Peoplewatcher: All that Glitters…could be a Trojan Horse

What’s really true about the Tanishq ad — hurtful & offensive or sweet & affirming? Are those really the questions we should ask to understand what’s going on here?

In Zhang Yimou’s 2002 film, Hero, we see the story of an attempted assassination through multiple perspectives. The key assassin, the King who is the target, other assassins etc each take turns to tell the same story. What makes the movie distinct are the colors Yimou uses to differentiate each version — raw, angry, jealous red versus cool, calm, sacrificing blue and eventually ends with a neutral, sans-bias white that tells the viewer what really happened.

It’s a beautiful piece of art that tries to tell a complex story that could literally take on many colors.

Where we are at today with the Tanishq Hindu-Muslim ad debacle is something like that. There are multiple perspectives and any attempt to make “red” any other color fails to understand why it is red in the first place. When we attach labels like “misogynist” or “anti-national traitors” to those involved, it’s going to be near impossible to see the ad (here) for what it is. That being said…

The Detractors: These are people who saw the ad as offensive, anti-Hindu, gratuitously woke, trying to appease Muslims while offending majority Hindus. There could be more but that’s the core essence.

The Supporters: These are people who saw the ad as sweet, cues an idyllic idea of diverse India, represents Hindu-Muslim unity which has always been a challenge and at a time when we should be past identity politics, feels super relevant now. At the very least, it’s not what the Detractors say it is and censoring/banning the ad is what is offensive.

The point here isn’t to deny what these two groups say but just accept that like Acids and Alkalis, they are different and exist.

With most art, especially polarizing art (and I refer to ads as art here) there will usually be two sides. If it’s going to touch political or trigger issues, so much more so, any attempt to get one side to see the point of view of the other is going to be utterly futile and about as useful as explaining science to a flat-Earther or silence to a honking goods train. It’s worth asking ourselves why we would do that.

Why does an Ad even exist?

Public arguments about ads tend to be about what we hate or love about them, presumed intent about the makers and while that could be important to those who feel those feels, that’s a pedestrian distraction. An ad usually exists because those in charge of the brand (owner, marketer, creator) need it to say something about the product/brand to a specific group of people so they believe or behave a certain way after watching the ad. Typically so potential consumers know the brand exists, believe certain adjectives about it, WANT to own it, say good things about it and keep coming back to it . Essentially, “Swipe right on us, left on all others.”

Ads rarely EVER exist to trigger a group of people or offend but that happens when a series of things go wrong in the back end. While it’s impossible for outsiders to know what precisely led to this ad being approved and aired, here’s what is in play to see the ad for what it is.

  1. What’s the ad trying to do: Hard to say accurately without being privy to the brief and internal discussions but it is likely they wanted it to be salient (on people’s minds when Covid helpfully depressed gold sales,) establish the brand as inclusive (Ekatvam), progressive but not activist (ironic), associate it with milestone events - for everyone. While this may not exactly be how it’s articulated, it’s consistent with the Tanishq world. But that’s also largely generic. Only a few brands will go “Nope. I’m not for everyone.” Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria Secret have gone there and faced backlash for fat-shaming but on average most Indian brands want more buyers and don’t deeply care where they come from as long as they can pay into the franchise. All of that being said, it’s hard to say how much scripted, over-produced “soft, idyllic world” ads really help when the pulse of consumers rises when confronted with more real, honest, relatable stories and experiences. Even YouTube sketches by comics and Instagram Stories often lend way more credibility and brand value than big-budget ad productions (basis consumer feedback.)

The key question if one cares about brands (and the people they cater to) is — what did the ad (or brand) achieve?

For the Supporters it’s no beacon of inspiration — at best it’s “sweet” and at worst it’s “saccharine.” But it’s no masterpiece that moves them to the core. What happened after the ad was pulled is worse.

For Detractors it is a war cry and will currently hold the lead position as evidence of hateful propaganda against Hindus despite a Hindu Nationalist leader at the helm. Many eager netizens from this army were digging further to prove how searches for “Muslim” yields 352 results on the Tanishq site while the same for Hindu yielded nothing. Anyone with even a minor understanding of online sales and search optimization can confirm that there is no communal angle to that and this is so because “Muslim” refers to a design ethos and style preferred by a group of consumers (who are also Muslim, most likely) and no one is likely to search for “Hindu” in this context unless you’re on a witch hunt to prove your persecution. The average shopping-with-money Hindu is more likely to search by regional preferences — Tamil, Punjabi, Bengali etc. And if someone is to take offense, the Keralites should ask Tanishq why they’re so woefully underserved. Part of the post-ad policing also involved hunting down a Brand Manager on LinkedIn with a Muslim name who most likely had no power. While there is no reported violence against him, it’s unlikely he and his family felt unattacked.

