Opinion News
April 27,2015

Responsible advertising

Asna Ali
Somebody somewhere thought it was a really good idea. To publish an ad for Kalyan Jewellers with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan dressed in traditional grab and bedecked in jewels – looking much fairer than usual. A small emaciated boy with dark skin stood behind her holding an umbrella.
Following the uproar on social media and an open letter to Aishwarya by a group of activists, the ad was pulled. Aishwarya’s claimed that the boy was not present in the original picture and that she did not participate in the decision-making process that led to the creation of that final image.
Kalyan Jewellers meanwhile, issued a non-apology saying that the ad was meant to present ‘royalty, timeless beauty and elegance’. Except that their idea of timeless beauty is outdated and offensive to modern values. Those days are gone when images of elegant, royal beauties surrounded by their serfs were considered ‘timeless’. Slavery has been out of fashion for a long time but apparently Kalyan and their advertising team did not get the memo.
The interesting aspect of this particular advertising controversy is not the reaction to uproar. The instinct of parties involved in such flubs is usually to place the blame on someone else, as done by Aishwarya or to issue a statement which while presenting the look of an apology, is really a defence of the misdeed.
What is worth looking at is the social change that has taken place in India and the way public perceptions about well-established ideas is changing. Fair skin has always been associated with class divides in South Asia and for centuries that has been the status quo. But as Indian society educates itself more and more about the ramifications of these divides and stereotypes, the backlash towards those who fail to adhere to new value systems is becoming more intense. The juxtaposition of a rich fair-skinned woman next to an ill-fed dark child in a servant role may have been acceptable a few years ago. But not anymore.
The job of advertisers is to get their message across to their target customers – as clearly as possible. They face the challenge of creating a message that is different enough to stand out and be memorable but not so different that it offends their audience’s sensibilities. It is a fine balance that most fail to maintain by erring on the side of caution. New advertisements are often just more of the same. Advertisers know what is liked and just keep on bringing out slightly modified iterations of it. Rarely does an idea come along that has the right blend of all the ingredients for a perfectly simple, original and captivating ad.
The strategy works out well enough in many cases but sometimes repeating a tried and tested formula fails spectacularly as it did in the case of Kalyan Jewellers. The Indian public is not captivated by images of class divide and Kalyan should have understood this.
Advertisements exist to sell products. It is not part of their agenda to influence social values except where it helps sell more. Even so, in a world where big businesses have more influence than governments, the burden of social responsibility has grown.
Today’s consumers know which products they need but they also know which value systems they want their purchases to represent. And they are very vocal in expressing their distaste for what falls below standards. Any company that fails to understand this does so at its own peril. As Kalyan and Aishwarya have found out, it takes more than a pretty face to make a good ad.
The writer is a business studies graduate from southern Punjab.
Email: asna.ali90

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