Hamara Bajaj And A Love Lesson For Indians
Rajiv Bajaj gestures during a symposium in St. Gallen, Switzerland. (Photographer: Gianluca Colla/Bloomberg)

Hamara Bajaj And A Love Lesson For Indians

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When Rajiv Bajaj calmly told CNBC-TV18’s Shereen Bhan on Oct. 8 that, “We are very clear our brand would never be associated with anything… that is a source of toxicity in society,” he gave a masterclass in speaking up against hate.

It’s a four-step process: Pick your platform, open your mouth, defend constitutional values and block out the trolls. Hunker down. If you blink, you lose.

Like jewellery brand Tanishq did after its advertisement featuring an interfaith couple, angered the haters. Tanishq switched off the comments on YouTube, but didn’t have the stomach for the coordinated attack against the ad on other platforms that don’t offer this feature. Surely Tanishq knew that loving outside tightly-drawn boundaries increasingly makes some Indians angry? It’s not the first company to walk down this road.

Hamara Bajaj And A Love Lesson For Indians

Speaking up is a lesson the managing director of Bajaj Auto Ltd. likely learned from his father who put Home Minister Amit Shah on the spot at a corporate gathering in December when he asked him, among other things, why an elected representative of his political party had called Nathuram Godse a patriot.

Rajiv Bajaj told Bhan that when he asked his head of marketing to discontinue advertisements to three television channels, his colleague replied: “Boss, I’ve done this nine months ago.”

In a country that has criminalised dissent, used the pandemic to generate an Islamophobic twister, and turned the suicide of an actor into a televised national tamasha to distract from real news, hope still glimmers every time someone with a public platform speaks up against hate, fake news and the communalising of our daily lives.

We felt the same hope when actor Deepika Padukone went to Jawaharlal Nehru University on Jan. 7 to stand in solidarity with protesting students. It’s the mental fist bump we do every time Mahua Moitra stands up in Parliament or Swara Bhasker speaks up, uncaring of whether advertisers will blacklist her for having a “political” POV. It’s the relief we experienced when various courts across the country ruled that members of the Tablighi Jamaat had been arrested under false pretences. Or the solidarity we felt with our doctors when they speedily corrected the government’s misinformation and issued a full-page advertisement in national newspapers with the names and faces of 515 doctors who had died in the Coronavirus pandemic.

Every time someone with something to lose speaks up, it inspires others to do the same.

In this case, Bajaj Auto is not the only company to speak up against televised hate. According to this report in industry magazine Best Media Info, more than one advertiser has spoken out against what passes off as news on our television channels.

“I’m recommending all the leading advertisers to come together and ban the news genre until they are forced to bring sanity and ethics in news back,” Krishnarao Buddha of Parle Products Pvt. Ltd. said. The brand’s position against toxic news prompted many appreciative tweets from Indians who have dunked record quantities of Glucose biscuits in their tea during the lockdown, causing the company to report its best sales in the eight decades of its existence. Of course, Parle Products is not a big television advertiser, but maybe larger brands will be inspired to follow its lead.

Also read: Real News Is Crying Out For Your Attention

“It’s great that brands are taking a position on toxic news,” says Amrita Shah, the author of Telly-Guillotined: How Television Changed India. “But the marketing industry needs to also acknowledge its immense role in creating this monster.”

Shah points out that the surge of advertising after liberalisation helped advertisers push through the barriers that separated content and marketing. “But it did much more than that – it demanded an environment considered suitable for the placement of consumer ads. So, out with poverty, health, the elderly, etc. and in with personalities, trivia, glamour, fights, and a slippery slope from there on.”

In other words, advertising killed real news.

“To blame the news media without recognising the advertiser’s lack of ethics and social responsibility is laughable and just plain wrong,” adds Shah.

Brands have certainly realised it’s in vogue to stand for something. A 2018 study found that 64% of consumers worldwide make purchasing decisions based on a brand’s social or political position.

“Over the last few years, brands have taken a political stance globally,” says Santosh Desai, managing director and CEO of Future Brands India, citing brands that have supported #BlackLivesMatter in the United States. “It’s part of a larger movement that is almost certainly a result of the fact that millennial audiences are more politically engaged.

Desai says Hindustan Unilever Ltd.’s decision to rename its skincare brand Fair & Lovely to Glow & Lovely—which the company explained as a move towards “a more inclusive vision of Positive Beauty”—was more likely a result of how global investors would perceive the brand.

Also read: The Return Of Protests

Indian brands have also been pressurised to rethink where they invest their money, like in the case of Amul and the Islamophobic Sudarshan News. As Newslaundry says in this analysis: “The questions put to the Amul in late August were simple: with a wide customer base across the country, including people from every religious groups, does the dairy company endorse anti-Muslim hatred? Did it consider it ethical to cash in on divisive shows presented by frothing demagogues? Was Amul okay with funding hate?”

He says the handful of Indian brands speaking up against toxic content on television could go either way. “Unless it is backed by action, it could be social media posturing.”

Bajaj’s decision prompted YouTuber Akash Banerjee to tweet:

“We applaud #RajivBajaj’s decision to blacklist toxic channels. As a token of our gratitude we would like to offer free ad. space on our platforms to run #Bajaj ads. The Deshbhakt YT channel has 1.5M subs, with a monthly reach of a 100+Million.”

Posturing or not, Indian social media is certainly a happier place thanks to this dose of corporate positivity.

Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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