For the buyers there is no additional reason to specifically select Tanishq but enough reason to select others because just like a house with questionable history, buyers back away in the short term. If industry data is to be believed, Covid affected sales negatively in the first half of the year and it’s unlikely there will be a magical recovery in the second half — which means the negative impact could fade over time but the industry itself is hurting. All of which to say, not a time when a premium brand can afford to lose buyers with intent.

For the brand, in terms of values that accrue to the brand — it will receive zero respect from Detractors despite them having acquiesced to their demands. It will be seen with the same contemptuous stare that a bully lashes onto his cowering target. It will receive no brownie points from Supporters who will see it as weak, self-serving and sans spunk because the brand failed to stand up for the progressive values it seemed to espouse for its own gain, but backed away from the moment the going got tough.

And with social media fires and the majority taking offense, with the very real threat of stores being burned down, vandalized or employees attacked — the brand is in the unenviable position of just hoping someone else messes up quickly or triggers a vicious news cycle so they take the heat off from here.

Net net, the brand loses the most and if there’s someone who gains, it’s the Detractors because there is now evidence that this sort of sustained exothermic outburst works. It will not be seen as a victory where we can all now calm down and take it easy because that’s not how the majority reacts when they believe they have evidence of systemic persecution — specifically from the Indian ad industry. We’ve all now been recalibrated to be more persnickety and reactionary and all content creators will be more defensive. We all lose when that happens though it may not hurt as deeply as it does when your favorite IPL team loses a game.

Brands (and the people behind them) often make mistakes and are not expected to be infallible. How we react in the aftermath and what we choose to stand by or away from says a lot about who we are. When Adidas “inadvertently” sent out an email telling customers they “survived” the Boston Marathon, in the aftermath of the bombing, they shut down the backlash by admitting they were clueless (gave no thought) and insensitive.

The art of apologizing today (especially for brands and celebs) is different from what it used to be because it’s not about saying sorry or being contrite or even “pulling the offending stimulus” but demonstrating one understands why something was an issue in the first place. Most of these arguments are typically two groups talking AT each other and knowing why the other took issue with what happened as with say Sunil Gavaskar and Anushka Sharma, but brands typically don’t have that luxury.

Regardless of the final stand they take, they need to know how different groups of people perceive them and which side they want to take. This is what Gillette did when faced with backlash from men (where they literally took on their own target — gutsy and/or self defeating) for their 2019 ad against toxic masculinity. The outraged outburst that ensued pretty much proved Gillette’s point but that doesn’t help. Detractors in this case still make it a point to say that Gillette lost money (posted losses) and that demonstrates how wrong they were, but the real math is more complex if you have the intellectual bandwidth to parse that. Gillette took a progressive stand as P&G tends to take with each of their brands (Ariel, Pantene, Always, Whisper.) In none of those however, do they “take down” a group to pull up another, marginalized group. Spokespeople for Gillette have since publicly stated that it was the right call for them and that’s where they want to be. Detractors may continue to hate the brand but it wins the respect of Supporters.

When a brand issues what’s called a “non-apology apology” — however sincere in intent — if it has generic, stock words that reflect no values they stand by, no indication of learning or change — but just a “we wanted good, but you backed us into this, we are sad” — it’s hard to win empathy, respect or hearts from either side of the aisle or the massive middle.

As Lin Manuel Miranda evocatively says as Hamilton, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what do you fall for?”

Definitely easy for most of us on the sidelines to comment on but this is a tough situation for a lot of people. It didn’t have to be — but it is. As it will be for the team working on Muttiah Muralitharan’s biopic 800 (where he’s being called a traitor along with the actor portraying him and some remarkable forces of intellect on Twitter wondering why a Tamil biopic of a foreigner is being made) or those taking issue with Gal Gadot (an Israeli Jew) playing Cleopatra (a Greek, Egyptian Queen.) This is the reality of the world today and with cancel culture, makers of content and builders of brands need to be clear how they’re going to play this game. Dipping one toe and backing off quickly makes most people wonder why one went into those piranha-infested waters in the first place.

Nima Srinivasan is a Cultural Insights and Research Specialist, is the founder of Berylitics — a research agency and figured how to write many, many words on Medium.

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