Diwali vibes are in the air.
Which is to say it’s that time of the year when brands tell us go eco-friendly for one specific week by refraining from bursting firecrackers.
It causes pollution, justifies child labor in factories, and also scares animals.
These are concerns I get because…
- I rescue stray dogs & feed them every day
- I would never support anything that hurts an innocent kid
- I have sinus so I’m not a fan of chemical-filled air myself
- And I have old people at home who get most affected by the noise
So the intent behind the “Go Green” message is right in my opinion.
Generally speaking, it’s fair to question a traditional practice, especially if there are more ethical alternatives available. And if marketing professionals feel like doing their part in shifting people’s preference towards the latter, I’m all for it.
For example, some years ago, a brand I can’t recall made a cute nostalgic video demonstrating how to make “harmless crackers” out of recycled paper. It took me back to my school days.
I was OK with such a narrative because it didn’t try to force the brand into the narrative nor did it “demonize” the original practice – all it did was offer a practical & win-win solution for all.
But this is more an exception than the norm.
In most cases, Hindu festivals, rituals, and traditions have become convenient targets for brands trying to look progressive & “woke” in front of young Gen-Z audiences.
This is because, according to data, Gen-Zs tend to support brands that align with their views on politics, social issues and ethics.
The scripts of all “Hindu = Bad” advertisements have common tropes:
- Some random practice from our community is either shown in a bad light or as an inconvenience that needs to be changed
- Hindus are the villains or ignorant individuals, with “minorities” either playing victims or taking the lead in educating them
- Out of nowhere, the brand logo drops, with some over-the-top, irrelevant copy that would put Shashi Tharoor at a loss of words
Let’s take an example.
The most recent controversy in this space was spurred by Aamir Khan’s stunt for AU Small Finance Bank just last week. The ad shows him alongside Kiara Advani, casted as a newly wedded couple on their way to home.
In Hindu communities, usually the bride shifts to the groom’s home. But in this ad, we see Aamir switching roles, choosing to shift to his wife’s home instead.
In a heartwarming moment, we see that Aamir chose to take this decision because Kiara’s father is tied to a wheelchair, so he probably doesn’t want to separate them. It’s nice to see a guy volunteering to take care of his partner’s old guy.
One would wonder why Hindus are offended by such an adorable script.
Why did it cause a furor on social media? Why would an ad encouraging men to support their wives’ families, face a backlash?
You’ll get the answer at 00.38 seconds, when Aamir Khan introduces the brand behind the story.
To paraphrase, he says that traditions which have been going on since ages should be questioned. This is why we at AU Small Finance Bank question every norm in banking … so that you (the customer) receives the best service.
Now maybe this was simply meant to be a reference to archaic banking services which are slow, unreliable, unsafe, and inconvenient for customers.
In other words, the script writer(s) just used an analogy to convey that AU Small Finance Bank believes in being progressive.
And this is where the whole issue begins.
To simplify things, I have just two questions to ask the script writers.
- What social message are you exactly trying to impart here?
- Has AU Small Bank done similar norm-breaking ads on Islam & Christianity?
Issue 1: Faith & Practice are Different
Let’s tackle the first, which deals with how the ad portrays Hindu culture.
For many viewers, the message may be interpreted as something like this – “The Hindu tradition of a bride going to her husband’s home is patriarchal & sexist. So maybe it’s time to change it & let men do the honors.”
Now there’s nothing technically wrong here. In fact, it completely makes sense.
Since Vedic times, the practice of a woman changing her home after marriage, sprouted from the belief that she now “belonged” to the husband, and so she must follow him as part of her duties.
Were women treated as inferior by our ancestors? In many cases, yes.
But it’s 2022 now. So do we really need to follow this custom? No, I see no practical benefit, apart from the groom’s convenience.
However, what people are saying is that not every bride who shifts to her husband’s place is purposely abused by her in-laws or cut off from her own parents.
This isn’t 1980s Bollywood cinema. Family dynamics are changing. Couples are reaching better, equal, and more mature agreements.
I’d be happy to have this discussion with my future wife and jointly take a decision depending on our situation.
If none of our elders really need us, we may choose to buy a new house together & live separately.
But if she chooses to follow the norm and shift to my parents’ home where I live, would that then make me a misogynist?
This is why it gets uncomfortable for Hindu audiences.
Just because we’re following our faith, does it imply that we also support each and every practice that was part of our history? Just because we worship the Gods our ancestors did, does it mean we blindly support every ritual or custom that they had practiced to as part of their worship?
You could go around in a Hindu locality and survey the residents on whether they support the tradition of sati, which was abolished during the British Rule. There would hardly be folks who would condone a widow having to jump & burn alive in her late husband’s pyre.
Because sati isn’t justified in any case, something which educated folks understand.
