How ads, over the years, have unwittingly offended people with its “wits”

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Updated: December 23, 2019 7:48 AM

From Happydent to Kalyan Jewellers, Titan is the latest company to get caught in the fishnet trap of witty yet offending ad

Titan adThe Titan ad once again draws attention to creative best practices and crisis management in the face of controversy.

A recent ad by Titan Company for its Tamil Nadu-themed watches edition has been accused of being ‘anti-Dravidian’ and broadly suffering from ‘cultural blindness’. The ad sparked outrage because, in addition to depicting varied elements of Tamil Nadu — Kanchipuram silk, poet Subramania Bharati and Brihadeeshwara Temple — the ad showed fleeting images of a book that critiques the Dravidian philosophy, as well as a headline from a magazine where a pro-Hindutva leader claims that actor Rajnikant will demolish DMK leader MK Stalin.

The outrage spread quickly on social media, resulting in #BoycottTitanWatches trending on Twitter. Owing to the backlash, Titan has, since, pulled down the ad from its social media handles, and the film’s director has deleted his Twitter account.

The Titan ad once again draws attention to creative best practices and crisis management in the face of controversy.

Treading carefully

Earlier, ads by brands like Kalyan Jewellers and Happydent, too, have ruffled feathers. A 2015 Kalyan Jewellers print ad featured a dark-skinned child holding an umbrella for Aishwarya Rai, who was seemingly representing a bejewelled aristocrat. Following a backlash, the brand had to withdraw the ad.

The Happydent ad from 2007 showed hordes of men chewing the teeth whitening gum and lighting up a city by flashing their teeth. The human bulbs, chandeliers and headlamps were perceived to represent the oppressive zamindari system. However, despite the criticism it attracted at home, the TVC won international accolades.

Creative agencies try to avert such faux pas by using beta tests and focus groups that help identify stereotypes and vet advertisements. “Having a diverse team involved at both the conceptualisation and approval stages of the ad can reduce the chances of creating ads that could be construed as culturally inappropriate and insensitive,” says Vasudha Mishra, executive creative director, BBH India.

Read Also: Why OTT platforms are carving a separate space for children’s content 

While this is an industry best practice, experts feel that these checks alone cannot controversy-proof an ad. “Brands do cross-check if creatives are safe for public dissemination, especially keeping in mind the sensitive environment we are in right now. But there is no absolute test that can validate an ad or prove it to be uncontroversial,” says Azazul Haque, CCO, MullenLowe Lintas Group.

For instance, the Rajasthan Tourism tagline — Jaane Kya Dikh Jaye (You don’t know what surprise awaits you) — was used by critics of the government to draw attention to the issues concerning the people of the state. “There was no way to know that a line such as that could be used in a negative context,” says Haque, who worked on the creative when he was at Ogilvy.

In the case of the Titan ad, “a keen eye on the visuals could have helped spot the frames that have now led to the controversy,” says Ambi Parameswaran, brand strategist and founder,

Take risks, apologise

Experts advise that a brand could apologise and remove the ad to protect its image. “Social listening is crucial to containing the damage,” Parameswaran adds.

Mistakes and misguided attempts by brands when handled deftly, tend not to ruin their image. “Which is why brands should not have a knee-jerk reaction to controversies. They should stick by what they believe in and be on the right side of the story,” recommends Mishra.

In the pursuit of creating interesting advertisements, brands and agencies sometimes take risks. “The Happydent ad was a creative treatment of an interesting idea. When a reference is unintentional and derived later on, one can take the risk of going ahead with an idea,” says Haque.

Read Also: Marketing trends to look out for in 2020

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