Inclusivity and culture of tolerance under attack as big brands roll back campaigns, say industry insiders
Advertisers don't want people to get hurt so withdraw the ad not because it was wrong but because it was a threat to their people, adman Piyush Pandey said
An Urdu phrase, a same sex couple and a mangalsutra sans demureness these were the buttons of unconventionality that led to ads hoping to package tradition and the diverse shades of this festive season with that extra edge being withdrawn within days of each other.
That the ads, each showcasing a different mood of inclusivity, were for a FabIndia clothing collection, Dabur India's Fem bleach cream and designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee's mangasutra, the biggest brand names in their sectors and therefore powerful in their own right, point to a dangerous trend of intolerance, say society watchers and industry insiders.
According to adman Piyush Pandey, it is difficult for advertisers to continue with their campaigns "unless the law and order situation protects the people".
Advertisers don't want people to get hurt so withdraw the ad not because it was wrong but because it was a threat to their people," Pandey told PTI. The government and legal system, he added, have to "wake up to this".
As the polarising debate gathered steam, Abhijit Prasad, an advertising professional, said his industry is trying to show a world you want to live in", one that corrects inequality. But that was not to be.
And so it was that Sabyasachi, a favourite with the swish set, on Sunday rolled back his ad showcasing his mangalsutra, the black bead-gold chain traditionally worn by married Hindu women, the design varying according to region.
The designer sought to give the neckpiece, viewed as a symbol of a woman's marital fidelity and also of patriarchy, a spin by putting out ads showing couples from the LGBTQ community and women in deep necklines in positions of intimacy looking unapologetically into the camera.
The series prompted Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra to issue the designer a 24-hour ultimate to withdraw the ads or face consequences. On Monday, he added that there will be direct action without any warning if the designer repeats something similar.
Withdrawing his ad, a deeply saddened Sabyasachi said in a statement, "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.
The week before, Dabur India withdrew its ad for Fem bleach. In a curious amalgam of ritual, patriarchy and pushing societal boundaries for a product that many women find problematic, it showed a lesbian couple celebrating Karwa Chauth, a Hindu festival where women fast for the long lives of their husbands.
The ad, which tried to be unconventional within a deeply conventional structure, immediately came under social media fire. The Madhya Pradesh minister was again at the forefront, saying he had directed the state police chief to convey to Dabur that the objectionable" advertisement should be withdrawn.
The company initially tried to defend the ad, saying the brand strived for "diversity, inclusion and equality" but later complied.
And shortly before that, was FabIndia's Jashn-e-Riwaaz collection that attracted ire because it used an Urdu phrase that means celebration of traditions and also led to debate on why the women in it were not sporting bindis', once a Hindu symbol of matrimony and now a fashion accessory for women, married or not.
The brand was accused of "defacing" the Hindu festival of Diwali. It was also heavily trolled for what some said was unnecessarily uplifting secularism and Muslim ideologies in a Hindu festival. BJP Yuva Morcha president Tejasvi Surya described the advertisement as the "Abrahamisation of Hindu festivals" and tweeted that brands like FabIndia "must face economic costs for such deliberate misadventures".
FabIndia issued a clarification stating that 'Jashn-E-Riwaaz' was not its Diwali clothing collection, which was the 'Jhil Mil se Diwali' collection that was yet to be launched.
Pandey said the ads should not have been cancelled. The aggrieved parties, he added, have the option of approaching the Advertising Standard Council or the courts.
Referring to the angry debate and the backlash on social media platforms, he said, "I don't take social media seriously. It should come under the scanner of the Advertising Standard Council or the courts. So groups of people pressuring and taking law in their hands is a very dangerous trend in the society."
"The anger can come from groups of motivated people. It is not about community or group...no one has the license to take law in their hands," Pandey said.
Others also weighed in with their views, saying that brands being forced to pull out their ads in face of threats shows there is little tolerance towards even the slightest deviation from existing norms and practices. In some cases, there was pushback and in some none at all.
"Seems like this country does not have a judiciary/police or state since goons give out diktats accompanied by threats NO LONGER VEILED. Democracy-indeed!!!" wrote filmmaker Onir, tagging a news article about ads facing trouble in the country.
Prasad added that advertisers have to toe a "very fine line" and maybe Sabyasachi shouldn't have withdrawn the ad.
"But it's ok for one's safety. The situation is bad, we all know that. It's not the safest time to make any commentary on Hinduism," he added.
Criticising the controversy over the FabIndia ad, lyricist-writer Javed Akhtar wrote, "I failed to understand why some people have any problem with FabIndia's Jashn-e-Riwaj. Which in English means nothing but 'a celebration of tradition.' How and why anybody can have a problem with that. It is crazy (sic)."
In brand strategist Siddhant Lahiri's view, what is being targeted is thinking that lies outside conventions. There is an overall societal trend globally where "we are becoming increasingly intolerant of points of view which are dissimilar to ours , the Singapore-based professional said.
"Be it Nike or be it FabIndia, social media has equipped the masses with expressing their displeasure very vociferously. And that is fine, of course it is only through discourse that we progress however when discourse becomes prohibitive, there is a problem. It is fine to say that I disapprove of something it is a little dangerous to say that you cannot do something because I disapprove of it," Lahiri told PTI.
Days before the FabIndia, Dabur, Sabyasaachi series, an ad for clothing brand Manyavar featuring Alia Bhatt as a bride questioning the ritual of kanyadaan , the giving away of the bride by the father in a traditional Hindu wedding, was under attack. And last year, jewellery brand Tanishq faced a backlash for showing an inter-religious family.
Supreme Court judge D Y Chandrachud last week commented on the gap between laws aiming at removing social inequities and the ground reality while giving the example of the Dabur ad.
"There are real-life situations which show that there is great divergence between ideals of the law and the real state of the society today," Justice Chandrachud said at an event themed on legal awareness for women.
"Just two days ago, all of you would know, of this advertisement which a company was required to pull down. It was an advertisement was for Karwa Chauth of a same-sex couple. It had to be withdrawn on the ground of public intolerance!" he remarked.