Like all societies, we’ve evolved to think more rationally, discarding beliefs that no longer align the sociopolitical frameworks that we currently agree upon as a democracy.
The same would go for anyone practicing Islam or Christianity.
There are many practices in both these religions (which we’ll come to later) that can be deemed as outdated, even downright violent. But educated people in these communities understand this much (or so I hope).
And just because they still believe in that particular faith, doesn’t mean every member in the group blindly accepts, justifies, or supports everything that has been done in the name of said faith.
Faith … is highly complex part of our lives that’s changing constantly. It also depends on regional contexts – above all, it can’t be reduced to a few tenets & traditions.
So let me put it this way.
Being a German doesn’t make you a Nazi, correct?
So does being a husband in a Hindu household mean I’m a patriarch who orders his wife around?
The simple problem is not with what is shown in the ad – the problem is with its TONE. It’s how Aamir brings out the message that pinches those of us who would’ve otherwise smiled at the video & shared it on our feeds.
So let me fix the copy for you.
Everything goes as per the story.
In the end, Aamir comes out saying, “In a family, everybody’s there for everybody. Just like we are there for each customer at AU Small Bank. We’ll get the support whenever you need, even if it means crossing the ocean.”
Leaving the quality of my copy aside (I wrote it on the fly), can you at least agree that it feels much more neutral?
It still uses the same analogy, but says nothing libelous or critical about Hindu traditions.
It simply imparts the warm message of being there for each other & making compromises – something even a caveman would agree with.
If anything, at least there’s a smooth transition from Scene 1 to Scene 2. People would understand the brand’s values better.
In the original piece, we’re engrossed in the wedding story, and then suddenly we see Aamir popping out in formal clothes to explain the whole point – this feels forced, irrelevant, disconnected.
Perhaps that’s the itch – why needlessly tie the two together for the sake of what they want to convey? It reeks of a holier-than-thou attitude.
To further my point, let me show you a similar ad that uses Hindu culture & asks us to break norms in a much more agreeable way.
“Change is Beautiful” by BIBA (2015) makes a reference to arranged marriages in Indian culture, and specifically to the event when the groom’s family visits the bride to see her for the first time.
It shows a girl hesitantly getting ready to meet her possible future in-laws, with the father asking her to hurry up & come downstairs. The ad wants us to feel tensed & sorry for the protagonist.
The “aha” moment comes when the in-laws ask the father if they should lock the deal, to which the father responds, “Not before we come to your house … to taste your son’s cooked food.”
When the in-laws joke that their son can hardly cook noodles, the father clarifies, “But my daughter can’t live on noodles all her life.”
The groom promises to learn some cooking, and invites them to visit soon.
The message here is that the father, who we supposedly thought was the antagonist, does actually care for her daughter, and wants her to be with a man who can also look out for her, not just order her around.
#ChangeIsBeautiful – its time for both husbands & wives to take responsibilities equally.
This totally works for me – it’s not attacking the institution of arranged marriages. But it is encouraging us to be more considerate of the women who leave behind their homes to live with completely new people.
A much more direct “monologue” version of this can be found in Ariel’s #ShareTheLoad campaign (2016), which asks us to help out our moms, wives, and sisters who run the house.
Ads like the above give a positive message for social change by making the public’s “mindset” the enemy, and not any specific religion.
But, I’m digressing.
A lot of friends I’ve spoken to – many of them who identify as pure liberals – still don’t get the whole point.
Their stance is that jobless Hindus are making a mole out a mountain, taking offense at every piece of content posted online. It almost reminds of AIB’s “Unoffended” parody, which takes a jab at India’s new obsession with banning brands & movies that toy with religious sentiments.
The phenomenon has a name now – “Cancel Culture.”
But really though, is the outrage completely unfounded?
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if we were used to brands doing such communications all year round.
The problem is, they don’t.
Such types of “tradition-breaking” ads only come during specific times of the year – during Hindu festivals. This brings us to the second point.
Issue 2: Why single out Hinduism?
AU Small Finance Bank isn’t the first brand to knowingly put their feet on the burning coals of our country’s religious tensions.
There is an undeniable pattern here. And I’m going to lay it out in detail here.
Last year, FabIndia grabbed headlines by calling their Diwali collection “Jashn-E-Riwaaz,” a romanticized term taken from Urdu.
The brand later clarified it wasn’t their intention, but the screenshot of a deleted tweet clearly shows the brand making the connection.
Hindu fans simply asked, “What even is the point of mixing names? Is it just because its now woke to be Muslim-friendly?”
In a hyper-crowded country like India, where personal space is non-existent, letting religions breathe on their own is as crucial as encouraging intermingling & brotherhood.
In the end, we ARE different from each other, and acting like those differences don’t exist at all, only brews an layer or of discomfort below the surface.
Unless you’re a politician planning to benefit from political divide, it makes no practical sense to do what FabIndia did.
