Can't We Sell Without Sermonizing?

By Ashwin Sanghi
Recently a matrimonial site published an ad that gradually reveals the bruises of a woman as the colours of Holi are washed off her face. While gender violence is a serious issue, does it need to be associated with Holi? Then, consider the example of a tea company that shows a Hindu son purposely leaving behind his elderly father during the Kumbh Mela. While it is true that neglect for the ageing is a significant problem, is the challenge confined only to the Hindu community?

These are just few of the countless examples of ads that use Hindu festivals, symbols and rituals to preach. Take the example of an ethnic wear company that ran an ad portraying the Kanyadaan ritual within Hindu marriages as regressive; or the pharmaceutical company that advised Hindus to avoid bursting firecrackers during Diwali; or the animal rights advocacy that suggested avoiding leather during Raksha Bandhan and ghee during Janmashtami.

The question on the minds of many is this: why do companies and organizations have no words of wisdom to offer non-Hindu communities during their festivals? For example, shouldn’t the animal rights group in question suggest avoiding the slaughter of goats on Bakri Eid? Aren’t the implications of Triple Talaq and Nikah Halala more serious than the perceived patriarchy of Kanyadaan? Is there no need to talk about Female Genital Mutilation among some groups? What about the societal implications of organized proselytization? How about the exploitation of nuns? Or the radicalization of Khalistan sympathizers? Is there any company that would advocate shedding the hijab as a means to empowering women? These double standards are seen as baffling.

Now, add to this potent mix, the compulsion that is felt by assorted celebrities, including actors and cricketers, to weigh in. There are those who say that crackers upset animals and cause air pollution; that pouring milk on a Shiv linga during Shivratri is wasteful; that birds die from kite-flying during Makar Sankranti; that Holi results in water wastage. Probably all those are valid concerns. But when the celebrities in question travel in private jets that guzzle fuel, install hot tubs and pools in weekend homes, or host parties with food wastage, their advice feels hollow and hypocritical. Why not simply wish your fans a happy Diwali or colourful Holi and be done with it instead of sermonizing?

India—and the world—has many pressing problems. Billions of livestock animals that are crowded into industrial farms produce enormous amounts of methane that is 84 times as potent as a gram of carbon dioxide in trapping atmospheric heat. But do we see companies advocating meat-free celebrations? We know that around 25 million Christmas trees are sold each year. While natural Christmas trees create approximately 16 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions if disposed of in a landfill, artificial ones create 40 kilograms of emissions. Why don’t we see corporate activism regarding the environmental impact of Christmas trees? Thousands of kilograms of firecrackers are set off in Sydney, Dubai, NYC, London and tens of other cities on New Year’s Eve. But those displays are greeted with appreciation. Shouldn’t air pollution be a concern like it is for Diwali?

Should companies stop advocacy on important social issues? No. The pushback in the above instances isn’t against activism but against selective activism. We certainly want a society that respects LGBTQ rights, but does an Ayurvedic giant need to promote those rights using a Karva Chauth template? Would it be fearless enough to do the same in the context of a nikaah? We want liberated and free-thinking youth but does an entertainment studio need to use Bollywood actors to mouth phrases like “you need a dandi to play dandiya” on Navratri? We would like all festivals to be celebrated universally, but do we need a garment retailer to call Diwali “Jashn-e-Riwaaz”? When pushing for interfaith harmony, is it necessary for a tea company to run a series of ads showing Hindus as bigoted? Do these companies not understand that India is plural precisely because of the history and tradition of Hindu accommodation? Alas, these are not isolated examples. There is a pattern. And the adverse reactions in recent years must be viewed as a response to the pattern.

But beyond selective activism, the resentment is also about the wider malaise of preaching. There is fatigue with directors, musicians, actors, artists, sportspersons, writers, journalists, entrepreneurs, socialites and commentators who feel the need to pontificate on everything. The language used in public discourse—even by individuals with valuable insights—can often come across as preachy and condescending, leaving people feeling uncomfortable. None of us wishes to be lectured to. Why don’t organizations that have products and services to sell understand this? Sure, the controversy around an ad may get eyeballs, but will it garner revenue from those it has provoked?

The problem is not confined to India. For example, in 2019, a shaving products company produced an ad that showed bullying and sexual harassment by men. But it was perceived as stereotyping men and ended up as one of the most disliked videos on YouTube. The world’s leading sneaker maker used an NFL quarterback who had knelt while the American national anthem was being played. Their choice was seen as politically motivated. It is evident that there is a very fine line between being socially responsible and patronizing.

Retail advertising pioneer Bernice Fitz-Gibbon famously said, “A good ad should be like a good sermon. It must not only comfort the afflicted, it also must afflict the comfortable.” But contrast that statement with what Leo Burnett said. He observed, “I am one who believes that one of the greatest dangers of advertising is not that of misleading people, but that of boring them to death.” Forget about politics, partisanship, patriarchy, propaganda or prejudice. The real problem is pontification.

The writer is an author of bestselling works of fiction