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Friday, January 28, 2011

Chp 335. Advertising and stereotypes - where do we draw the line?

These past few days, I’ve been watching a lot of TV. And every time the new Frito Lay’s cricket World Cup ad comes on TV, I cringe a bit. I find it quite irritating and always end up changing the channel whenever this ad comes on.

I know this is trivial. You can just consider this post a rant if you want. It may not even be racism, but it is offensive nonetheless. I can’t believe an agency like JWT would stoop this low to produce such cheap humor.

0:15 minute of the ad is what I find tasteless.

I mean… where’s the humor? That the guy who’s supposed to be a Nepali was so stupid that he didn’t even know Nepal’s not playing in the cricket World Cup?

Anyway, here is the gist of the campaign - Frito-Lay India Pvt. Ltd. has just launched their new commercial this month entitled “Kaun jeetega World Cup”. Six new flavours were launched - India, Sri Lanka, West Indies, Australia, England and South Africa.

Australia’s Herb ‘n’ Lime
South Africa’s Peri Peri Sauce
Sri Lanka’s Sweet Onion Sauce
England’s Grilled Cheese
West Indies’ Hot & Sweet Chilli
India’s Magic Masala

Pepsico launches six new Lay's flavours for the ICC World Cup

"We are the global snacks partner with the ICC World Cup in 2011. That's why we are building on this relationship. As a global snacks partner, we are leveraging the association to give consumer experiences and build our brand image," Pepsico Foods India Marketing Director Vidur Vyas told reporters.

The TVC script followed the usual routine without straying from the branding - Cast your brand ambassadors together, introduce the six new flavors, add elements of surprise, play the patriotic card, and so on and so forth. I have no issue with the ad, except for the one part mentioned above.

So everybody started shouting the names of different countries they support for the World Cup (which you realize later is actually the names of the flavors). And then one guy shouted Nepal, to which another person from the crowd slapped him and told him Nepal is not playing in the World Cup, in a very condescending tone.

I noticed it right then the dissimilarity in flow. The guy who shouted Nepal had mongoloid features, hence anybody would immediately assume he’s a Nepali. So I guess people of different nationalities were rooting for their respective countries. But the others who shouted England, etc do not look like people from such places at all. In fact they were all Indians.

In advertising, to make it easier and simple for people to understand, we usually feature stereotypes in our ads. This is definitely the part of my job I am not that proud of. When we do that, we are treading on very thin ice, especially when it comes to cultural identification in such a diverse country as India.

So many questions came up from the above incident alone. Why couldn’t it be somebody with an “Indian face” who shouted “Nepal”? Why did it have to be Nepal? Why couldn’t it be foreigners who were cheering for England etc?

And the most important question of all – why include that part in the first place? What did it achieve? It humiliated the guy and made him look stupid so that we could all laugh at him? The same way we always laugh at people with mongoloid features and call them watchmen, kanchha, momo? Humiliating people of Mongoloid origin is not something new even today.

And here’s one of the biggest misconceptions about Nepal. So many of them do not have mongoloid features at all. Nepal is a beautiful country, rich in culture and diversity. You will not be able to differentiate between many of them and “typical Indians” who are of the Aryan-Dravidian stock. But in many of the North Eastern states like Mizoram, Nagaland etc, the majority are of the Mongoloid stock. They are all Indians, but ironically, they’re the ones called Nepalis by others. If you’re from the NE, you would have definitely heard your fair share of crude “watchman jokes”.

See, I am not trying to stir up a worm’s nest or open a can of hornets here… whateva. I’m not going on a protest or hunger strike protesting this ad. I’m just trying to see it from a different perspective here, the way someone who is not from Nepal or the North East would see it. But if you’re from those places and you see this ad, those are the first thoughts that come flashing through your head. Not a very pleasant sight indeed.