If you still disagree, then l must ask, “Why take the risk at all?”
- Shouldn’t brands know by now not to play with religion in this country?
- Do they not know it stirs communal unrest & does the exact opposite of promoting harmony?
- If they’re knowingly doing it just to grab eyeballs (No PR is Bad PR mindset), shouldn’t this be a crime? If an individual intentionally tried to stir controversy like this, they may be punishable under Section 153(A) & Section 295(A)
Before FabIndia, it was Tanishq jewelers who faced the fire.
Their “Ekatvam” ad showed a Hindu women marrying into a Muslim household, and it landed at the worst possible time. Certain incidents, collectively referred to as “Love Jihad,” had already heated up chatrooms across the nation.
For those who are hearing the term for the first time, Times of India defines “Love Jihad” as “an alleged activity under which young Muslim boys and men are said to reportedly target young girls belonging to non-Muslim communities for conversion to Islam by feigning love.”
There is factual evidence of certain pockets of Muslim communities, especially up north, grooming Hindu girls with the goal of converting them into Islam. Incidents of “Love Jihad” have been observed to usually conclude with the girl being murdered & discarded in some ditch, multiple news reports suggest.
Do I condone the use of this term? No, I think its far too simplistic and partly inflammatory.
I don’t also feel the outrage was truly justified because the Ekatvam ad doesn’t show the bride being oppressed in any way – if anything, it shows the mother-in-law being considerate about her daughter’s culture.
But humans think in complicated ways & connect dots that aren’t there. So I can understand why there was a backlash.
If Tanishq’s brand manager would’ve just read the news, they would’ve immediately realized that it wasn’t the best time to release such an ad, which may be interpreted as “normalizing” the idea of Hindu girls marrying into Muslim households.
Personally I don’t care who marries who – I’m just saying this is how the ad looks like when taken in the context of the real-world scenarios surrounding its release.
This reminds me of how Airbnb sent out a newsletter featuring homes on water when cyclones had wrecked havoc in the States – the timing just didn’t make sense.
Following the outrage, the Tanishq ad was taken down in a matter of hours.
But the brand didn’t learn its lesson.
It came back to redo the overdone “Eco-Friendly Diwali” trope. The target was the same – Hindus.
I’d say more on this, but I think the below tweet by BJP’s National General Secretary from Karnataka sums it up best.
Just a month before this incident, Dabur had already got their arses kicked for something similar.
Fem, a beauty brand owned by Dabur, faced slack for their Karwa Chauth ad. For international readers, Karwa Chauth is a tradition during which the wife fasts for an entire day to pray for her husband’s longevity & health.
On the surface, it looks like a cute harmless script featuring a same-sex lesbian couple wishing for each other’s well-being during the festival.
But the candid question netizens asked was – Why Karwa Chauth? Why not do something with a Muslim lesbian couple around Eid time?
Why do brands always selectively piggyback on Hindu traditions & festivals to talk about liberal ideas such as LGTBQIA+ inclusivity? (I should clarify here that I’m completely pro-LGBT and am also aware of the rich history of alternative sexualities in Hindu literature).
I am just asking what everyone else is – Why am I not seeing pro-LGBT ad campaigns by local Indian brands from the lens of, say, Islamic culture?
Dabur took down the ad from its official channels very soon after the #BoycottDabur hashtag started gaining traction. This was followed by an official apology.
When brands are not leveraging Hindu traditions, their other past-time is using the radicalized right-wing Hindu trope.
In 2018, Brooke Bond Red Label Tea released an ad during Ganpati season (yes, of course it had to be a Hindu festival).
It shows a Hindu customer visiting a Ganpati idol maker/sculptor, who turns out to be a Muslim, to the man’s surprise.
Immediately, feelings of discomfort creep up and the customer turns to leave. But he’s stopped by the artist, who offers them tea.
Supposedly the tea changes the customer’s narrow mindset towards Muslims, and the two men shake hands in the end.
The message given is, “Even Work is Worship – and everyone’s God is one.”
The message is beautiful and the ad would’ve received full marks from if it was the only one that followed this narrative.
But its part of the same pattern – using Hindu culture to advance the message of being progressive.
Why not reverse the roles for a change? Show me a Muslim being skeptical or afraid of a Hindu, and one sip of Red Label’s tea changing the Muslim’s perception.
Sounds silly? Hold on.
In 2019, Surf Excel came up with an ad that shows a Hindu girl gracefully accepting the onslaught of water balloons during Holi season, just so she could clear the passage for her Muslim friend.
Again, it’s Holi being egged on, with the Muslim kid emerging as the victim.
“Color throwing bad.”
You might say that all of these ads are actually beautiful in isolation – As someone who loves storytelling, I will give you that. They’re perfectly nice if taken alone.
