Heal the World, One Ad at a Time


Heal the World, One Ad at a Time

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Maybe it is the string of socially conscious commercials that I have been watching, but of late, I find myself empathising with a group of people these days. Not transgender mommies or climate change deniers. I feel sorry for advertisers themselves.

In this constant game of wits that they have to play with the consumer, they’re almost always on the losing side. There’s no hope in hell they have of attracting the attention of 18-25-year-olds – somehow, every advertiser’s chosen demographic – lost in his/her smartphone. How do these hopelessly outmoded suits, modelling themselves after that other outmoded gentleman, Don Draper, talk to them?

We don’t know the answer to that, but the results are right there, playing without the “Skip Ad” option before your favourite Sufjan Stevens song. In some glass-walled conference room in a Gurgaon high-rise, the suits and creative types wearing low-slung jeans, have together decided that the youth of today are socially conscious, not brand-conscious. Y’know, these millennials who care about feminism, and ethical sourcing of their clothes and food, and go to LGBT pride parades, and call out Twitter trolls. So the only way to reach out to them is to hitch your brand’s wagon to a hot-button trending topic du jour… authenticity and brand integration be damned. High fives all around.

Fewer campaigns focus on the product that is being sold, than hammer you over the head with their self-congratulatory wokeness. Ergo, the Pepsi ad. The Vicks ad. The Heineken ad. These are examples of advertisements celebrating their out-of-the-box approach, where the message is superior to the product – but the product rests in the happy afterglow of association with the message.


A screen-grab from the popular Vicks ad featuring a transgender mother.

This is the arrival of the “social justice ad”, tweeted and retweeted without an examination, with a giddy fervour all over our timelines. The social justice ad trend might have started off with a decent message like Ariel’s Share the Load, but its apogee is a non-Kardashian Kardashian leading a bunch of protestors with a sugar-water-goat-piss concoction. (Friendly advice for advertisers, when your campaign begins resembling the latter, it’s time to take a break.)

I remember an ad from a few years ago, that was an early surfer on this wave. It told the story of a woman getting ready for her wedding day, pretty standard for a jewellery brand. But this ad had a creative agency behind it, one that cared about finding answers to pressing social issues. The result of this benevolence came in the form of two twists. The first: Fair bride gives way for obviously dusky bride. The second (and this one’s a shocker), dusky bride has a child from – wait for it – a previous marriage. That’s right, the ad suggested that this jewellery-wearing woman had not gone into hiding after her first marriage fell apart, but instead went on to marry again, dark skin and all.

Still confused about how this is going to make all the sanskari aunties deal with a frisky-dusky bride? You’ve obviously never worn Tanishq!

I can almost picture the suits of Tanishq meeting in a diamond-studded room to come up with this campaign. “Women like jewellery. Women get married. Two marriages = more jewellery. Hey, there’s no way to show two marriages, is there?” Then one guy yells, “Why not, bro, it’s feminism,” from the corner of the room. Everyone claps and takes a two-hour lunch break.

The “meaningful” ad is what you get when your source of information is a social media buzzword, but you are unfamiliar with the phrase “cynical appropriation”. Feminism, hipster, bigotry, xenophobia, animals, insects… no matter what you stand for, an ad agency is going to back you up with a product you’re never going to need.

Fast Track called dibs on the LGBT camp in 2013 when they brought a giant pink closet the youth could use to come out of. Touching, even though all Fast Track does is sell outdated timepieces. Vicks went for the same eye-pricking effect, with an ad featuring a transgender mother, which had the desired effect of making viewers forget that one of their products was technically banned for a bit for “high toxicity” levels.

Perhaps the worst example on this list is the recent Heineken ad that we’ve been posting with breathless intensity. It’s been called the “antidote” to the aforementioned Pepsi tragedy. It doesn’t use bikini babes to sell beer; instead, it uses a social experiment that goes viral on social media. It encourages two strangers with major personality differences to sit down, drink a beer, and build something together. So differentiated! So progressive! So liberal! Jazz Hands! It’s so noble I want to weep into my bottle of Heineken.

kendal pepsi wah01

A moment from the “woke” Pepsi ad, where Kendal Jenner resolves the conflict by sharing a can with a police officer.

Except, I won’t. Because first, Heineken is just an average-tasting beer, not some magic potion to solve the world’s issues. Second, there’s no way in hell a couple of beers is going to make me empathise with a neo-Nazi. When was the last time you saw two completely different personalities on the verge of getting into a fist fight and thought, “Yeah, let me throw some alcohol into the mix, that might help”?

This kind of social justice advertising is like a vacuum cleaner. It starts out with a giant bang, blowing hot air about its contribution all over the place. But then, it just ends up sucking. Some of these ads are actually more dishonest than Axe telling me I can conjure up a string of women with my ₹300 can of deodorant. In fact, I prefer this scooter ad yelling “Fascino” in my face for 45 seconds way more – at least it’s not yoking any needless meaning to the whole affair.

Call me simple, old fashioned, or whatever. I just want to go back to watching Katrina Kaif licking a mango like a puppy who found a piece of bacon lying on the floor, and I’ll get the idea: That Katrina likes plastic bottles filled with mango-flavoured sugar water and the people selling said sugar water are pervs. It’s way more honest and less disingenuous than a can of beer beaming “World Peace” like a Miss Universe contestant.