Tanishq advertisement controversy: Should brands react to trolling?

Nandana James Mumbai | Updated on October 14, 2020

Given the polarised times, companies are walking on eggshells when deciding their advertising and branding strategy, say experts

For Indian consumers, being ‘woke’ is still niche, and brands will rather want to appeal to the masses, and this can overshadow the moral aspects of advertising, said experts. This contextualises the backlash faced by Tanishq on social media for its advertisement featuring an interfaith couple, but experts are surprised that the Tata-owned company took it down.


However, given the highly polarised times we live in, further fraught with the rising prominence of social media, they expect companies to walk on eggshells when deciding their advertising and branding strategy.

Tanishq on Tuesday pulled down its advertisement promoting a jewellery line called Ekatvam (unity) — which showed a baby shower organised for the Hindu bride by her Muslim in-laws — after people took to Twitter to accuse it of promoting ‘love jihad’ and being ‘anti-Hindu’. This came even though The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) said there was nothing in the advertisement that was indecent or vulgar or repulsive, to cause grave and widespread offence.

“Typically, trolls affect the brand image and the affected brand image affects sales. And corporate entities, at the end of the day, are all about sales and it’s important to ensure that sales don’t suffer. I would not grudge Tanishq for having pulled this out because it’s contextual to the age we live in, and the society we live in. It’s important for brands to understand (like in this case,) whether the Tanishq ad was criticised by real people or was it being criticised by trolls with an agenda? And that’s where brands need to take a call. Therefore, brands need to have a social media marketing understanding system, which is all about social media market intelligence,” Harish Bijoor, a brand strategy expert and founder of Harish Bijoor Consults Inc, told BusinessLine.

While companies and brand custodians need to be sensitive — so as not to needlessly offend any segment — this should not stop them from doing what is right, in the larger context, said Lloyd Mathias, Business Strategist and former senior marketer at HP Inc, Motorola and PepsiCo. When asked how brands can find the middle ground when it comes to respecting public sentiments, while taking a moral stance that may not align with the prevailing view, he said, “There may be instances when there is a clash between public sentiment and the moral stance and these will be hard to navigate. But for companies, doing what is morally right should prevail.”

But the market in India is not yet ripe for ‘wokeness’ and it will take a while for woke to get accepted, as Bijoor pointed out. “Woke is niche — and sleep, the opposite of it, is mass in the sense that the people who are awake are far and few and the people who are not willing to explore this terrain of woke are the masses, or in the largest numbers,” he explained, adding that brands would obviously want to cater to the masses, rather than a niche crowd.

Personally, he would want consumers to be woke, said Bijoor, before adding, “But, I must wear the other hat as well, of the consumers of India, of the large numbers of people in India. Woke is not an understood concept, woke is rebel, woke is against the status quo and that’s what is missing.”

The instance of Tanishq taking down its ad comes close on the heels of companies like Bajaj Auto and Parle-G announcing that they won’t be advertising on hate spewing channels and a larger overarching discourse on brand activism and polarisation. “Over the last few years, the polarisation of political ideologies in India has been on the rise. The rise of social media has fuelled this polarisation further, and various media outlets, especially TV news channels, have also taken polarised positions. In such an environment, backlash on ads or any form of content or messaging that takes even a mild political view is a likely scenario today,” said Shailesh Kapoor, Founder & CEO, Ormax Media, a media consulting firm.

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Two-way communication

Given this backdrop, will brands have to be more careful, going forward?

Brands would have no option other than being cautious and ideologically-neutral, as, despite their best intentions, they may find themselves in the middle of a controversy, like Tanishq has, said Kapoor.

Before the social media era, advertising was more or less a one-way communication and a monologue, as opposed to the dialogue and two- way communication with instantaneous feedback that it is today — wherein consumers have a larger say, said Ashish Bhasin, CEO, APAC and Chairman, India-Dentsu Aegis Network. Irrespective of the recent Tanishq incident, in an era where there is instantaneous feedback, brands have to be extremely careful and receptive, he added.

“What’s the purpose of advertising? Consumers have to think favourably about the brand and if it’s not achieving that objective, then of course, you have to be conscious of it and you have to react to it. But at the same time, it’s a matter of having a balance. If you believe in it, you must stand by it. On the other hand, if you have made a mistake, you must immediately take the feedback and act on it. In this instance, I personally didn’t find anything wrong, and was in fact surprised to see that they have withdrawn it,” explained Bhasin. Besides, brands have taken strong stances in the past and India is known for its bold advertising, he said.

Woke gaining traction

There are undercurrents of changes in this direction, with woke voices gaining larger traction. “I do think many companies are going to relook their present positions around staying mute. Many younger consumers expect brands and companies to take firm stands on issues that matter to them,” affirmed Mathias.

For instance, after Tanishq took down the ad, many people took to Twitter to express dismay at the company having bowed down to trolls. “We live in strange times. Bajaj & Parle say they’ll stand up to the forces of hatred.But at the 1st sign of trouble,the Tatas throw the brave legacies of Jamshedji &JRD into the Arabian Sea and scurry for cover. Apart from ethics, cowardice etc,this is a huge blow to their image,” tweeted Vir Sanghvi, a journalist and author.

Meanwhile, a statement from Tanishq’s spokesperson said: “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 withdraw this film keeping in mind the hurt sentiments and well-being of our employees, partners and store staff.”

Published on October 14, 2020

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