Avik Chattopadhyay: Foul smells and bad tastes!

24 Feb,2022

Avik ChattopadhyayBy Avik Chattopadhyay


Stereotyping and objectifying are two of the critical mistakes brands make. The urge to impose one’s own limited perspective on a larger target consumer is both age old and a pandemic that runs through brand nurturing and communication.


There is a deodorant brand called Wild Stone that insists on objectifying women in its advertising, be she in the role of an office colleague or one at a restaurant table. The woman is shown as possessed or mesmerised by the perfume making her do acts that are totally ridiculous, but more importantly degrading the social stature of one. While it surely might appeal to the alpha male, I am quite surprised that no one has raised an objection against this objectification. Interestingly, its direct competitor Fogg has decided to take a more mature route of putting its message across, choosing to ask people to stay indoors and take necessary precautions even if the pandemic is in its last stage.


Why does the typical narrative have to show a submissive woman against a dominant male? Why does there have to be a ruler and a ruled? Why does the woman need to be objectified to pedestalise the man?


Then there is a recently released web series on Sony Liv called “Rocket Boys”. It is a brilliant attempt at telling the inspiring stories of Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, which itself is such a refreshing endeavour. But then it carries a negative character of almost villainous proportions in the form of one Raza Mehdi who attempts to destabilise the plans of Bhabha and Sarabhai. He becomes a Member of Parliament on a Communist party ticket and almost sells his soul to the CIA before his conscience beckons. Firstly, history tells us that there was nobody of that name. The character has been created out of thin air combining the lives of Meghnad Saha and B D Nagchaudhuri, two brilliant nuclear physicists and nation builders who might have had some differences of opinion and professional rivalries with the heroes of the web-series.


Why distort history in the first place if one is trying to portray an inspiring slice of history? Why does there have to be an anti-hero or villain in the narrative? And if there is the need of a fictional anti-hero, why the typical stereotyping of being a Muslim or a Communist?


Brands make these classic mistakes, some deliberate and most led by the perceptions and images in the minds of those managing the brand, both client and communication agency / partner. That leads to rampant stereotyping.


For the North Indian, the South Indian will always be vegetarian.

For the South Indian, the North Indian will always break into a bhangra.

The North Indian is a Punjabi, and the South Indian is a Madrasi.

The Bengali will have to love rosogolla and fish.

While the Gujarati will always say “Kem chho?”.


The second issue is that if a brand has to talk about its competitive advantage, it has to do down its competition. If one is ‘white’, the other has to be ‘black’. If one is a hero, the other is a villain. If I am good for you, my competition will have to be bad for you. There are no shades of grey. If I eulogise one personality, it will have to be at the cost of another one. If I put one brand on the pedestal, it is at the cost of bringing down another from the pedestal. It is always this or that, never this and that. I do not have the maturity to offer myself as the better choice. Instead, I present myself as the only offer.


If Ram is good, Ravana must be bad. The latter has no option of being otherwise as good as the former but for the grave mistake which brings his downfall. The Kauravas can show no graciousness and valour vis-à-vis the Pandavas. Those amongst them who do show have to leave the flock and defect. If a certain period of our history is to be given its due place, another piece has to be derided. It is as if there is only limited space at the top and more than one point of view cannot co-exist.


As a national culture, we find it very difficult to deal with shades of grey. Our gods and heroes can do no wrong. All shades of grey were repainted as either white or black through the centuries, taking away the fundamental capability to accept ourselves with our defects and fragilities. It is a binary culture code. Good or bad. Black or white. Yes or no. Us or them. Me or you.


This manifests itself in our communication and narratives. My brand can do no wrong while yours does not stand a chance. Even if I have to misrepresent facts or suppress them, so be it for the cause of furthering my case. And brand managers actually see no wrong in this ‘strategy’ that believes in destroying competition before building one’s own relevance. The Pakistani cricket team has to be lampooned to support the Indian one. It is as if there is no room for mutual respect and recognition of competitive talent. And the fact that we enjoy such narratives is a disturbing evolution of our social fabric. The evolution is getting more intolerant, divided and shrill. That sure leaves a foul smell and a bad taste!


Avik Chattopadhyay is a senior business strategy consultant based in Gurugram. He writes on MxMIndia mostly every other Thursday. His views here are personal


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