#Throwback2020: The year's most controversial ads

Most of these ads will end up finding a mention in marketing case history books.

NEW DELHI: Advertising informs. It generates awareness, entertains; less often than not – if one goes by harsh cynics – leads to a buy decision, and with even lesser frequency flies into controversy. Sometimes the storm that follows proves beneficial for the brand, especially if it is a cult product. At other times, it proves highly detrimental. 2020 was no different. The year had its fair share of brands and labels which got into the crosshairs of some activist group or other, inviting consumers' ire and even unmentionable expletives. Even though what they communicated was well-meaning, and should be considered by most to be within the norms of decency. Most of these ads will end up finding a mention in marketing case history books, detailing what transpired.

Here's our collection of some of the brands, TVCs and ads that ran into controversy.

1.  Tanishq – Baby Shower

The jewellery brand from Titan released a TVC on the theme of Ekatvam (Oneness) featuring a Hindu girl married in a Muslim family which is celebrating her baby shower. This ritual is customarily not a part of the Muslim culture but the ad film showcased a liberal family that was more concerned about their daughter-in-law’s happiness. The film ran into a major wrangle, as a lot OF people opposed the premise and claimed that their cultural sentiments had been hurt. They asked why advertising industry always goes for these tropes and why a Muslim girl was not featured in a Hindu environment. Allegations of promoting ‘love jihad’ were also thrown around. The backlash pushed the brand on the backfoot and it pulled the plug on the ad. However, the move was not acceptable to certain sections, who criticised Tanishq for not taking a stand. For the record, the film got a clean chit from every industry body and reviewers.

2.      Tanishq – Ekatvam

Not happy with getting a social media caning from certain pressure groups, Tanishq’s marketing mavens decided to take a shot at being liberal in its outlook and released a TVC promoting its Ekatvam range. The film featured four artistes – Neena Gupta, Nimrat Kaur, Sayani Gupta and Alaya F – talking about the festivities. During the film, one of the actors’ spoke about not bursting firecrackers and celebrating a peaceful Diwali. While the idea was to prevent  pollution, several people took it in a different light and rebuked the brand to not tell others how to celebrate the festival of lights. The brand was stalked by trolls for the second time in a month. Again, Tanishq was forced to withdraw the ad.

On both occasions, trollers pointed that the ad had hurt Hindu sentiments.

3.      Kent RO

This year, several brands tried to cash In on  the pandemic by communicating how they could help in the fight against pathogens, especially the Coronavirus. While some brands came out with effective ads, some made exaggerated claims even as others tried to be extra cautious in their communication.  One such company which took such a tack was the maker of water purification system Kent RO. In an advertisement, Kent cautioned against letting the househelp knead flour in case “her hands might be infected,” which served as the plug for the company’s product. Featuring Hema Malini and her daughter Esha Deol as celebrity endorsers, the TVC got thrashed black and blue on social media. Some even complained to the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI). Their reasoning: the TVC was  insensitive towards the domestic helps who were already facing discrimination from housing societies across the country. The film was pulled off Kent’s social media handles and the brand issued an apology and promised to investigate its advertising procedures and deploy corrective measures.

4.      Amul – Exit the Dragon

During June this year, tensions between India and China were at its peak. Starting with the tiff in Galwan valley, where PLA soldiers were pushed back while trying to enter Indian territory, to boycotting Chinese brands and products with a call for Atmanirbhar Bharat, the dairy brand Amul, famed for its on point topicals, came up with a creative titled ‘Exit the Dragon’. The creative showcased the iconic Amul Girl telling the dragon to exit – an oblique reference to Chinese products. The powerful creative clearly communicated the message in regards to boycott of goods manufactured in China. Shortly after the cartoon was posted, the Twitter account of Gujarat Milk Marketing Federation (which owns Amul) was blocked. Twitterati accused the social networking platform of having a bias against India and #Amul became a top trend. The account was restored soon after.

5.      WhiteHat Jr

The ed-tech brand certainly caught the pulse of the nation when it was acquired by Byju’s for a staggering $300 million. Post that, the brand went on a new audience acquisition spree on the back of a huge marketing campaign. However, as many as seven WhiteHat Jr ads fielded complaints for being misleading. Out of these, complaints regarding five ads were upheld by ASCI, which directed them to be pulled down. It used messages such as “TedX Speaker at the age of seven,” among other inflated, unverified claims.

The brand also used the images of global leaders such as Elon Musk, Sundar Pichai, Steve Jobs and others to convey a message that joining WhiteHatJr will turn kids into tech geniuses like them.  

6.      ISL Mohun Bagan

The ad, meant to create hype for the ISL 2020-21 season among Bengali football enthusiasts, wreaked havoc instead. Mohun Bagan loyalists objected to a scene where a team jersey is dipped into a washing machine along with an ATK jersey. The narration of the ad also mentioned a "six-year-old emotion" that fans found offensive, since Mohun Bagan, which debuted in ISL this season with the brand name ATK Mohun Bagan FC, has a long and glorious history of 131 years.

They were also perturbed with the idea of the team wearing three stars on the left sleeve of their jersey under the ISL logo, with the words 'Champions 2019-20' written under them. The Mohun Bagan fanbase perceived the mishandling of the branding and advertising of their team as an attempt to undermine their club's legacy and heritage. They expressed their disagreement with these branding efforts online. Soon enough, team management stepped in and took measures to cool down the situation.

7.      Indore Law School ad

A print advert by the Indore Institute of Law drew a comparison between two fictional characters – Harvey Specter from American TV series Suits, and Akshay Kumar from Jolly LLB 2. It bore the caption that an aspiring lawyer could be either – “Choice is yours.”

The picture started doing the rounds on social media platforms and netizens were quick to slam the college’s perceived elitist stance behind the ad. Others accused the institute of denigrating the “dignity of Indian lawyers.” Several people questioned whether the college had obtained permission from the original creators before running the campaign. A fair few wondered why the institute chose fictional characters instead of its own alumni or famous practitioners of law in the real world.

The ad-makers were brutally trolled for their creative sense and the ad was roundly panned as problematic and in poor taste.

Facing flak, the law college later issued an apology saying, “We assure everyone that it was absolutely not our intention to offend anyone or defame any section of the legal profession.” 

Please find our clarification regarding our advertisement published on 15/10/2020. We would like to make clear the...

Posted by Indore Institute of Law on Thursday, 15 October 2020

8.      MobiKwik takes a dig at Paytm

The fintech firm took a dig at arch rival Paytm by calling it “Chinese.” It further said that while 220 Chinese apps have been banned, many consumers are still using them on the downlow. MobiKwik urged users to go Indian and questioned them if they were still using Paytm, a Chinese app, for paying their bills.

Describing itself as a ‘truly Indian Payments’ app, the ad called on users to use Mobikwik for all their payment needs.

9.      Honey War

After the Centre for Science and Environment  (CSE) sparked a controversy in the FMCG space by reporting that several leading honey brands had not been able to clear purity tests, a brand war started. The ones that passed the litmus are now talking about their purity, while those that flunked are questioning the report. Post honeygate, several brands released ads sharing their perspective on the situation. The ad war was obvious as no brand would want to let its market share degrade based on one report. Industry experts believe that a massive PR and advertising war will be waged in this category as brands would go to any extent to retain their customers.

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