We live in the strangest of times, where on one side of the debate is a poorly protected right to ‘freedom of speech and expression’, and on the other is our attitude to quotas, the reservation system designed to uplift lower caste India and bring it on par with upper caste India. The privileged upper caste are against reservations and for merit, while the seemingly downtrodden lower caste use them as a ladder to success. While old India was divided only in two castes, today it’s the rich versus the poor, merit versus reservation, freedom of speech versus systematic ban.
In a company advertisement, a lower caste girl applying to an educational institute refuses to take the form for reserved quota, instead she chooses to go for general category; a rich lady chooses to drive herself instead of taking along their driver, to get her kids to school; a young guy stops books from being burnt in a protest for reservation.
The ad is booed, called as a ‘sick brand’, even forced to withdraw the ad for being ‘anti-constitutional’ and accused of being a company run by ‘upper caste rich banias’.
“Nahi chahiye mujhko seedi…arre main hu aane wali peedi” - The core idea of the ad lyrics are smashed, while the brand in question withdraws its ad, and issues an apology on its social media properties.
“Main chalu tho hawa chalegi, main badlu tho hawa badlegi,” the ending line of Havells’ now withdrawn ad has got a whole new meaning. One of India’s largest electrical and power distribution equipment manufacturer, Havells India had launched this ad under its its flagship ‘Winds of Change’ or ‘Hawa Badlegi’ campaign that seeks to inspire a change in our mindsets. You can still watch it, thanks to a protestor’s YouTube channel:
The protagonists in the ad represent the new generation rejecting the need for any ‘ladder’ to succeed, and wanting their merit to decide their fate. This essentially did not go down well with a certain set of people on social media, who termed it as ‘casteist’, ‘irresponsible’ and ‘reflecting deep seated hatred for Dalits’, hence the brand apology:
A sequence in our recent Fan campaign of “Hawa Badlegi” seems to have hurt the sentiments of some viewers. Havells is a responsible brand and it never intends to hurt anybody’s sentiment. The intention of the company has always been in the interest of people, hence we are withdrawing this ad sequence immediately.
Havells’ previous ads under ‘Hawa Badlegi’ campaign centred around gender equality, religious conversion, period taboos, and orphan inclusion. It is one brand that has long been endorsing social awareness messages through its advertising campaigns; ‘Respect for women’ has been one of its underlying themes with a series of ads focused on getting society to understand that ‘women are not kitchen appliances’. All of them were appreciated on social media, except this one. This has sure ruffled many a sensitive feather!
Should brands take a stand?
In December 2013, the Supreme Court passed its verdict on Section 377, criminalizing homosexual sex between two consenting adults. Quite a few Indian brands came forward to show their support for the LGBT community. Last year Anouk, Myntra’s contemporary ethnic wear brand rolled out a digital film in support of homosexuality. The story of a lesbian couple who had been hiding about their relationship with their parents, and now planning on revealing it, became a viral hit with many international publications praising the brand’s bold stand.
When meat was banned during the Jain festival last year in Maharashtra, many brands chose to exercise their freedom of speech through witty visuals. But, when beef ban was announced, no brand dared to play with that one, after the Dadri lynching case that killed a man for having beef in his freezer.
Understandably, forward thinking brands want to connect with the new age consumer, and there’s no better way than to take a stand on bold issues, mirroring those of the young consumer segment. Apparently, they need to be careful and not touch upon sensitive issues like ‘reservation’ that have enveloped the entire student community in some of the top universities in the country.
We may have inherited ‘caste system’ from the ages, but we aren’t able to uproot the social evil spread by casteism, even when we are struggling on our way to become ‘Digital India’. The argument for and against reservation will continue going strong, governments will rise and fall, but brands need to practice caution. Till then they can take up social issues like gender equality, widow remarriage, live-in relationships, homosexuality, single parenting, discrimination against pregnant working women, choosing to stay single, and more.