Rise of the ‘Boycott Squad’: Creating ads for an offended India

There was a time when advertising used to be the most glamorous part of a brand’s marketing strategy. But today, it’s all about fighting an increasingly conservative public sentiment, writes Pranshu Sikka, CEO and Founder of The Pivotals.

The country woke up to yet another trend this week, when #BoycottNirma started trending on our Twitter feed. The reason? An advertisement from the brand has seemingly (and quite unsurprisingly) offended the sentiments of netizens.

In the advertisement for Nirma washing powder, Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar is seen as a king and arrives with his army in a palace. After entering the palace, the actor says, “Maharaj aur uski sena dushman ko dhona jaanti hai, aur apne kapde bhi.” As a woman points to their dirty clothes, they are then seen washing the clothes with the product.

There was a time when advertising used to be the most glamorous part of a brand’s marketing strategy. But today, it’s all about fighting an increasingly conservative public sentiment. In fact, in the Indian market, the biggest tech companies also refrain from doing anything that might make them lose a huge audience. For instance, Google bans retailers from buying ads for erotica, and even Tinder suggests its users should get parental approval for their dates.

India is a crucial market for every brand, with its huge and diverse population. Get this – there are now more Internet users in India than there are people in the United States. And there will be more coming online in the coming years. But as companies pour more and more money into India, they are also grappling with appealing to India’s savvy urban millennials, while also trying to win over the country’s conservative lot.

Where then, must brands draw the line?

Brands have continued to expand in India at an unprecedented rate, thanks to a growing list of potential new users with a big appetite for all kinds of products. An elite class of user base wants advertisements that are unrestricted and uncensored. Case in point – the rise of Netflix in India as the alternate TV/ movie viewing destination, where content isn’t dictated by the mafia of censorship.

However, placating India’s conservative majority does appear to make good business sense in these times of instant outrage. A much larger majority of people are usually ready to lash out at any brand that they think has overstepped the line of Indian culture, morals and values. Moreover, India’s governing authorities also seem to react with the same sense of moral justice and outrage, making it even more tough for brands to reclaim any lost ground.

The solution in this case calls for balance. No matter what you create, it’s crucial to keep your audience and the cultural environment in mind. For more proof, here are some statistics. Harris Interactive, a market research firm, conducted a poll to find out how unethical ads can damage a brand. The result – 35 per cent of consumers will not buy products from a company that releases an offensive ad.

Strong images will always evoke strong reactions. Poor language choice, stereotypes, forced humour – all of these carry the risk of sending out the wrong message, no matter the intention. There is a thin line between being controversial or edgy, and being plain offensive. Brands and advertisers need to develop an understanding of the relationship between their messages and their customers, and undertake some social responsibility for the messages that are being resented. That’s the way to be able to truly cut through the clutter in a country like India.


News in the domain of Advertising, Marketing, Media and Business of Entertainment