Working in an ad agency, I know we have to do a lot of stuff we don’t particularly enjoy doing. For example, suppose you strongly believe that people should not be discriminated based on their skin color, and then comes along a cosmetic brand with pockets full of money. No matter which concept you give, the client will still want a concept that talks about how “being fair” is more beautiful than being dark-skinned.

Even if you refuse to touch the account due to your strong beliefs and principles, there will always be many others who are willing to take over and leave you behind in this dog-eat-dog world. One thing I have learnt from working in an agency – it is not for the meek at heart.

Don Draper from Mad Men puts this across beautifully. Season 4 Episode 9 – One of their main clients is Filmore Auto Parts. America at that time was still recovering from its dark history of discrimination. When Peggy and the others handling the account learnt that Filmore Auto Parts does not hire colored people, they approached their Creative Director Don Draper asking him why they are doing business with a racist company.

Don Draper replied, “Our job is to make men like Fillmore Auto, not Fillmore Auto like colored people.”


Likewise, maybe it’s not JWT’s fault that the ad came out like this. Maybe it was the client who insisted on using that person to ridicule. Maybe it was just an innocent mistake – that they wanted to ridicule somebody but unfortunately that person happened to be somebody who had already been ridiculed almost every day of his life.

As an agency, where exactly do we draw the line when it comes to stereotypes? Yesterday it was about people with darker complexion and Sardarjis. Today it is about people with small eyes. Tomorrow… who knows? Of course if you ask the people involved, it usually leads nowhere -

Ask the ad agency why they are using such stereotypes and they will probably reply, “Look boss, I too want to change the mindset of the people and move away from all this stereotype bull$hit, but it is the client who wants it like this and there’s nothing we can do. If we don’t do it, he doesn’t pay us. It’s as simple as that. I’m sorry.”

Ask the client why he insists on this, and he will probably say, “You know how that hurts me too. But from our marketing research, that’s what people want to see. How can I show something that does not appeal to the people. If they don’t like it, they don’t buy my product. It’s as simple as that. I’m sorry.”

Ask the people why they want to see that, and they will probably reply, “Hey don’t blame us for having such a biased perception about people. It’s because of all those damn advertising agencies that keep feeding us with such nonsense.”

Ah… see? It leads to a three-way “chicken or egg” rhetorical circle, with no one knowing who lit the first spark. I’m just wondering how much further we will go before all this blows over. Rather than play the blame game, maybe it’s high time we draw a line somewhere. I don’t know how, I don’t know where.

Anyway, racial discrimination or not, this ad still makes me pretty uncomfortable and it is my prerogative to change the channels whenever this ad comes on. This action seems to be the only solution for now.

I’m ending this post with two beautiful music videos I came across yesterday –

One is called North East Star. It’s like the North East India version of an “Incredible India” ad. Awesome it is.

The other is called “Silent National Anthem” by Mudra. This is freaking amazing! Kudos Mudra. (Plus it sure feels good as hell to know one of my friends was one of the main brains behind this idea!)

Have a great weekend.


Anonymous said...

"the client will still want a concept that talks about how “being fair” is more beautiful than being dark-skinned.".. reminds me of that Fairness cream for Men ad where the candidate was interviewing the Interview Panel,etc and at the end, he got the job because he was Fair! What a load of BS!
And the Lay's Nepali incident is much more subtle than Amir Khan's ad where he acts as a Nepali Guide for a Coca-Cola ad.

Masanga said...

I hardly have time for TV and even when I sit in front of the TV, I usually hit the remote just as soon as an ad comes! I completely identify with your sense of irritation! I've had one portly man shout "Nepali" at me in Mumbai, I've never felt that good educating a much older person about his country and its people! He walked away without uttering another word. It may irritate some folks when I say this, 'The ad is just so Indian!' :D

odzer said...

