An advert from the Indian jewellery company Tanishq recently became the subject of intense social debate because of its creative depiction of an inter-religious household. Tata Group ultimately pulled down the film in the face of the outrage. Anil Nair, chief executive officer of VMLY&R India writes about the larger implications of this incident on the creative business and what could be the way forward.
You wake up like it’s a regular workday. You switch on your phone. And then you get an avalanche of message alerts from your colleagues about your latest creative work trending on social networks. Ideally one should feel exhilaration, but the sudden unsought attention can also bring on anxiety. This is probably what the young creative person on the ‘Tanishq Ekatvam’ account felt that fateful morning - the simultaneous feelings of elation, trepidation, pride and paranoia.
When outrage is 'In'
This is the world that we live in today. Where opinions travel faster than sound and light. Where people are polarised into thought-boot camps. These polarisations inevitably create echo-chambers of whataboutery. Fed by rumour mills, and mischief mongers. The victims being prudence and common sense.
This kind of social hit job has a life of its own, fuelled by waves of outrage, broadcast from easy chairs across the country and the world. All it takes are a few thousand ‘ragers’ and an evocative hashtag.
Bandwidth is cheap. Outrage even cheaper.
We were once a world of isolated tribes divided by geography, language and customs. Ignorance was bliss. Today, there are no boundaries in the Pandora’s Box of social media. Reputations, careers, corporates, creativity, civilization, culture – all of these can take years to build and seconds to destroy.
We shouldn’t be surprised with this ‘new normal’ as there is a growing zeitgeist of intolerance, patriarchy, muscular nationalism, combative public discourse and finally, the spectacle of a good social lynching.
‘Advertising reflects the mores of society but does not influence them’, opined the great David Ogilvy. And yet, the so-called gatekeepers of our culture believe that this millennia old civilization that has survived greater threats to its existence is somehow fragile in the face of progressive thought.
What could it mean to the creative world
The creative depiction of an inter-faith marriage, once commonplace, is sensitive and taboo today. Will manufactured dissent control the narratives of advertisements in the future, or will such concepts be added to the growing list of taboo topics and self-censorship by advertising agencies and clients?
I take solace in the writings of Jan Werner Muller, a teacher of politics and the author of the book, ‘What is Populism’ where he speaks about why it is important going into the future, to create culturally competent citizens, whose understanding of the digital rules and the power of the digital code can help them exploit the true power of technology; to give voice and freedom and to connect and empower.
A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and mind of its people, said the great leader Mahatma Gandhi. Truer today than at any point in history. I would like to believe that syncretism and secularism as enshrined by the Constitution of India will be our guiding beliefs. Because at this point in time, as a nation and as a species, we can either look back at past glories and frameworks or look forward to the future and the new challenges that await us. Of a fragile ecology, climate change, pestilence, disease, limited access to nutritious food and clean water, the need for new sustainable energy sources and a better understanding of space and what lies beyond.
I believe that this country – a melting pot of varied cultures, and ideas shaped by the great men and women – will find its own pushback.
Anil Nair is the chief executive officer at VMLY&R India.