How 2021 was the year of ad controversies

Many big brands faced the wrath of trolls and were forced to retract their controversial ads this year

e4m by Kanchan Srivastava
Published: Dec 13, 2021 8:42 AM  | 5 min read

The year 2021 can be branded as the year of outrage against advertising and the creative freedom it involves. Although the “boycott brand” trend has been running for the past few years, this year has been particularly “noteworthy”, thanks to right-wing and Hindutva trolls who accused brands of hurting their “religious sentiments'' through “outrageous” ads. Some sentiments were so delicate that they were hurt by common Urdu words like Jashn. 

At the center of the controversy was Dabur’s “lesbian Karwa Chauth ad” to promote its “bleaching cream''. The concept of the same-sex couple observing Karva Chauth wasn’t well-received by many although some people appreciated the brand's creative input to perpetuate inclusivity. Dabur had to issue an apology after it was condemned by right-wing netizens and LGBT activists alike.

Sabyasachi's "Mangalsutra Collection'' ad featuring intimate photos of a woman and a man was dubbed "against Hindu culture”. Mukherjee pulled down the ad after a MP minister threatened to send the police after him.

Indian retailer Fabindia faced backlash for its “Jashn-e-Riwaaz” collection based on an Urdu term, while tyre manufacturer Ceat faced ire because Actor Amir Khan urged people not to use firecrackers in the ad

The fashion e-commerce platform Nykaa was accused of  “insulting the Hindu festival” for its Navratri ad campaign in which lubes and condoms were available at discount. Another clothing brand Manyavar had shown actress Alia Bhatt, describing a gender-neutral meaning of Kanyadaan in the advertisement displaying a social message, met the same fate. 

The Ed Tech giant Unacademy was called out for sponsoring a “Ramleela skit” of AIIMS, Delhi which allegedly mocked Sanatan Dharma. Meanwhile, Byju’s was trolled for having actor Shah Rukh Khan as its brand ambassador at the time when his son- Aryan Khan, was jailed in an alleged drug case. Such was the scare that BYJU’s pulled down ads silently. 

Online Army getting stronger 

While there is cutthroat competition among brands to grab the markets once again through aggressive and innovative ad campaigns after a massive pandemic blow, online trolls especially the right-wing ones are also getting stronger and vocal with each passing day.  

They drive social media trends, create perceptions against certain brands, call for boycotts and thus maximize the noise against the brands which beautifully cultivated their image over the years

Calculated gamble? 

Many ad-makers re f the opinion that they themselves pick the controversial themes as negative publicity helps them more than the positive campaigns. Such gimmicks acquired centre stage in 2021 when brands started their campaigns aggressively to regain their market base that eroded during the pandemic. Brands dealing with beauty products, jewellery, clothing range were badly hit during the lockdown. 

“Making provocative ads is a smart way of communicating these days. Otherwise, what was the point of choosing a lesbian theme for Karwa Chauth for a bleach creme for a company like Dabur which is known for its products based on Ayurveda?” wonders ad, TV and feature filmmaker Dilip Kadam, who feels that Dabur did so for its image makeover to reach out to the younger generation who have a far open mindset compared to older generations. 

Kadam, who has made several ad campaigns, explains, “Negative publicity is far more effective than a positive one. Controversies, social media outrage, and hashtag trends force many uninitiated people to watch the ads. The brand’s name gets itched in their mind. Controversial themes also help to get mainstream media coverage which maximizes the impact and reach of the brand.”

These controversies have an amplified impact in the pandemic as more and more people are now connected with the internet for longer hours. Besides, political outfits add fuel into the fire for their own vested interests. 

Shreyansh Baid, Founder Director, Shreyansh Innovations says that Advertising is going through a very rough time. 

“Advertising was always supposed to be a changemaker in society. If progressive thinking receives this kind of reaction or rebuke, definitely brand custodians would not attempt or dare to have any kind of progressive thought in any of the communication. So, it's definitely a matter of concern on how we move forward from here,” Baid wonders. 

Sachin Kumar, Founder, Bottle Openers, says controversies are part of business and business of communication and 2021 was no exception. 

“We live in a society with predefined roles, values and responsibilities. Whenever anyone touches or tries to modify those values it will call for resistance to change a section of society. We cannot move forward without resistance as we live in Two India – India & Bharat.”

This essentially means that we might witness more such controversies in 2022. Deep Mehta, Co-Founder of DigiChefs, echoes the sentiments. “Risk and Luck are doppelgangers-this is one of the quotes from the book The Psychology of Money, written by Morgan Housel. This is exactly what is happening in the advertising ecosystem where you try to break the mindset of people through challenging and risky campaigns,” Mehta says, adding that earlier, the uproar was shown through protests on the roads. Now, people can hide behind their devices and write whatever they want about anyone.

“Whenever brands try to break a mindset, there will be a lot of support from the woke audience out there. At the same time, there would be some criticism as well. Brands should continue their experimentations in future but of course in the right mindset without intentionally stepping into a controversy,” advises Mehta. 

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