Kima, I agree. I hate that ad. Having said that. Nepalese people are treated like shit in India. In fact let me be honest I find behaviour of "mainstream" Indians disgusting. Not only Nepalese, most of jokes are on Sikh people too. Indians make fun of anyone that doesn't 'fit in'. I think they seem to think because everyone else enjoys it, so should the victims of their jokes or at least they should not take their 'humour' so seriously.

illusionaire said...

@ blackestred: Yeah even that ad was pretty bad, now that I thought about it :(

@ Masanga: The Gurkha Regiment are one of the bravest people in the world. Even the former Chief of staff of the Indian Army, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw once famously said, "If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or is a Gurkha." Yet, this qualities never come out. When people say Nepali, they usually refer to the lowest rung of the society ladder, which is really really unfortunate and sad.

@ odzer: Agree. And the thing about making fun of others is, you know, there are different types. Like you have the Russel Peters kind of humor, and then you have the other kind who do it out of sheer spite, anger and extreme prejudice.

Jerusha said...

That ad is not an 'innocent mistake' but just a plain ignorant stupid mistake. Being in the advertising world myself, I know how much care I'd take before any ad goes live and though the ads I work with are for a different continent and country, I know how much care I'd care I'd take in terms of research to make sure that 'my ads' don't hurt anyone's sentiments and I would do so much research about the country before I deem it safe to unleash it to the world. I'm so glad you brought this up. Fuck those assholes that made that ad. Sorry for the language but they deserve it. Assholes.

daniel said...

I bet Bal Thakarey wont take it lying down if it was a jibe about a Marathi!
By the way I've seen the ad umteenth times but it never got through my thick skull till you pointed it out, so maybe others will see it the way I did.

Tetea said...

This was exactly what came to my mind when I first saw the ad!

Anyway, it seems the part where the 'Nepali' guy shouts has been cut from the recent ads I've seen. Maybe the advertisers read your blog and removed it before any serious complications arise.

illusionaire said...

@ Tetea: Yup, the Nepal part has now been removed from the ad. What a relief :)

@ daniel: hehe it would indeed be funny if it was a jibe at a maharashtrian :)

@ Jerusha: Well, that part has now been cut from the ad, so hopefully we wont see such things again. Keeping my fingers crossed.

Jona said...

I love ads!--not beause I have to go to the kitchen for my Act II popcorn--I just am amazed at how the creative guys behind the ads come up with great ideas; (however, I must say my buying habits are not influenced by ads, hehe). But ingraining insulting tones in it like the one you've pointed out is very pathetic. You've rightly said yourself - "So many questions came up from the above incident alone. Why couldn’t it be somebody with an “Indian face” who shouted “Nepal”? Why did it have to be Nepal? Why couldn’t it be foreigners who were cheering for England etc?" The ad agency sure does have a lot to introspect itself and answer the questions.

And, by the by, can anyone tell me why diamond jewellry ads (such as Gili of Gitanjali featuring Bipasha, and Nakshatra with Katrina) and AXN's reality show "India's Minute to Win It" programme ad (if that's an ad, I am not sure)featuring the anchor Gaurav toying with his mobile, 'ek minute' away when asked a question have to be so bawwwwwring??? :(

Jay-me said...

i knew it! The moment i saw the title of the post, i knew its gonna be a remark on the "supposedly" (heh, just trying to be in the safe zone)derogatory image projected in thaaat ad, i guess thats becos the same thoughts crossed my mind too when i caught the ad. But im just too much of a chicken to lay it out in the open, so, here's to "men" like you...Btw, appreciate that smile that says "welcome back"!

chrischaos said...

we draw the line, until the line disappears.

- !! Main St Review !!

Anurag said...

Superb blog bro!! I seriously dont understand why people dont bother to educate themselves?!?! They dont even know about their own country properly...shame!!
Yes handling clients is difficult. It is great to see an ad that the agency believes in :D
Enjoy TV watchin ;D

iserve pharmacy said...

For marketing companies are more easier to have people in certain groups and stereotypes makes easier to do so.