The Cheat Sheet

Watch out! How ‘cultural blindness’ tripped up Titan

Venky Vembu | Updated on December 12, 2019 Published on December 12, 2019

What on earth is ‘cultural blindness’?

We’ll get to that in just a bit. First, let’s go over what happened to Titan earlier this week.

Okay, shoot.

Last month, Titan (a joint venture between the Tata Group and the Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation) unveiled a special edition line of watches: the ‘Namma Tamil Nadu’ collection. The watch dials in this line featured symbols of Tamil culture: motifs of temple architecture, the mythical Annapakshi bird (woven in Kanchipuram silk) and even the Tamil script.

To showcase this line, the company released an ad film, which has triggered a controversy.

I watched the ad, but I don’t understand what the fuss

is about.

The ad, directed by filmmaker Niyantha Shekar, is indeed slick. It, too, artfully showcases symbols of Tamil culture. And on the face of it, there may seem nothing exceptionable about it.

What then?

Earlier this week, the ad faced a backlash among a section of Tamil Twitterati, who even trended the #BoycottTitanWatches hashtag. Stung by the backlash, Titan withdrew the ad, and Niyantha, who faced a torrent of social media criticism, deleted his Twitter account.

Again, why?

As I said, there appears to be nothing outwardly provocative in the ad, and the visuals and the commentary seem to tastefully pay tribute to Tamil culture. But a closer look gives a clue to what might have triggered the response.

Tell me more.

One particular frame, which celebrated the distinctive Tamil alphabet ‘zha’, appears to have riled up supporters of the DMK party. It showed a Tamil journal Zhagaram rolling off the press: one headline, in particular, quoted Arjun Sampath, a local leader of a pro-Hindutva party, as saying that actor-turned-politician Rajinikanth would “demolish” DMK leader MK Stalin.

So the ad got caught up in a political crossfire?

There’s more. Another fleeting frame depicted a bookshelf: one of the books, Dravida Mayai (The Myth of Dravidianism), is a critique of the Dravidian philosophy that most Tamil parties claim to abide by.

More prickly DMK supporters even suggested that the whole ad film channelled a “Brahminical” worldview and aesthetic.

Are you saying the ad was deliberately anti-Dravidian?

That seems unlikely. But it’s possible that the filmmaker’s ‘cultural blindness’ may have led him astray. ‘Cultural blindness’ is defined as the inability to understand how particular matters might be viewed by people of a different culture: it has its roots in a rigid adherence to the views, attitudes, and values of one’s own culture, which may limit one from seeing alternatives.

So what seems ‘normal’ to an insider may grate with others. The phenomenon has been known to trip up advertisers, and has caused reputational damage to big brands.

Which ones?

Last year, clothing retailer H&M had to apologise for an ad that depicted a black boy wearing a jumper that said “Coolest monkey in the jungle”, seen as a racial slur. Earlier, the American Red Cross had to pull a 2014 poster ad that, while ostensibly looking to inculcate swimming-pool etiquette, depicted black kids as rule-breakers.

Other brands, from Nivea to Dove to Pepsi have all been similarly blindsided by ‘cultural blindness’.

Bottomline?

All this may come across as frivolous manifestations of easily inflamed minds. But Titan evidently felt it prudent to pull the ad rather than risk reputational damage. In order not to become victims of ‘cultural blindness’, companies and brands may have to get corrective surgery.

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Published on December 12, 2019
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