Sanjeev Kotnala: Sensitive about Stereotypes!

27 Sep,2017

By Sanjeev Kotnala


I am not sure where this piece is going. It has unstated directions. It is in a flux, waiting for thought traffic to settle in my mind. No, I am not going to take the blame any more.

We are a country of major differences, minor alignments, dramatic impressions and uncontrolled trolling and aggression. We live with a polarised understanding of ‘freedom of speech and expression’ supported by religious zealots and provokers. We have definitely pushed boundaries. We have then failed to question if the boundaries or openness as defined in the western way of living was right for us. No, I am not the feudal types.

We have graduated from simple slogans like ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kissan’, ‘Garibi Hatao’ to highly futuristic promising ‘Make in India’, ‘Girl Power’, ‘Digital India’ and many more. We have dams that break apart before inauguration and Prime Minister proudly dedicating to the nation a dam that took 56 years to build. We aim to catch Dawood when Hanipreet beats our best plans. We have a current list of fake Babas in public space but none of the largest loan defaulters. No, I am not against Narendra Modi.

We are in the mythological space where chalta hai, adapt, adjust and please rule the lingo of opportunists. A fantasy land absolutely comfortable with slips between the cup and the lip. We live in a haze of ambitions amidst undefined uncertainties silently expressed with ‘If’, ‘but’, ‘maybe’, ‘Hojayega’, ‘kintu’ and ‘lekin’. No, I am not a pessimist.

We are a country with rich tradition of storytelling and peaceful defiance. Hence, advertising industry seeing self-regulation as a promise of controlled future and delayed governmental interference is no surprise. So what if one of the largest and fastest-growing companies distances itself from it. Don’t get paranoid when highly trained and experienced professionals in complete know of the system, processes and guidelines end up mocking the toothless tiger. They take pride in playing new games with the norms and expectations. No, I think I am not one of them.

Moreover, today, we have a new breed of social-cultural warriors holding the country and its citizen hostage to their ideologies. They are nimble and agile warriors. They don’t have to answer anyone. They easily shift from one point of agitation to another without any worries. They are hard believers with firm lines of arguments. You don’t want to mess with them personally or professionally. No, I would not want to think of all of us as cowards.

That leaves the intellectual segment armed with social media. They are busy blowing their trumpets in TV debates. However, they do not manage more than 300 words in an hour on any argument. They are happy with the facetime and social leverage it provides them. We are the meek spectators with subdued voices. We are lost within in the jungle of over-reported, analysed and amplified unintelligent cacophony in the media. No, I don’t waste time at 9pm debates on TV.

So, why am I sharing all this?

Somewhere, I have a sense of being let down. The industry is still working from ivory towers and strong metro-centric mindset. The major communication initiatives are being delivered on observations masquerading as insight. Planners are happy with risky propositions that guarantee buzz and viral potential. No, my life is mostly not threatened by such communication.

Here is what I have observed in Tier-II and III towns and even in Tier-II and III, which exist within metros

While the consumer appreciates the young woman preparing her husband’s favourite dishes after coming home from office. This is the same woman who is senior to her husband in office and has given him a late assignment to complete. They smile. The brigade calls it blatant exploitation. The debate dies its natural death till someone scratches it like a dried old wound.

While consumers smile watching the young girl proudly present her first round roti, the brigade jumps in questioning gender equality and why is advertising strengthening the stereotype. They want the brand to answer stupid questions like; what was she doing in the kitchen when the brother was on dining table? The debate will also die after some time.

While the consumer frowns at the girl introducing her girlpartner to her parents, the brigade appreciates and applauds it. A minority pushes in the question of non-representation of society status and current construct, but they are silenced. We adapt and soon see many such bold communication from unknown brands trying to make their place. They will find the path is not so easy.

The same brigade never questions only mothers over indulgence in milk additive advertisements. Where is the dad? Why is it that only mother has to take care of the kid? Why she has to be the one to silently relentlessly put efforts to realise her and her children dreams? These questions don’t want answers.

The brigade forgets stereotypes and gender equality. It conveniently reframed the context and took offence to Sunny Leone promoting ManForce condoms during Navratri Garba celebration in Gujarat. . Even a kid knows she is doing absolutely the right thing. Unfortunately, there is no protection for this creative.

On the days promoted by card making companies, we find a series of touching communication. Son and daughter finding time to visit old parents more out of guilt then love and care. They bond over conversations happening over the fastest network. Taking care of their bill is seen as a job well done and reducing the guilt. The masala can anyway help deliver maa key hath ka tatse. No brigade objects to this depiction of uncultured overtly corrupted sentiments as per Indian standards. Maybe agitating against it would not give high return on buzz and news.

Why even worry about all this?

Soon there is going to be a situation at home. I can’t have Maa making the meal as nuclear family is the way of life. She is old anyway. The brigade may question the intent. Wife should not be forced to make the meal and be confined to the kitchen. She has a world she must conquer. Daughter in the progressive family is not meant to do it. We are busy commenting and reflecting on the unreal India. I understand. I should cook my own meal.

In this period of Darwinian evolution, we have moved from ‘Ready to cook’ to ‘Ready to eat’ and from leftovers in the fridge to ordering meals on mobile. However, somewhere we miss the aroma wafting its way from the kitchen, the inquisitive looks and the anticipation of what is cooking. It ensures that the love within the family was more than just an early morning ‘I Love you’. No, I am not worried when I see the consumers in non-metro confused at these signals.

Maybe we will find a way out just like revival of Aryuveda after prolonged chemical products. It may be late for us to put into practice our ancient cultural knowledge and learning’s. Once we fail to transfer it to the next generation, there will be no return. No, I am not a Bababhakt.

We can see the direction we are moving in. How the new stereotyped progressive representation is being forced into the name of gender sensitivity, and equality are shaping the coming generation! The wheel is already moving in that direction. The social media support and discussions, hate mails and trolls are accelerating the process of fueling hatred and prejudiced biases.

Many of us are confused. Unsure if we are moving in the right direction. Before writing anything in public domain, we worry about the brigade. We know we are not strong enough to put our life and reputation on line.

The last question.

I have another question. If the watchdog of self-regulation is worried of advertisements not following follow the guidelines and work to ensure they are taken off the media, should it also not work or lobby to ensure safe passage and right to communicate for the brands not violating the guidelines.


Sanjeev Kotnala is a senior marketing and strategy consultant and trainer. The views here are his own.

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