A young girl in a white T-shirt cycles into a narrow street and cheekily challenges her friends to throw the colours of Holi at her. Perplexed, but without hesitation, the children fire their water guns and pelt out colour balloons at the girl, in a frenzy of celebration. As the arsenal of colour balloons depletes and the children use up their last piece of ammo, the girl nods to her Muslim friend to come out. He is dressed in white and ready to offer his prayers. She delivers him in his pristine clothes to the mosque, and tells him the colour awaits him, once he is done. The boy smiles, nods and runs off ‘Apnepan ke rang se auron ko rangney mein daagh lag jaye to daagh achay hain’ (Those colours/stains that are acquired when embracing and including others in our world, are good stain.)
The Surf Excel ad is a celebration of children, their positivity and innocence, the spirit of inclusion and the understanding that we can be different and still coexist harmoniously. So it came as quite a shock, when an ad as universal as this, became controversial with many calling for the brand’s boycott. The reaction was baffling.
It takes a certain level of imagination dipped in the ink of conspiracy to come up with the kind of absurd thinking that many people put forth. There were some who strongly felt that this ad humiliated Hinduism and promoted ‘jihad’. Others were offended that Holi colours were referred to as daagh (stains), which depicted a holy festival in a negative light. There was more of the proverbial ‘slapping on the wrist’ for gender selection in the story, with Hindus wanting the Muslim child to be a girl, and some Muslims were upset because a Muslim boy could only practice his faith under the protection of a Hindu girl. The factory of ‘illogical reactions’ was churning out nonsense at full throttle.
Social media, mainly Twitter, went berserk.
It is a sad state of affairs when people can find negativity, controversy, and drama in nearly anything – even child’s play. These fetters on imagination, tolerance and creativity are what lead to the decline of nations. India is a country that has always touted its values of secularism and celebrated the vibrancy of its multifaceted culture, yet, increasingly, the right wing, Hindutva agenda is working towards destroying those values in the name of tradition and faith. But perhaps, all of this ‘foreign’ opining has no place in the current climate in India, and one has to ask the question – can brands take on bold messages of social inclusion in a country festering with communal divide? And what impact can these acts of ‘courage’ have on brand equity?
There are brand experts in India, who felt that Hindustan Unilever overstepped boundaries and rushed into the creative without pre testing (it is amusing to think what the dynamics of a focus group to test this ad out would be). Harish Bijoor, a brand expert, in an article in Financial Express Online wrote: “It is important to keep your fingers on the pulse of the consumer in these rather tumultuous and polarised times. You need to think of your customer and the non-customer equally.”
What is worth asking though is how widespread this reaction to the Surf Excel ad was and whether a large volume of the respondents were from the brand’s consumer base. Without that information, it would be naïve to say that the brand didn’t have its hand on the pulse of the consumer. Just because one hears a loud noise, does not necessarily mean there are a lot of people making that noise.
Without access to exact data, it is difficult to say how this ad affected the brand, but some basic research online indicated that the impact was not significant. What was interesting, however, is how a rival company, Patanjali, cashed in on this opportunity. They used their ‘localness’ to express solidarity with the protestors, and stated that Hindustan Unilever didn’t connect with local sentiment because if its ‘foreign’ values. Many of us in Pakistan saw the exact same tactic play out during the Careem billboard controversy with the runaway bride, and a rival company cashing in on that.
Politics exist everywhere, and it is not uncommon to see ordinary things such as art, events, brands, literature, ads, become politicised. However, sometimes, this zealousness in politicising becomes bizarre and the #boycottsurfexcel movement is an excellent example of this. Advertising is about connecting with the consumer, but in a world as complex as ours, where the consumers are not a monolith, it is a challenge to define the tone, language and philosophy of that narrow corridor of communication.
Sheherzad Kaleem is a documentary filmmaker based in Dubai. firstname.lastname@example.org