Aishwarya Ramesh and Abid Hussain Barlaskar
Points of View

Religion, Twitter trolls and the great Indian brand apology note…

Are we seeing one too many apology notes on the part of brands? Or, is it merely a fallout of the polarising socio-political climate around these brands?

Tanishq’s ad film about a Hindu bahu and her Muslim saas and Eros Now’s Navratri-flavoured double entendres on social media have almost nothing in common. Almost.

Also Read: OTT platform Eros Now pulls down naughty Navratri posts after backlash

One is a message of communal harmony that was unfairly criticised by extremists; the other is an attempt at humour and social media engagement that, not surprisingly, went terribly wrong.

Also Read: Why did social media call for a boycott of jewellery brand Tanishq?

One was the object of our collective attention and discussion for weeks; the other was a Twitter trend that peaked and fizzled out in a matter of hours. Even on the product front, the two couldn’t be more different – one company sells ornaments and is present at the retail level; the other is a video streaming platform.

Yet, the two sagas have one big, rather unfortunate, similarity: the fate of both brand messages was written by angry, religious trolls, who were appeased with official notes of apology.

United in their respective anti-climaxes, the two episodes got us thinking about whether brands are saying sorry all too frequently and all too quickly… or whether that’s an evitable part of living in the age of Twitter. Or perhaps, it has something to do with the volatile climes in India, today? All of the above, mostly.

While there’s nothing wrong with an apology per se, it’s strange if a brand decides whether or not it will stand by a piece of communication depending on the popular opinion around it. Besides, by normalising the apology note, are brands allowing bullies to run their media plans?

Here is what some experts have to say.

Edited excerpts:

Sai Ganesh, lead, brand and marketing, Dunzo

A brand can’t simply assume that it is smarter than the consumer, especially on the digital medium. On platforms like Twitter, consumers are as smart as, or probably even smarter than, the marketer themselves, which is not the case in the traditional channels of communication.

This is why we're always careful to ensure that the brand is not communicating something that might lead the consumers to assume that they’re being taken advantage of.

Sai Ganesh
Sai Ganesh

Some people claim that brands deliberately create content to gain attention, and then get away by apologising. I’m not sure if that’s what has happened with Eros Now, but in this case, the content that was created was very crass.

There’s a clear line between the content that a brand creates and the kind of content that can be shared on a WhatsApp group. This is (really) badly made content and users will catch on to this and call you out on it immediately.

The hierarchy of importance in social media is that you get shared and your content goes viral, or the second is that everyone knows you because the content you’ve put out is purely in bad taste. Consumers, today, are a lot more motivated to retaliate against this kind of content, whether the brands apologise for it, or not.

Whether a brand should stay away from religious themes, depends on what the brand's purpose is. Take Tanishq, for example. It has always pushed the envelope in terms of representing what culture is today. Even if you look at Bollywood movies, nobody's ever spoken about a woman getting married for the second time, and having a child already. It (Tanishq) made that ad in a very novel way.

Tanishq always pushed the needle in terms of showing a slightly more progressive India. Given the current context, I think that's what it was going for. I don't believe that religion is a no-no, it's about how sensitive you are in terms of how you portray it.

It’s a sensitive topic in a country like India, because we have so many schools of thought, but I don't think it's a taboo topic, so to speak. It depends on if you're talking about themes like inclusivity and so on… I think it could work.

In Tanishq and Eros Now’s case, the context is very different. In Tanishq’s case, one of their employees was being threatened. In Eros Now’s case, it had to apologise because social media was talking about boycotting it.

The brand’s apology and course of action should depend on this context. In some cases, an apology just isn’t going to cut it. Consumers these days have a strong bullshit radar. They’re looking for honesty and expect the brands to walk the talk when it comes to what they’re actually saying.

Pratap Bose, veteran adman (founder of Social Street)

Tanishq’s case got blown out of proportions entirely, and there was nothing wrong in the ad. The issue became so big for absolutely no reason. Twitter has so many of these rabble-rousers and the trolling was so bad for no real reason.

Titan (Tanishq’s parent company) took the decision, considering the safety of its premises and employees. I don’t think Tanishq would have pulled the ad just because of the outrage. It was a truth about the country, and Tanishq actually got a lot of support from people from different communities and many interfaith couples.

Pratap Bose
Pratap Bose

This circumstance is entirely different from that of Eros Now. Eros Now’s ads were about sexual innuendos, and that is objectionable. I handled the Titan account for many years while at Ogilvy. It is a very sensitive client, and one of the best you can ever get. In the case of Eros Now, unlike Tanishq, both the agency and the client are to blame.

