Hindustan Unilever’s storm in a teacup

Why the Red Label Kumbh Mela ad backfired and the do’s and don’ts for brand custodians when designing their communication

Piyul Mukherjee

[By Seba Della y Sole Bossio, under Creative Commons]

Update: This column has been updated to include perspective on the Surf Excel Holi ad

At the outset, a disclaimer: Unilever is one of my valued clients in our research company.

Yesterday, I was at a crowded supermarket when a friend called, and asked if I had seen the “Red Label Kumbh Mela ad, where old people are abandoned”.

I hadn’t, but if the ad was being crunched into a single line with the words he used, that should have set the alarm bells ringing. Somewhere.

He sent me the link. I believe that the ad has already been pulled off air within a few hours, and has joined the wounded and retired hurt gang of brands with ads that met the same fate, such as Kalyan Jewellers and Dove. In the first, Amitabh Bachchan and his daughter Shweta were shown encountering dubious bank officials. The All India Bank Officers Confederation called the ad disgusting, deeming it a fit case for defamation.

In Dove’s ad made for Facebook, the brand intended to communicate diversity, and ended up being trolled for being racist. That is how netizens interpreted the black woman pulling off her T-shirt to reveal a white woman underneath.

Each brand has responded by backpedalling furiously, shouting itself hoarse about being taken out of context. That it did not mean any disrespect to any person or malign any community.

What is it that our brand custodians are missing? How do they miss what appears to be so obvious in hindsight?  

Here’s my response as a sociologist. If all of us in the world of marketing like to think of a brand as a living, breathing entity, then the most obvious corollary is that the brand is subject to the rules of human social interaction.

In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, sociologist Erving Goffman frames all face-to-face reciprocity as a theatrical performance. When in contact with others, an individual calibrates his or her speech, her appearance, her manner to imperceptibly guide the impression being formed. There is a front stage, where the person is always on guard, and a backstage where she can set aside her roles.

Think of this dramaturgical performance while at office, at home when guests are visiting, during a job interview—in each case, our actions are defined by those who we are with. Goffman also suggests that participants engage in mutual practices to avoid social embarrassment. At a formal party, if you see me slip, or make a faux pas, you may tacitly ignore it.

This seminal book was written in 1956. But here’s the reality of 2019. It is not the players on stage but the audience that has an instant voice, and is faceless at the same time. There is no separation between the spheres of front stage and the back. Faux pas get broadcast and grow viral. There is no space to ignore the gaffe.

The social media universe awaits its next hyper-ventilating focus. To paraphrase the Bard: all the web’s a stage, and all men and women are alert members of the audience gunning for the next victim.

In such a world, brands in their public avatar cannot afford to relax. The scaffolding of a very conscious and vigilant presentation of self has to sustain at all times.

No one is free from this scrutiny. Not the bosses of Twitter and Facebook themselves, not politicians, or celebs. Nor brands.

I suggest a few do’s and don’ts for brand custodians. Each time they are 'presenting their selves’:

(a) Irrespective of the theme, work out a worst case scenario. Socially, morally, politically.

(b) There is surely a segment out there who is going to be outraged. Who is it? What is the potential controversial subject-matter?

(c) Ask key stakeholders such as your consumers to play back the communication in one line—how would the ad be referred to later? (Another way is to think of the key words you would need to locate the ad later on YouTube).

Proceed only when you have taken the answers into your stride.

There was a very successful ad of Tata Tea a few years back. If we put their ad on politicians through this test, the answers would be

(a) Politicians would hate it—but could only complain if it was spoofing a recognisable face. When representing an ‘any politician’, no one was beyond the ambit, nor was it targeted at any ‘one’.

(b) Politicians. But they are not a cohesive group who can seek a ban!

(c) ‘The Jaago Re Tata Tea politician qualifications’ ad.

And in the present case: Kumbh Mela is the epicentre of a major event.  All those millions who go to Kumbh religiously. Where old people are abandoned? Uh oh!

There’s a need to examine different hues in a story

A butterfly counts not months but moments. And has time enough.

Tagore’s immortal lines work as much for Twitter outrage, as they do for a metaphor regarding the bright, conspicuous titli.

Quick on the heels of the Red Label ad that was ‘dissected’ here, has come the Surf Excel Holi communication for social media sites to bite into, with relish.

I am delighted that global MNCs have begun treading into territories that were earlier seen as no-entry zones. Faith and religion, feminism, sustainability and the dangers of plastic, of dysfunctional relationships. It is exciting that communication has begun to go beyond the same old staid and bland ads with happy families that stayed within safe, predictable territories over the years.

But back to the sectarian divide. Are you ‘for us or against us’ with respect to the Surf Excel ad?

In true Twitterati style and the Pavlovian canine spirit, we have taken up our polarised positions. Either: This is the best thing that happened to the brand in a long time. Or: This is Love Jihad, how dare they bring about Hindu girl - Muslim boy stories into the open domain. 

