Surf Excel recently became a target of relentless online abuse and threats from trolls for, ironically, using Holi as a backdrop to give a warm, sincere message on communal harmony.
The clothing company, United Colours of Benetton, or more simply, Benetton, has never shied from explicitly political ads—political not in the sense of endorsing some party or outfit, but making a progressive statement on issues such as homosexuality/homophobia, war, capital punishment, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s-90s, organised crime. While the tone of the ads were local—the bloodied uniform of a Bosnian soldier or American prisoners in the death row or a man murdered by the mafia in Italy or an inter-racial lesbian couple with an adopted child of Asian descent—the message was global: anti-war, anti-death penalty, anti-organised crime, pro-diversity. In India, it has been uncharacteristically reticent. To be sure, it has put up ads speaking about racial harmony, but that doesn’t pack the same punch as, say, hypothetically, a janeudhari Brahmin shown with his arm on a Dalit’s shoulder. It is not that companies in India have stayed clear of controversial—political—ads. Surf Excel recently became a target of relentless online abuse and threats from trolls for, ironically, using Holi as a backdrop to give a warm, sincere message on communal harmony. Tata Tea’s famous Jaago Re campaign is another example. Yet, it was Benetton that was conspicuously silent. But no longer. The company brought out a full-page ad on the front two pages of a national news-daily on Sunday, with a rather forceful message.
Against a blurred picture of a woman in the background, the ad talks about the regressive, divisive politics of major political parties in India. The parties are not named, but you know which these are. It talks about parties that police what is acceptable as food in India, what clothes are acceptable, how they erode trust in the country’s democracy with their attacks on the EVMs, how they want to dictate who should be hated. The final line in Benetton’s #UnitedByVote ad, referencing universal adult franchise, is “It is time to … show them who has the power”. That is as frontal as the company—any company—could get. If more of corporate India becomes conscience-keeper to the masses, it wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.