Sanjeev Kotnala: Stop strangling advertising with social correctness!

07 Mar,2018

By Sanjeev Kotnala


I know, I could get trolled for my point of view and reminded of my commitment towards society. I will be chastised for lowering expectations from brands and the advertising fraternity – including clients, media and the creative teams.

I appreciate brands with a more significant vision. I respect their attempts to lead the society towards a better future of equality and empowerment. We do know, soon, Johnny too will have Jane walking alongside.

We also know, most cause marketing initiative are good-feel programmes that will be written about, create positive buzz and go on to win few awards. The best of brands are known to punt on them. They know how easy it is to hoodwink the consumer with short memory is, who is always looking for the next kick.

Simply, there is lack of serious intent to invest and sustain such initiatives.

Much awardwinning cause marketing initiative gets buried in annual reports, framed on ego walls, repacked in videos and proudly debated in presentations. Some fortunate ones do end up with real ground activation. However, most get suffocated with lack of financial support, CXO change or the brand team losing interest.

Tiny percentages of brands that successfully work on sustenance driven model end up making long-term impressions. No not using the word impact.

It’s natural that they fuel expectations. They deliver organismic delight to the armchair social media activists. These bloodhounds, the set of intellectuals, social influencers, preachers of multiple causes, ill-informed brand enthusiast and advertising maestros start poking questions on creative that does not to pass their filter of social appropriateness.

Opinions count.

Everyone has an opinion, and we should be respected this diversity. Unfortunately, most of the loud voices hallucinate considering their verdict as final. People seem to have no patience. They reject a POV not mirroring their thinking. The majority opinion gets amplified with the support of fringe groups that sounds politically and socially right. I do not belong here.

There has to be something wrong.

Logically, it is easy to infer that one of two sides; the cribbers or the creators have to be wrong. The win-win is not an option. We must start re-evaluating the situation. We must address the elephant in the room. What is the prime objective of advertising?

Is it to show a mirror to the society and provide a direction? Or to find a relevant, original insight that can be leveraged for brand impact, brand preference and decisive action in the defined TG.

Is the communication wrong, if it fails to get a favourable echo from the arrived-in-life individuals with strong ideologies? Most probably, the message was not for them. They can’t be using the same scale to measure every creative.

Brands have business to do.

 “The purpose of advertising is to sell. That is what the client is paying for, and if that goal does not permeate every idea you get, every word you write, every picture you take, you are a phoney and you ought to get out of the business.” — Bill Bernbach.

Why do we repeatedly forget the business side of advertising? Advertising is targeted communication. A team has found enough logic and reason to invest in and exploit for business gains.  While we can post-rationalise and try understanding their reality, we must not mistake the map for the territory.

“All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarise that society. We can brutalise it. Or we can help lift it to a higher level.”  — Bill Bernbach

Even I agree with it. It’s a high intent to have but not the only intent and the yardstick to evaluate.

I share what the readers will agree with.

“Our job is to sell our clients’ merchandise … not ourselves. Our job is to kill the cleverness that makes us shine instead of the product. Our job is to simplify, to tear away the unrelated, to pluck out the weeds that are smothering the product message.”  — Bill Bernbach

If we don’t show, it stops to exist!

Trust me, I am surprised at the ostrich thinking that permeates everywhere. It is going to make no difference. Nothing will change by keeping a purdah (curtain/mask/camouflage) while projecting the empowered housewives, kids, families and any community. Just because you stop showing the ugly side and keep shining the new element of positivity, the issues will not magically disappear.

Here is the recent All-Out strong mothers film. A communication vigorously questioned for its choice of storyline and narrative.

You all noticed the extra-patronising mother-in-law. People ask why it was not a granddaughter. The father raises his voice questioning and taunting the mother if the money that the kid stole belonged to her father?  She does not answer and silently serves. How demeaning can that be? Does she have to be so subservient? Can’t she counter argue? Can’t she take on the goons-in-the-family?

How dare we show this side of the family and mother? Why were these frames in the narrative? Why was the lady of the house reframed for her small middle-class upbringing? Why were others silent in the conversation? How come an agency that is known for its brilliant all-empowering work even make such a film?

How come the creative agency never objected? Was the client not interested enough? Were they blind to the situation?

The conscience-keepers of the industry question the portrayal of the tough mother. They find it a regressive. They may feel so living in metro and mostly nuclear double-income family.  They are far removed from real India. The situation is alien to their sensibilities and the direction we should be moving. Does that make them right?

A film is a call of creative-client-consultants-producer-director nexus. Every brand is cautious in their approach. They all want to be politically right. They also know that an unrealistic goody-goody situation will make the brand-consumer relationship a promise in fantasyland.

All communication has a positive intent.  It has a contextual frame to address a pre-identified target group. And within the joint families, the scenario is not too different. The communication was used as a foundation for the #StandbyToughMoms idea in sync with Times Of India Sports awards. Bill Bernbach would appreciate it.

Look at it from another side. The agency and client are not afraid. They know they are committed to their profession. May be including the repulsive behaviour is the brand’s way of waking you up.  May be it is their way to get the audience to notice and comment.

Would you notice the obnoxious husband if he had remained silent or polite in the frame? Did you fail to miss the decisive shift with head-of-the-table getting into discussion and decision mode? You can see that along with you the rest-of-family realises something was wrong. The mother-son gameplay is powerfully purposive; it is following unsaid rules written down in the family.

Most likely this was one of the scripts for the job.  It won in the business-need-creative-balance-political-right-budget scale.

Advertising rarely needs to play the role of an activist. There are other organisation and leaders to do so.  It needs to remain grounded in reality. It needs to nudge not revolt against the wrong practices. The uproar shoes that this All-out communication was out-right a perfect nudge.

Should the creative now work under a new set of guidelines that places constraints on the thinking and the creative process? What do we want or expect? Do we want every brand to be cause-centric and CSR-oriented NGO? Do we always need to be hypersensitive with an extreme opinion?  Should we start defining the boundaries of representation in advertising for everything?

So, now onwards, the homemaker must eat with the rest, daughter-son must eat at the same table, daughters definitely should not cook, working-lady must not come home and prepare meals, Working mothers must find extra time to communicate with the child. If she gives cake in Tiffin, she must pack another suggestive nutrition rich lunchbox. She must not be shown washing alone. The wife must not serve tea when the husband has it alone. Marriage must not precede job. Women should still ask for Johnny and forget Jane. The fairness cream and the extra bounce hair gel should not make her centre of attraction and even get her a job.

And Amitabh Bachchan can’t just keep shooting the gun without reloading the chamber.

Or, we have a choice.

Stop defining boundaries. Stop templatisation of behaviour. Stop cribbing. Stop expecting the same behaviour from every brand. Be sensitive.

This does not mean that I ask you to be silent.  Don’t stop questioning. Keep raising your voice in favour of significant issues. Sexualising of communication. Women exploitation.  Racism. Fuelling unnecessary desires by projecting wrong sizes.

#StandbyToughMoms TVC fails to have any brand connect (ALL OUT). Relating ‘silently strong’ motherhood to All-Out is taking things to far. Trust someone will have cryptic answers to these observations too.

Let the consumers decide.

Trust me, if brands tend to go against the consumer mindset, consumers will reject it, and the brand will be the loser. Let the consumer decide.


Best media connect for strong moms



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