I almost missed the controversy over the Tanishq advertisement which was withdrawn under pressure from a hate-campaign that accused the company of promoting what bigots call #LoveJihad. When this happened, we were busy dealing with a SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) filed against us by the much-venerated group that owns the brand Tanishq. The case, filed without any notice to us, in a far-away district court, is based on a bunch of false claims, in order to obtain an ex-parte injunction from the court.
Incorrect averments, lack of notice or communication and improperly served legal papers coming from such a storied corporate house initially had us thinking it was a hoax. So we wrote to the directors and discovered that they are fully cognisant of this attempt to silence and intimidate a highly regarded author and columnist who wrote the article for us. Since the matter is sub-judice, I will leave out details, except one thing. Even before the legal action, the article was subjected to systematic and targeted trolling in the comments section, a fact that was noticed, and remarked on, by other readers as well.
All things considered, the SLAPP suit ought not to have surprised us. The Tata group, indeed, has a great legacy and, arguably, runs cleaner businesses that many of its peers; but there is plenty of recent and published history to show that the reality is vastly different from that image.
In 2012, Ratan Tata approached the Supreme Court to stop the media from reporting on the Niira Radia tapes. In October 2016, Cyrus Mistry was sacked as chairman of the Tata group in a despicable coup (none of the reasons for Cyrus Mistry’s ouster have been proved or justified so far). Subsequently, most independent directors and senior executives, who dared to speak up for Mr Mistry, were kicked out. The Niira Radia tapes, whose publication was sought to be blocked by Ratan Tata, had already exposed the appalling strategies to influence political decisions and bag contracts, including the very shady dealings with C Sivasankar and the failed Unitech group. All this is quickly forgotten when we begin to attribute all kinds of virtues to the group based on the social messages of its advertising campaigns. That is precisely what these beautifully crafted advertisements are expected to do.
They create and nurture the impression that this large business conglomerate, uniquely controlled by a bunch of charitable trusts, is really one big philanthropic organisation far removed from the machinations involved in bagging contracts and running businesses. If anything, the charitable and social work by the trusts gives the group a rare ability to influence policy-making and receive unstinted support from innumerable non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and activists it supports. It is an incredible power that has received little attention or analysis.
Coming back to the social messages of Titan’s evocative advertising, let’s hear it from an expert. Shivaji Dasgupta of Inexgro Brand Advisory puts it well
when he says, “Let’s get it straight once and for all. Brands are not in the business of promoting social causes, unless they clearly add back to the business they are in.” As he points out, Titan is not alone. This is part of a new trend, made easy by the fact that social media can amplify messages through paid ‘influencers’. Besides, through digital marketing firms, they can be used to spread hate or gooey messages to enhance brands.
Socially relevant advertisements that speak up against class, colour and gender biases or promote harmony are a wonderful thing and, as Mr Dasgupta points out, have been effectively used by several brands, including Nike, UCB, Body Shop and Ariel.
It is also a fact that only social opprobrium at a global scale (‘black lives matter’) finally pushed Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) to drop ‘Fair’ from its popular Fair & Lovely face cream, when endless complaints upheld by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) had made no difference. In fact, HUL used to game the complaint mechanism by carpet-bombing every new advertisement campaign, knowing full well that it would have to be withdrawn in four to six weeks that it took for the complaint mechanism to be completed (disclosure: I was a member of ASCI’s complaints’ committee for a few years and had a ringside view of this.)
So full marks to Titan for experimenting with socially relevant messages, but as Mr Dasgupta points out Tanishq “is neither the passionate cause monger nor the hapless or spineless victim it is made out to be.” And the motivation, is not “a concerted affiliation to national integration,” but to capitalise on the “positive power of curated controversies.” Judged by that yardstick, Tanishq and Tatas have emerged a winner both in creating the advertisement and withdrawing it to protect its showroom staff. We already know that the alleged attack on one outlet was exaggerated and we will never know if the demand for apologies was, in fact, scripted.
So far, the calculated risk in producing sensitive, socially relevant advertisements has worked in favour of brands that have adopted this strategy. One often suspects that expert manipulation of public sentiment through curated controversies and paid influencers is an ugly part of the times we live in. Sometime last year, a food delivery company won hearts and earned kudos for standing by its employee after a ‘bigoted’ customer did not want to be served by a person of a certain religion. The incident hogged headlines and was the subject of back-to-back prime time debates across major channels even when there were bigger issues that merited discussion that day. Interestingly, the customers, who had triggered the controversy, seemed most enthusiastic about displaying their bigotry on television.
Soon, we were told how the company was ‘winning the Internet’ with its bold stand and furore fizzled soon enough with a blaze of positive publicity for the brand. Was this also a curated controversy created by smart marketing minds, in cahoots with media channels and ‘influencers’? We will probably never know the truth.
When corporates begin to manipulate opinion and curate controversies, things can go out of hand and lead to violence. It is all very well for ASCI and advertising associations to defend the Tanishq advertisement, but the whole business of media manipulation for corporate benefit (mainly brand building) is real and needs deeper introspection.
On 8th October, the Mumbai police accused three television channels of having fudged television ratings points (TRP) and launched an investigation. Among the channels named is Republic TV, which has consistently topped viewership ratings. Until these allegations surfaced, we were led to believe that a majority of television viewers support strident and partisan ‘debates’ and the crude violation of individual privacy that passed off as media reportage.
Maybe it is time to acknowledge that technology and social media are powerful tools that need some oversight, if not regulation, to ensure that curated controversies don’t get out of control. We may need new bodies on the lines of ASCI, with people skilled at technology, artificial intelligence, processing big data and digital marketing to examine such cases in future.
The very corporates that have won kudos for philanthropy or move you to tears with messages that promote harmony, may not hesitate to use crude tactics and financial muscle to stifle free speech, bag business deals or curry political favour. Wouldn’t it be ridiculous if we began to judge a company by the genius of its advertising agency? Large companies around the world already control mainstream media through their advertising and marketing budgets or by buying stakes in tottering media houses.
So let us not get sentimental about the withdrawal of an advertisement and ascribe courage or cowardliness to what is essentially a well-crafted and paid, image-building exercise. Let us focus on what happens when curated controversies become more frequent or go out of hand.