brands being trolled on social media for the portrayal of some religious rituals, daCunha says it indicates that religion is a no-go area for brands.

“Fabindia and Fem should, maybe, have taken their cue from the ripples that the Tanishq ad caused last year. If you enter this area, you’re going to stir up trouble and have these guys going after you. You go through all the trouble and cost of making the television ad, only to see it pulled off the air. That’s no fun, plus, it’s a colossal waste of money.”

So, how should brands deal with these trolls? “I’ve always felt that ad agencies need to come together and face the trolls, rather than withdrawing their ads, as these trolls are looking for their five minutes of fame. Once the ads are made and released, the agencies need to stand by what they have created and not withdraw them,” daCunha insists.

Apart from religion, are there other no-go areas for daCunha, while making the Amul topicals? The creative team is wary of portraying ultra-serious subjects, like natural calamities or rape. Historically, Amul topicals have been light in nature, and aim to cause a chuckle or cheer people up.

“We’re seen as a brand that aims to amuse and celebrate. Tragedy can never be amusing or a celebration. Even women’s safety is a subject that needs to be handled sensitively. I have to be careful in the portrayal, as the Amul girl has a certain cheekiness and light-heartedness to her. As she is a cute little cartoon character, no more than six years, people accept what she has to say. They know she is not malicious.”

daCunha speaks with a deep sense of acceptance and understanding of today’s scenario. This comes from his 30 years of working on the Amul topicals. In an interview with afaqs! in 2015, he had said, “Earlier, we got sued, today, we get trolled and sued.”

How have things changed now? He says that over the last six years or so, he has become careful and, perhaps, wiser and no longer gets sued and trolled.

At the rate of a new topical every day-and-a-half, the creative team brings out many more ads today, than it did back in 2015.

“In 2015, social media wasn’t as big as it is today. Now, there are many social media-specific topics that may not go up on a hoarding. They remain on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Plus, we do many more local subjects, like South India is a large world in itself. There are many Indias within India, each with its own array of themes and subjects,” daCunha concludes.

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