Did Surf Excel deserve hoopla? HUL breaks silence over controversial ad, experts divided

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Updated: March 12, 2019 3:40:13 PM

With HUL facing criticism on ads, it is natural to ask whether it had actually overstepped or is it just another instance of a rival brand trying to milk in the error of judgment of its competitor.

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Hindustan Unilever Ltd’s popular detergent brand Surf Excel recently came under fire for its Holi ad that has been doing rounds over the internet with #boycottsurfexcel. With Right-wing associations bashing the ad with their far-fetched ‘desi-videshi’ extremism and with FMCG giant Baba Ramdev calling for a complete boycott, it is natural to ask whether HUL had actually overstepped or is it just another instance of a rival brand trying to milk in the error of judgment of its competitor.

It has been a tough week for HUL. First mired in its tea brand — Brooke Bond’s — Kumbh Mela ad where the company had put a wrong foot with the consumers, questioning Indian child-parent relationship, and then with Surf Excel’s Holi ad that might have brought criticism considering the current communal tensions and the upcoming elections. Then again, it is not the first time that an FMCG brand has goofed up.

A spokesperson from Hindustan Unilever Ltd told Financial Express online that the Surf Excel #RangLaayeSang campaign embodies the brand’s ‘Daag Acche Hain’ philosophy, and captures how the colours of Holi can be a force for good, melting differences and bringing people together. The spokesperson added that in the advertisement, one can 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.

While HUL’s intention with the Holi ad may have been a message of communal harmony and secularism, the ad did not strike a right chord with many. Harish Bijoor, brand-expert and founder of Harish Bijoor Consults told FE online, “HUL’s creatives have been hurried. Not pre-tested. And I do believe that is the fault. It is important to keep your fingers on the pulse of the consumer in these rather tumultuous and polarized times.”

However, Chandramouli N. from Trust Research Agency spoke in favour of the Surf Excel’s Holi ad and twisted the whole Love Jihad angle to a sibling love relation, affirming that it is all about perception. He told Financial Express online, “The detergent brand’s Holi ad is beautifully rendered, and has a strong narrative that stays in context of its positioning of Daag Acche Hain. It shows communal harmony when society is becoming more and more polarized, and demonstrates sibling love and brings out the protection that a sister can bring to a younger brother. Such a complex idea set was executed with perfection. The backlash on both is by a set of right-winged trolls, and while you can creatively criticise the Red Label ad, you cannot say it had religious slander.”

Saying that HUL had its heart in the right place by talking about issues that not many touch upon, Chandramouli N. said that there is definitely no error in judgement with regard to the positioning of the two ads, be it Red Label or Surf Excel. “However, the error, if any, is more on the part of Red Label’s ad narrative, which seems to lack the punch in its storyline,” he concluded.  

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