Over the last few days, two things have happened from the world of advertising that gives me hope and despair both.
The latter, of course, was Tanishq’s removal of an ad portraying Hindu-Muslim unity, ostensibly for the safety of a person in their marketing team who happened to have a Muslim name (I have it on good authority that he wasn’t even involved in the team that made the ad, but why let that get in the way of a good outrage?) This is a story you know, of course.
But I want to try and focus on the one positive story… Or rather, slightly less terrible one. Two major, respected Indian brands committed to pulling out of advertising on TV channels that peddle toxic content. Even more encouraging are the words from the respective companies, Bajaj Auto and Parle G.
“We are exploring possibilities wherein other advertisers can come together and sort of put a restraint on their advertising spends on news channels, so that there is some sort of a clear signal to all the news channels, that they better change their content” - Krishnarao Buddha, Parle
“At the end of the day, the purpose of a strong business is to also contribute to the society… Our brand has never associated with anything we feel is a source of toxicity in the society” - Rajiv Bajaj, Bajaj Auto
To understand why this is significant, one needs to take a step back and look at how advertising itself works. There are two parts to the industry. One is the content of the ad itself. Traditionally, ad-related controversies would stem from here: From Marlboro encouraging people to smoke, or Coca-Cola asking you to glug down liquid sugar… Or, for that matter, a jewellery brand espousing inter-religion harmony.
Putting your money where your mouth is
But it’s the second part that has assumed more importance of late, that being the placement of the ad itself - on TV, on websites, and those annoying pre-video ads on YouTube. Often, this placement is the major source of revenue for the destinations they are on, who are thus incentivised to get more impressions so they can tell advertisers they have a sizeable base. It becomes a matter of clicks, not necessarily editorial ideology. And it’s in this light that the ad boycott by Bajaj & Parle needs to be seen. It sends a message that fake news and hate-mongering, irrespective of ideology, should not be funded.
Advertising becomes a matter of clicks, not necessarily editorial ideology.
I want to bring in another angle here. Over the last few years, professionals in the Indian advertising industry have grown weary, cynical of what they do, and disillusioned. There are many reasons for this - such as rude clients, long working hours, low pay and a constant erosion of creative freedom were traditional reasons, but there are new ones now. Many of my former colleagues in agencies have confessed to me their discomfort working on contentious sectors, such as politics and certain corporate sectors - some driven to quitting as a result.
In the last ten years in advertising, I’ve seen some of the brightest young people crushed under the strain of deadlines and unreasonable client requests. But more than anything, there’s a deep sense of cynicism for what we do. “Good/senti” or socially relevant campaigns are floated only for the awards season. Clients are often too keen to just do things to appeal to their CMO more than make an actual change in business. I once suggested to a financial client launching their own wallet, to pay employees’ salaries for a month using its launch, showing an excellent use case – it was rejected, saying internal processes could not be changed (good luck getting the whole of India to change, then - the wallet predictably went nowhere).
I run an Instagram handle where I make fun of advertising life. While it’s supposed to be humorous, some of the comments reveal a lot of the frustration that junior-to-mid-level folks in the industry feel. I could give you several examples, but this one, I think, sums things up.
Long story short: Advertising has not been a happy place for a while, and if you don’t believe me, just ask anyone except management working in any firm of your choice.
Why the Bajaj and Parle boycott are important
This is why the Bajaj & Parle decisions have come as a breath of fresh air and even give me hope. Given the amount of money brands pump into media outlets, they in a way control our discourse. In the US, advertisers are increasingly reckoning with this, many of them famously pulling out of Facebook, citing the platform is not doing enough to clamp down on hate speech. Of course, Mark Zuckerberg laughed that off saying it would hardly create a dent in Facebook’s monstrous advertising empire. He’s right, but the effects go beyond money.
Brands will start having more brand safety conversations.
Why, even in our own case here, the TRP-scam-induced boycott is unlikely to cause a dip in Republic TV’s advertising revenue - so proclamations of the channel’s imminent death are highly exaggerated. Chances are there are many more who won’t care about faked TRPs, and will rush in to fill the gap, probably chuffed they get cheaper media space now.
But it does other things. This creates awareness. Gets conversations started inside other companies. Makes talking about this normal. Maybe a media planner somewhere will tell a client, “I don’t think we should advertise here”. Brands will start having more brand safety conversations. Sure, it might mean less adventurous advertising like what Tanishq did, but it might also give less oxygen to media outlets that don’t deserve it.
On that Instagram handle I run, I did an open-ended, informal poll to ask if anyone saw such conversations happening in their agencies or on the brand side. While many, predictably, said most clients don’t care and just care about revenues, there were some encouraging signs: People telling me that folks were starting to talk inside agencies. Some realising advertising had a bigger role to play “beyond telling us which shampoo to buy”. The fact that someone as reputed and influential as Parle has said they want to reach out to other advertisers is a shockingly positive step. And let’s face it - we never really expected any Indian brand to take a whiff of a dissenting stance. Heck, the CEO of Scoopwhoop offered media space to both brands for ₹1.
Happy to offer ScoopWhoop’s 150m + reach to advertisers like Bajaj and Parle-G for ₹1 (coz nothing should be free). Drop in the ocean but still worth what it’s worth. #dontfundhate
— Sattvik (@sattvikm) October 13, 2020
For far too long, advertising and marketing has been in the business of fooling people and gaming numbers, like the unwelcome ants at the picnic. Ten years in the industry, and I can confidently say nobody I worked with has ever felt good about what they did. Let’s just say that when the apocalypse comes, they will not be scrambling to find account planners who can make a presentation. Given this, I can confidently say that this mini-movement is the most wholesome thing I’ve seen in my one decade working in it. Ironically, it came about when an ad was not running.