Social media experts and advertising agencies feel criticism of marketing campaigns that involve society or religious issues could hinder creativity.
Two ads by Hindustan UnileverNSE 1.17 %, one of the country’s biggest advertisers, have drawn intense criticism over the past week on social media with calls for a boycott of all its brands. While a Brooke Bond Red Label advertisement faced a backlash on the grounds that it offended Hindu culture and defamed the Kumbh Mela, a Surf Excel campaign on Hindu-Muslim ties was accused of being Hindu phobic and even promoting love jihad.
“Asking people to be restrained and tolerant of another’s sentiments and religion is not wrong. These are strong social messages. If our leaders don’t say it, brands ought to. There has to be nullification of the overt hate in this country,” said Prathap Suthan, known for creating the India Shining campaign and managing partner of agency Bang in the Middle.
HUL said its Surf Excel campaign captures how the colours of Holi can be a force for good, melting differences and bringing people together.
“In the advertisement, you see two innocent children who demonstrate friendship and bonding in the true spirit of the festival. This reflects the true ethos of India as a caring, plural and secular society,” said an HUL spokesperson.
The minute-long Surf Excel ad has been conceived by Lowe Lintas and shows a young Hindu girl who deliberately tries to get stained in Holi colours so that she can protect her young Muslim friend who needs a bicycle ride to a nearby mosque. Launched a fortnight ago, it already has over nine million views on Surf Excel’s YouTube channel.
“An ad which does not elicit response does not work. So, I think it is a great piece of work as for any point of view there will always be an alternate point of view hence the backlash. This will only help the ad,” said Saurabh Varma, chief executive officer at PublicisCommunications.
Opinions were divided on social media between those who were agitated by the ad and those who embraced it and praised it as being uplifting and promoting religious harmony. Experts say creativity, whether in ads or theatre and film, is being examined thro ugh a microscope.
“The best way for a brand to deal is to stand up to them. But the real question is: are people more intolerant now or are they the same but now have a vehicle to vent their voices through social media?” said Rahul da Cunha, MD of DaCunha Communications, the company behind the Amul ads. “Creativity is already being restricted by such viciousness on social media.”
A backlash could hit sales. Many have shared screenshots of online order cancellations for Surf Excel and other HUL products, while others appeared to show these being thrown away or burned. The company has sought to make a pitch for progressive values in its advertising in the past–addressing Hindu-Muslim and live-in relationships as well as transgender inclusion.
Social media outrage typically builds up rapidly but is also transient. However, the company may find itself under pressure, having just been trolled for the Kumbh Mela ad.