If you are a brand looking to promote your products in India, the Indian masses have already decided it for you – do not mix bold topics with religion!
The month of October witnessed multiple failed advertisements from well-established Indian brands such as the clothing brand FabIndia, the consumer goods brand Dabur, and the designer brand Sabyasachi. Each of these brands aimed to sit shotgun on the festival bandwagon, however, failed miserably after each of them was forced to withdraw their ads upon receiving heavy backlash.
The first brand, FabIndia is India's largest private platform for products that are made from traditional techniques, skills, and hand-based processes. The Brand made the mistake of launching its new collection right around the time of the Indian festival Diwali, and while allegedly referring to the festival, naming the said collection, “Jashn-e-riwaaz” (Urdu - celebration of tradition). Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) youth wing president Tejasvi Surya tweeted, “Diwali is not Jashn-e-Riwaaz. This deliberate attempt of abrahamisation of Hindu festivals, depicting models without traditional Hindu attires, must be called out.”
Eventually, #BoycottFabindia started trending on social media platforms. FabIndia was accused of “defacing” the Hindu festival of Diwali by unnecessarily connecting it with the Urdu term Jashn-e-Riwaaz. Many coined the ad as “culturally inappropriate”, declaring that there was no need to infuse secularism into a Hindu festival. Many declared that they would not buy from FabIndia again. Ultimately, the Brand had to withdraw the Jashn-e-Riwaaz promo.
Days after the FabIndia debacle, the FMCG Company Dabur was put under the spotlight for their advertisement of Fem Creme bleach. The advertisement that was part of Dabur’s #GlowWithPride campaign featured two women in a same-sex partnership celebrating and performing the Indian ritualistic ceremony, Karwa Chauth, and breaking each other’s fasts. Traditionally, the ceremony involves a married woman keeping a day-long fast for the long and healthy life of her husband, followed by the husband helping her break the fast with blessings from the Moon.
Unfortunately, this well-intentioned but unconventional and rather daring campaign fell short of its desired effect upon the Indian masses as the ad was generally perceived as taboo. While some of the more progressive young citizens received the ad well, “Well done, Fem/Dabur! A nice film for a traditional, often-criticized festival by an otherwise conservative brand,” another wrote, “Why are they defaming Hindu rituals by showing western ideas? This is against our culture.” Issuing an apology, Dabur India said, “Fem's Karwa Chauth campaign has been withdrawn from all social media handles and we unconditionally apologize for unintentionally hurting people’s sentiments."
After Dabur came the celebrity designer brand Sabyasachi Mukherjee, who was also forced to take down its ad for its latest jewellery collection which depicted models in intimate apparel wearing the Mangalsutra (a necklace worn by married women only). The ad was received as being obscene and graphic by the “woke” social media. The Madhya Pradesh Home Minister issued an ultimatum to the brand and warned a police case and statutory action if the “objectionable and obscene” advertisement was not pulled down within 24 hours.
In response, Sabhyasachi issued the following statement on Instagram, "In the context of making heritage and culture a dynamic conversation, the Mangalsutra campaign aimed to talk about inclusivity and empowerment. The campaign was intended as a celebration and we are deeply saddened that it has instead offended a section of our society. So, we at Sabyasachi have decided to withdraw the campaign.”
Readers will observe that in all of the above unwillingly withdrawn campaigns, the problem was not of the law, but of meeting public opinion. In India, people tend to be very sensitive to their religious beliefs. If a brand intends to raise a bold topic, it must do its due diligence concerning how the ad may be perceived, lest it shall have to pull the ad back.
Another very important point to observe here is that the entire backlash is received not through the traditional channels, but rather on social media. This fact goes on to portray how active and more importantly how powerful Indian masses have become on social media. The uproar would start via messages being floated on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc, and eventually become grow into an unbearable problem for the advertiser. As evidenced above, the advertiser would rather recall the ad than risk the brand’s image and lose business.