The problem is in the compounding. When only Hindus & Hindu festivals get used as tropes or portrayed in a patronizing manner, it feels like deliberate bullying.
Let me repeat it- the problem is in the compounding.
Every goddamn brand & ad will come and casually use Hinduism as a scapegoat to look “woke.” It almost looks like we Hindus are holding a placard inviting any interested party to play around with our belief systems to suit your needs.
Advertisers aren’t the only ones who like to wash their hands in this water.
Hinduism gets needlessly distorted, misinterpreted, ridiculed & reduced by movies, news channels, and all other media networks.
Movies like PK have the audacity to show Shivji standing in a urinal across an actor who has vocally been anti-Hindu in the press.
The sheer carelessness, or rather the high creators get by pushing our buttons, is what makes audiences feel attacked, more so singled out.
And now we’re rightfully asking, “Why not other religions?”
Outside our borders, brands have been venturing into those waters bravely.
A brand in Europe, Posten, showed Santa as gay. It was lauded by Norwegians, marking a shift in their society’s openness towards alternative sexualities.
In Saudi Arabia, a staunchly Islamic country, Ford celebrated women being allowed to drive. This was a risky move as it could’ve invited the wrath of any Sheikh or political leader with less favorable views.
In what can be considered as the boldest & riskiest social cause alignments in the history of advertising, Nike backed its black athletes in the States. As part of its “Dream Crazy” campaign, it took a stance against violence towards African Americans. This move saw their stocks skyrocketing to new highs.
In India, however, you won’t normally see brands encouraging audiences to be “progressive” with customs or practices from *insert any minority religion here.*
Take Eid for example. Social media topicals around this time usually show enticing Biryani bowls floating under crescent moons, paired with copy that wishes everyone Eid Mubarak.
But very few brands will dare to ask people to go plant-based & show mercy to the poor animals during this time. Where are your ethics then?
Or take the Christian New Year. Topicals during this time freely feature firecrackers lighting up the night sky. Where are the environmental activists hiding at this time?
If these are all “internal customs” that should be respected, as paraphrased from one of Aamir Khan’s interviews, then why is Hinduism being singled out as the only faith system in need of a revamp?
Even standup comedians will make fun of our Gods, casually talking about Hanuman and Ram ji as if they share beers every Friday night. But I would love to see a list of all the standup routines by the same comedians poking fun at Abrahamic religions.
This list wouldn’t be half as long as the Hindu one.
Update: Swiggy’s Holi Ad 2023
It’s March 2023 and brands continue nitpicking on Hindu festivals so I had to come back to this article to update it with another case that fits the exact same pattern I’m so done with.
Without going into too many details, I’m just attaching screenshots of the comments of a Reddit thread that I feel are very valid or at least similar to my views on this topic (while most of the words on Hinduphobia I support, I categorically do not admit some Islamophobic comments or racial slurs hurled towards the end of the comments just to make a point).
So make of that what you will.
I am categorically stating here that I don’t have a problem with being progressive – I have a problem with the hypocrisy of brands in India selectively forcing Hinduism into their narratives to look progressive, while they have no guts to experiment with other sub-cultures in the region.
Marketers must understand that Hindu audiences don’t have a problem with being asked to evolve – all cultures must evolve, this we understand – we have a problem with being constantly singled out and misused as tropes just to gain the approval of Gen-Z liberals with made-up snowflake “social issues.“
All this is happening because we have a history of being tolerant as a people. First we were tolerant of Mughal invaders who destroyed our land, and today we’re tolerant of the hatred from outsiders. All this is happening because we’ve been quite for so long.
And all because, marketers in India, know in their hearts, that if they toyed with other religions as shamelessly as they do with Hinduism, it would most certainly lead to riots, their offices being burned down, and their leaders ending up dead.
No other religious community will tolerate blasphemy.
That, my friend, is your reality check for today.
Not to mention the hypocrisy underlying this whole issue. To all the marketers out there, you don’t get to tell us to not burst crackers while the majority of your companies make no effort to become more sustainable in packaging or production.
It’s like Shell telling us to use tote bags over plastic bags when its the single-biggest polluter of the planet’s oceans.
We just don’t want to be treated so casually. We just don’t want to be patronized all the time.
If you want to portray our cultures, take the time to learn about them first. Show us respect and empathy.
Understand why we burst firecrackers during Diwali. There’s a whole reasoning behind this.
Even then, if you feel the need to make a suggestion, do it with care and balance.
Despite all this, I still won’t be bursting firecrackers during Diwali. Because beyond being a marketer who’s all for breaking norms, and a Hindu who was taught to view all religions equally, I like to think of myself also a responsible citizen who knows intuitively that the crackers are unnecessary at least for me.
I just don’t need Aamir Khan, an individual who has caused national unrest time & again, to come teach me how to be a good person.