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Sensitive vs Sensationalistic: Religion in Indian Advertising


Never Ending Story’s founder Amitabh Bhattacharya explores the discords that can arise when brands take religion as their focus for creating campaigns

Sensitive vs Sensationalistic: Religion in Indian Advertising
Indian production company Never Ending Story is a proud supporter of Little Black Book as its partner for the Indian market. As part of the relationship its founder Amitabh Bhattacharya and LBB explore what makes India’s advertising industry tick. Here Amitabh touches on use of religion in advertising in India and the frictions it can cause.

India. A country of over one billion inhabitants. The cradle of four major religions. A multi-religious society where faiths and beliefs have co-existed for centuries. But, a society where the lines are often clearly drawn. 

Brands across the world have for long such explored religion and faith to express their solidarity with the ideas of communal harmony, diversity and inclusion. When it comes to India, the aforementioned topics take a whole new meaning. India is a country that is diverse to its core, and religion is, of course, a huge part of this. But while religion features in many international big brand campaigns across the world in a celebratory fashion, marking events like Christmas, Eid and Diwali, in India we often see ads attempt to ease centuries-old tensions. 

Most notably the tension between the Hindus and Muslims - two communities that have, for centuries, struggled to define their personal identities and politics. Given this reality, what do advertisers and their creative partners think when they decide on sensitive communal issues as a subject for a brand campaign or an one-off ad? What response do they expect from their target audience?

When advertisers use sensitive topics in their advertising campaigns they have a responsibility to proceed with caution. The use of religion as a backdrop for brand stories often runs the risk of receiving negative attention. Besides, their attempt to spread an important social message may come across as mere tokenism with the point of the campaign lost under scrutiny. 

Many brands in India have used communal harmony as a theme for their adverts, the stories often revolving around the Hindu-Muslim discord. Here are my thoughts on three adverts I have consumed over the years.

Idea Mobile made a television advert depicting a Muslim man window shopping for watches that are out of his budget – until a shopkeeper reveals that due to Diwali there is a 50% off sale. I found this ad to be insightful simply because it encourages one community to participate in another community's festival in a very interesting way. It doesn't sound overtly patronising. Having said that, I wonder why the creators decided on a Muslim couple in the ad? Why not a Christian, Buddhist or Parsi couple? Would the brand show a Hindu couple celebrate Eid in a similar fashion? 

Idea Mobile’s Diwali ad was created almost a decade ago. Since then a lot has happened in the political and social relationship between these two communities, thus making me ponder why brands and their custodians are stuck on the same old narrative? 

The Surf Holi ad, created in 2019, to remind the Holi revelers to respect the privacy of other communities also stood out to me. Some people, mostly pro-Hindu chauvinists, found the ad offensive. They accused the brand of endorsing the concept of ‘Love Jihad’ -  a theory that Muslim men target Hindu women to convert to Islam through marriage. Again this left me with questions: How did the common Muslims feel about the ad? Did they feel good or did they feel disturbed for being dragged into a controversy they had nothing to do with? 

And recently, a Tanishq jewellery ad from Titan sparked off debates across the country. The spot depicted a Muslim family celebrating their Hindu daughter-in-law’s baby shower. Right now in India the concept of ‘Love Jihad’ has been a headline material across the country. It has incited protests and counter-protests and even a suite of controversial new laws. 

In such a situation one is compelled to ask a few questions. What was the brief for this campaign? What did the advertiser and agency have in mind while creating this in light of the Love Jihad uproar happening across the country? Does the brand honestly believe that a 30-second TVC can address a centuries-old conflict? 

Advertising is often about noticeability. It is about grabbing attention, and that’s why the topicality of a message is so important for brands. The Tanishq ‘baby shower’ spot got more than its fair share of attention but was quickly taken down shortly after it was uploaded. If the brand strongly believed in the idea then why didn’t it stand by it? There was no official ban on the ad, yet it was removed almost as quickly as it was put up. Perhaps most interestingly, instead of introspecting and debating on the case, the advertising fraternity in India made meek protests in the trade press and on social media. 
The Tanishq ad once again reminds us that one commercial may not change people’s perception, but it can surely spark off a controversy. When advertisers and their agencies use religion, taboo or any sensitive topic for that matter, they often choose sensationalism over sensitivity. 
In their defence brands can always argue that no matter how they use religion and culture in their ads some people will always have a problem - someone somewhere will always get offended. And someone will always have a differing opinion. 
The reality is that never before in the history of humanity has the world been more diverse and divided. Whose side is your brand on? Who should it please and who should it patronise? You decide.  
When rooted in a genuine sense of purpose and responsibility, brands can of course use their platforms for the greater good. But we see just as many advertisers leaping onto contentious topics or causes that they don’t really care about. We’ve seen it with polluters using marketing to greenwash their image, or with companies that don’t promote or support their women employees jumping onto the female empowerment bandwagon. And now religious division and conflict is stoked to generate PR buzz and commercial advantage. Whether it’s cynical and disingenuous or simply self-delusion, I don’t know. But what I do know is that, it behoves the industry to be mindful, empathetic and most importantly, sensitive.  

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Never Ending Story, Wed, 10 Feb 2021 12:00:00 GMT