In Eros Now’s case, it was like a conscious decision, an informed risk it was taking. If it worked, it would stay, if it offended, it would be pulled down and would be followed by an apology. It is one of those rare cases where the trolls were right.

Kawal Shoor, planner and founding partner, The Womb (ex-Ogilvy & Mather)

The other side of freedom is responsibility. People need to have the freedom to express themselves, but they need to possess the responsibility to not do something offensive to others. This is the very basis for civil life. In the current context, people are using freedom in a way they want to, but that’s not always a good thing.

Some words can heal, inspire, they have that power to affect people. Words can also harm.

The upGrad ad we did with the donkey was provocative. But, it was based on a real time insight and was directly related to the category we were advertising in.

You have to understand that religion is a tough subject to handle with sensitivity. We are living in the midst of an intolerant society, where brands need to be careful in the way they project.

Kawal Shoor
Kawal Shoor

Religion has always been a touchy subject for most people. It is just that we, as a society, have become more intolerant now. If you look at work from yesteryears, most of the campaigns like What an Idea Sirji, Cadbury Dairy Milk’s ads and so on, did not have to resort to such gimmicks to garner attention.

I feel that the brands and the creators of the communication were actually just trying to make a viral ad that was talked about. Youngsters may not take this seriously, but others are certainly quite offended.

I don't think brands are the sages of today's times. Brands have a task, which is to connect the buyer and the seller. I sometimes feel that brands are overreaching themselves. You have to understand that everyone’s really stressed out in these COVID times, and you don’t need to be so intense.

Abhik Santara, director and CEO, ^atom network (former president, Ogilvy Mumbai and Kolkata)

Brands are looking for continuous engagement, so they are taking up subjects which can instigate some sort of a discussion or spark up some sort of a debate.

However, there is a flip side to that - if you are taking controversial, sensitive topics, you get reactions and therefore, your engagement scores go up, but you also have faceless trolls who can take the brand anywhere. They have an open stage, everybody can say whatever they feel like and, and that is a huge problem with social media in itself.

Abhik Santara
Abhik Santara

With issues like Tanishq’s and Eros Now’s coming up these days, brands have to look beyond vanity metrics. There’s a responsibility that advertisers and brands have; many people will be exposed to your message, so what’s the value in society that you’re trying to inject?

Religion is important to brands; the positive part of that relationship is not going to be seen as irresponsible. However, brands trying to ignite a divide, draw extreme reactions or cash in on religious fundamentalism – this is something customers won’t tolerate.

For the client, it is a matter of a few lakhs, to create something and put it out. If it doesn't work, or if it gets a negative reaction, then it gets pulled off. There is a sense of recklessness in this new world of digital marketing.

In our time, in classical advertising, the idea would have been mulled over a thousand times before being put out in the public sphere, after weighing all the pros and cons. The digital medium gives us a platform to reach out to consumers in a very efficient and targeted way, but it should not mean compromising the discipline of the brand building

Deepak Krishna, associate creative director, Schbang

Religion, in our nation, has always elicited, and will always elicit, an intense response. No major brand asset goes online without approvals from multiple stakeholders. Now, if a brand decides to go ahead with an idea, one would have to assume that the teams involved had thought of all potential interpretations and proceeded.

Deepak Krishna
Deepak Krishna

Having consciously made that decision, you are better off sticking to your guns. It might come at a cost, but that is what has been signed up for. Apologies can set a potentially dangerous precedent and shift the equilibrium in a way that could be very detrimental to creative expression. It will always be a very fine line for the brands to walk.

Today, no matter how you want to segment and target your audience, a message can’t be restricted to any niche group due to the way digital has expanded.

Brands, as well as advertising agencies, need to acknowledge that your piece will not just be viewed by your existing or potential audience, it will be, sooner than later, seen by a lot more people. People whose trust and love the brand may not have. The brand must have full conviction in what is being put out, and embrace the hard truth that probably not everybody would walk out of it happy.

The need to relate to the audience at a very singular, personal level can never be overstated in advertising. In a country as diverse, and at times, as easily polarised as ours, it translates into being very aware of the actual pulse of the audience.

The advertising world has evolved and thrived on the shoulders of brave choices. As we keep growing in the social and digital space, and audiences get that much closer in terms of accessing and speaking to the brand, those brave voices and choices need to be preserved and persevered with.

There must not be an untouchable, sacrosanct laundry list of subjects. However, the flight of creative expression must be guided by a conscious sensitivity to the prevailing pulse of the audience, and the conviction and belief to see your decision through.