I would look at the ad with the lens of the sociological gaze. The concept of the gaze illustrates the social dynamics of discipline, and draws out the mechanisms of implicit power, operating in any unequal relationship. In the context of movies, for instance, the male gaze brings out the outcomes of heterosexual men, in charge and behind the camera, who are seen to then objectify women. The colonial gaze locates the centrality of the privileged observer, asserting its command over the colonised, through its gaze.

In the Surf Excel ad, the young girl takes charge, tackles the neighbourhood in the midst of Holi, and dashes forth with her Muslim friend, delivering him pristine clean, in time for his prayers. 

Through the lens of the gaze, it could be seen as one (in this case, majoritarian) community’s paternalistic perspective, of taking care of ‘the other’ who can’t quite take care of themselves, and ought to be then grateful for the proffered hand of friendship.

If the communication is truly equal in all respects, the story should work identically well, with the positions reversed. And should just be a matter of the director taking any one of the two ways of showing the story, with no change in meaning.

Would it have the same meaning were the roles reversed, here in India? Community-wise? Of the Muslim child setting out to help the Hindu child, who in the story has no agency of his/her own? I expect, such meanings had not crossed the minds of the makers. 

As we go forward navigating the unknown, where we hope for calm, sensible dialogues, it is amply clear that in the world of today, it is best to have considered our communication from a 360-degree view. 

In the uncharted waters of current times, it is prudent and good practice to go beyond mere marketing strategy, the principles of war invariably taught across business schools, of whether you are a leader or a cash-cow, and at the agency end, the age-old principles of copywriting and visualisation. 

Advertisers and marketers also need mastery in disciplines such as Cultural Theory, Popular Culture, Sociology, and Women’s Studies. Else, they’ll miss the nuances that could lead to unintended meanings, as exemplified by these two ads.  

Editor’s Note: Also read Raja Ganapathy’s piece on Cause Marketing, published on LinkedIn. It addresses another important aspect that is often ignored by brand custodians: is your brand’s core value proposition closely linked to the cause that you hope to espouse?

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Piyul Mukherjee on Mar 09, 2019 2:07 p.m. said

@Ramesh: The Fevicol ad sounds fun. ( Lost at Kumbh per se had potential: long lost twins separated meet face to face in another Kumbh. Bhaiya!!!.... Bhaiya!! )
@Rama: Even if that is so — a turning back on familial responsibilities — the question would remain. Is the role of the tea an integral part of the conversation?
An earlier Red Label ad on neighbours bonding across communities was beautifully portrayed. Here, the original thought of suspicion that changed to bonding created aspirational empathy. And tea was integral to the conversion.

Ramesh Soundararajan on Mar 09, 2019 9:01 a.m. said

Actually Fevicol did a much better marketing around Kumbh in MP. They created overcoats for two and three people that they can wear together so that they don't lose track. Marketing gimmick, but a better narrative. Even a paper like Independent ran a mostly positive story around these desertion. And if you want messaging why release an ad after Kumbh is over?

rama bijapurkar on Mar 08, 2019 2:40 p.m. said

I actually wonder whether the outrage was because the ad showed consumers (society) a mirror ... maybe not literally but metaphorically there is more turning ones back on familial responsibilities than in the past ...

satyam mishra on Mar 08, 2019 7:54 a.m. said

@Indranil Chakraborty: Very true. As a brand agnostic, I could feel the brand being forcefitted into the story. Also I believe that piggybacking on the goodness reaps much more results than pointing out the negatives especially when the brand is not a social organization. Whereas what the ad conveyed towards the end, sadly might be true, there could exist a hundred positive things that the brand can associate with and flourish instead of pointing one negative that the brand is not directly associated with nor it is trying to correct as a practice in the future.

Indranil Chakraborty on Mar 08, 2019 7:14 a.m. said

One of the problems, me thinks, is the renaissance of the belief in storytelling. However, brand storytelling can't be a story sponsored by the brand. The brand needs to be integral to the story not a patched in. Not just about finding a emotional story and looking for a place to fit the brand in.


About the author

Piyul Mukherjee
Piyul Mukherjee


Quipper Research Private Limited

Piyul Mukherjee is the co-founder of Quipper, a qualitative research agency, that has become the go-to destination for a wide set of vibrant brands seeking to make a mark in the Indian, and increasingly, international marketplace.

She has over 30 years of qualitative research experience, including eight years at Lintas. She’s a member of the global Unilever panel aiding their accreditation programme for moderators and research leads. 

With a PhD in sociology from IIT Bombay, and an MBA from Jamnalal Bajaj, she has co-authored part of the ESOMAR Market Research Handbook. She has also co-authored a biography of a teenager who participated in the armed revolution in Bengal as part of India’s freedom struggle.

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