MEENAKSHI VERMA AMBWANI PRASAD SANGAMESHWARAN | Updated on August 21, 2014 Published on August 21, 2014

Earlier this week India’s advertising regulator, Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), announced a set of guidelines for the advertising of fairness improvement and skin lightening products. “There is a strong concern in certain sections of society that advertising of fairness products tends to communicate and perpetuate the notion that dark skin is inferior and undesirable,” it said. The guidelines spelt out that advertising should not communicate any discrimination as a result of skin colour and should not directly or implicitly show people with darker skin as unattractive or depressed. The ads should also not portray people with darker skin as being at a disadvantage of any kind, inferior, or unsuccessful in any aspect, particularly in relation to being attractive to the opposite sex, matrimony, job placement and promotions.

In all fairness, the regulations were announced nearly 11 years after a television ad for Fair & Lovely, known as the ‘air-hostess’ commercial invited a barrage of criticism even in an era when social media was not widely prevalent (See accompanying column: How dare they?). It’s a no-brainer about what would have happened if the Fair and Lovely ad were to be released today. After all, the ASCI announcement comes at a time when another ad from telecom major Airtel has triggered a debate about the role of women in Indian society. There is no denial that we live in times where any consumer worth his social media account is playing the self-appointed role of social media policeman or warrior, subjecting brands to intense scrutiny. However, the intention is not always noble. Sometimes, it is just to poke fun at an unsuspecting brand to get some Likes or retweets from their social circle. At other times, it seems like a mountain was made of a molehill.

A case in point is the latest Airtel ad. There was a time, less than a decade ago, when marketers in India predicted that ready-to-eat foods would never take off in this country. Their reason: Indian women feel that cooking for their loved ones, and being appreciated for it, gives them immense satisfaction. But the intense scrutiny of the Airtel ad suggests that times have changed. In the ad, a woman who is a top corporate executive returns home to rustle up a meal for her husband, who also happens to be her subordinate. The husband is still at work. The ad stirred a debate on gender roles and whether it was a reflection of the archaic mindset in urban homes and power equations between couples. Off the record, some marketing executives point out that no publicity is bad publicity. The Airtel campaign has become one of the most discussed campaigns in recent times and perhaps did its job. Others talk about the numerous cases in recent times where brands have caught been off-guard. Anisha Motwani, Director & Chief Marketing Officer, Max Life Insurance, says, “Social media has opened all brands to critical evaluation. Brands have never been as naked as they are now. This social democratisation helps in putting forth the collective voice of public on social issues, which brands cannot afford to ignore.” In the recent past social activism has led to social justice. “Brands may like to trigger such social discussion in order to not only stand out, but also be perceived as a brand which affects and participates in the day-to-day lives of its consumers. At the same time, brands should be cautious so that the net result of this social conversation adds to the current equity,” she says. Other experts believe that not all controversies are damaging for the brand. Brand consultant and social commentator Santosh Desai says just like celebrities and cricket stars, brands are open to scrutiny like never before and cannot control the discussion around them all the time.

While they need to be careful and true to their core brand philosophy, not every piece of criticism is damaging and just a part of life.

Raghu B Viswanath, Founder and MD of Vertebrand, says brands should immediately respond to the criticism, clarify or apologise. “Currently, the conversation between brands and consumers is two-way, and brands can leverage it to engage with consumers,” he says.

When there are millions of customers out there, the truth is that we are seeing a hypersensitivity to the danger of offending somebody or the other. But it’s important that companies don’t react in a similar fashion. “Given the transparency of new media and so on, something you do might offend somebody and they will talk online,” says Rajeev Batra, Kresge professor of marketing, Stephen M Ross School of Business, University of Michigan. “It’s not that people did not say bad things about the brand before social media. Except this time it gets magnified and it can be tracked through sentiment measures, twitter commentary and things like that. Some companies are over-reacting and over-investing. They don’t need to do that,” he says.

Several brands operating in India have attracted the ire of the social media police in recent times

Mobile service provider Airtel may be the most recent brand from India to attract unwanted attention on social media. But it’s certainly not the first. Last Diwali, beverage and snacks maker, PepsiCo India landed itself in controversy when in the lead up to Diwali it asked followers to rewrite Ramayana in 140 characters (the size of a twitter post). After a hue and cry on social media, the company pulled the plug on the contest.

Airtel’s campaign about a women boss setting firm deadlines for her husband at work but cooking an extravagant dinner to make up for it evoked mixed reactions on social media. While some felt, it reinforced stereotypes that despite breaking the glass ceiling and being the boss of her husband, women need to still go home and cook. Others felt it showed a progressive wife who would simply cook, out of love for her husband.

A more serious controversy which cost the creative chief of the advertising agency JWT India his job was the Ford Figo campaign. The campaign showed caricatures of Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi in the boot of Ford Figo car with skimpily-clad, gagged and handcuffed women just to represent a large boot space, another ad showed Paris Hilton with the handcuffed Kardashian sisters in her car’s boot.

More recently, Ogilvy & Mather landed in trouble with the ads that it made for mattress brand Kurl-On with the tagline-“Bounce Back”. These ads sparked an international outrage over the usage of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. The ad showed her tumbling down after being shot down by terrorists, landing on a Kurl-On mattress and bouncing back to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. O& M had to apologise and the ads that were entered for an awards show were withdrawn.

Sometimes it is the love for celebrities that provoked a backlash on social media. Irate social media users reacted strongly and insurer Bajaj Allianz had to apologise for a tweet, which congratulated Sachin Tendulkar on his 100th ton and then spoke about retirement planning for the cricket star in the same breath. It tweeted, “Congrats to Sachin for his long awaited 100th ton. Now don’t delay your retirement planning. #RetireRich #JiyoBefikar”

In some cases, brands have claimed that their Twitter accounts were hacked after obscene tweets were posted from their handles. But with Social Media, brands always need to be ready to fire fighting.

Published on August 21, 2014
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