Small finance bank AU Bank has landed in a soup for its recent ad featuring Aamir Khan and Kiara Advani for hurting religious sentiments. This is not the first time an ad has stirred up a controversy for trying to portray a progressive theme – in this instance a groom moving into his bride's home after marriage, inverting gender stereotypes and thus challenging convention.
Tanishq jewellery, ethnic apparel maker Fabindia, and food aggregator Zomato, have all previously faced the economic consequences of upsetting some segment or the other.
The AU Bank ad did not go down well and flared up a controversy on social media where trolls slammed the ad for mocking traditions. Another issue was that Aamir Khan, who in this ad advocated breaking tradition, has in an earlier episode of TV show ‘Satyamev Jayate’ spoken about religious beliefs and traditions being a private affair – many think this reeked of double standards. Fearing a backlash AU bank has withdrawn the ad.
This is only the latest instance of religious and cultural touchiness over ads, impacting brands and businesses in India by triggering a cancel culture. In an increasingly polarised world, brands are beginning to be caught in the political crossfire.
Social media activism spreads anger, misinformation, and sentimentalism faster than logical and researched analysis. Audiences today have the ability to directly confront brands and impact their sales. At the same time easy social media access, and engineered activism by troll armies provides the much-needed oxygen to keep these issues alive.
Most brands will always stay away from courting controversies as no brand can afford the consequences of a boycott – no matter how flimsy the reason. However, does this mean brand custodians acquiesce and totally avoid any theme that can have the slightest hint of controversy?
Social media activism spreads anger, misinformation, and sentimentalism faster than logical and researched analysis.
With businesses seeking a larger purpose and a new generation of consumers more conscientious and aligned to causes there has been a global push for brands to become the harbingers of social change. Brands are important elements in shaping culture and are expected to endorse conscious and progressive choices. Given their heft and reach, they play a big part in influencing consumer behaviour and moulding opinion.
A still from small finance bank AU Bank's controversial ad featuring Aamir Khan and Kiara Advani.
Saying no to Cancel Culture
Brand custodians should be more circumspect but not shy away from doing what is right for their brands. They need to be conscious of the fact that social media allows consumers to react and share their views, so they need to fully analyse the possible reactions – but in no way should they hold back from doing the right thing. Also important to remember is that issues and trends on social media are mostly ephemeral, and die down quickly when trolls divert attention to the next thing.
Brands are important elements in shaping culture and are expected to endorse conscious and progressive choices.
Here are four things that brands should watch out for if they intend to make meaningful communication pieces that are relevant, strike a chord with the target audience and yet not impede business.
1. Depict progressive and contemporary social interactions without being overtly preachy. Bollywood has often managed this well. Movies like Rang de Basanti; Taare Zameen par or Swades are great examples.
2. Examine whether wading into social issues genuinely adds to your brand’s appeal. This may sound suspiciously like the brand is avoiding taking on an important issue - but remember the primary objective of brand communication is enhancing the appeal and growing revenue. Any shades of activism must always be secondary – no matter how tempting.
3. Once you are convinced of the relevance of a cause, be sensitive about how you pick your causes. Social issues like gender equality (Ariel’s ‘Share The Load’ – that urged men to share the laundry task; or Brooke Bond Red Label’s ad advocating transgender inclusiveness) have pushed the social change, and enhanced brand messaging without attracting controversies.
4. Stay strong on conviction in the values you espouse. Research the subject and stay the course. Also, ensure the organisation is aligned on the cause. Audiences are not stupid and can easily tell a publicity stunt from true commitment.
The writer is a business strategist and independent director. Views expressed are personal.