Leaked documents show social media company is selective in curbing inflammatory posts, particularly anti-Muslim content.
New Delhi, India – Late last month, one of India’s largest and most trusted consumer goods companies released an advertisement that featured two women swooning over a jar of skin bleaching cream.
The advertisement drew outrage – not for promoting a skin-lightening product – but because the women it depicted were an LGBTQ couple celebrating a festival long considered the prerogative of married Hindu heterosexual couples.
Right-wing political leaders in India threatened legal action if the advertisement wasn’t pulled. In response, New Delhi-based Dabur India Ltd, apologised for the advertisement and withdrew it, marking the latest in a string of big corporations in India to push socially conservative boundaries only to crumble in the face of socially conservative criticism.
But some experts have said Dabur’s experiment may yet pay off.
Dabur India Ltd sells herbal hair, skin and oral care products, as well as health and food supplements derived from traditional Ayurvedic treatments. The company launched the advertisement for its instant face bleach, Fem, on its Instagram and YouTube pages.
It was a problematic product pegged to a controversial festival, but with a progressive twist.
The one-minute-six-second video opened with a woman applying bleach to another woman’s face as they got ready to celebrate Karva Chauth, a day-long fast that married Hindu women in north India observe for the wellbeing and health of their husbands.
Karva Chauth, romanticised and popularised by Bollywood, is a money-spinner for many businesses, despite calls by feminists to end the practice because it is patriarchal and reinforces male dominance.
Skin-lightening products have also long been slammed in India for promoting an idea of beauty that discriminates against dark skin. But they, too, are big business, representing 50 percent of the skincare market and estimated to be worth $450m–$535m, according to a 2019 World Health Organization report.
Two women married and fasting for each other is still a provocative idea in India where same-sex relationships became legal just three years ago with a landmark court ruling. But pleas to legalise same-sex marriages continue to be opposed in courts by the government.
At first, the Dabur advertisement garnered little attention. Then, Narottam Mishra, the home minister for the central India state of Madhya Pradesh, picked up on it.
The state is a major stronghold of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and Dabur is in the process of setting up a 5.5 billion rupee ($74m) manufacturing unit there.
Calling the advertisement “objectionable” at a public event, Mishra reportedly said, “Today, lesbians are observing Karva Chauth, tomorrow, two men will be taking ‘pheras,’” referring to the Hindu marriage ritual of walking around a fire.
Mishra reportedly ordered the police to ask Dabur to withdraw the advertisement and said if they didn’t, then legal action would be considered.
The threat worked. Dabur withdrew the advertisement and, in a statement, said it was “unconditionally” apologising for “unintentionally hurting people’s sentiments”.
Dabur declined Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
The firm was not the first big business in India to give in to right-wing pressure and take down an advertisement that attempted to shake up socially conservative values.
On Sunday, one of India’s leading haute couture designers, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, withdrew an advertisement for his jewellery collection that showed a woman dressed in a bra, wearing a necklace normally only worn by married Hindu women.
In a statement issued on Instagram after a BJP leader served him a legal notice for showing a “semi-naked” couple, Mukherjee said he was “deeply saddened” that the advertisement, meant to be about “inclusivity and empowerment”, had offended people.
Also last month, FabIndia, an ethnic fashion brand, was trolled by a BJP member of Parliament for an advertisement which it later took down.
And last year, Tanishq, a jewellery brand owned by the Tata Group, one of India’s largest conglomerates, withdrew an advertisement that showed a Hindu woman married to a Muslim man.
Pushing the cultural needle
Rebecca John, a feminist senior advocate, said the titans of Indian industry are too quick to cave to right-wing criticism.
“Corporate India has largely been spineless through this very dark period in India’s history and every time you buckle under pressure, it emboldens the other side,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Somebody has to show spine,” she added.
Businesses are making a serious calculation when they push the cultural needle in India. If they push too far, it could invite reprisals, including violent ones, that could hurt their brand, shops, stock, and staff. They could also incur the wrath of government officials who still decide who gets the myriad licences and permits needed to operate in the country.
But John believed that big corporations do wield enough power to push back with a more nuanced response than of late.
“Instead of saying ‘We are sorry,’ at least put out a statement which says, ‘Look, we disagree with you completely. But we’re pulling out this ad, not because you asked us to do, but because we fear for consequences.’”
‘Nothing sensitive about it’
For most Indians, the 137-year-old brand name Dabur conjured up images and tastes that are wholesome, herbal and wholly Indian. Its Chyawanprash, a dark, gritty goop that claims to boost immunity, is a staple in many homes where mothers feed a spoonful to their children daily.
Experts said the company would likely have been aware of the conservative fire such a radical shake-up of its staid image would draw.
Tista Sen, creative director, South Asia, at advertising agency Wunderman Thompson, said Dabur as a company is “not cool” and its commercials usually are devoid of “anything which is even slightly interesting, forget contentious … then, to do this … Considering people [in India] have been outraging over silly, small things … This was not done knowing there would be no backlash. No way.”
And brandishing a more progressive image has made business sense in India.
According to the global business consulting firm Deloitte’s 2021 Millennial Survey, about 25 percent of Indian millennials and 22 percent of Gen Zs have boycotted a company because its views or behaviours do not align with theirs.
Some experts believed, though, that Dabur is sending mixed messages to young consumers.
“If they want to appeal to the younger, newer, woke millennials … there are better ways,” said Samar Singh Sheikhawat, a former chief marketing officer of beer giant United Breweries Ltd, who previously worked at Dabur as a controller of sales and marketing. “The same millennials you are targeting will get put off when you withdraw the ad and apologise. It’s like a boyfriend who can’t commit,” he told Al Jazeera.
But others believed that the pulled advertisement will ultimately pay off for Dabur.
In India, television, which reaches about 750-800 million people, is still the main medium of advertising, ahead of digital media, which reaches about 550-600 million eyeballs. But the latter is where new ideas and products are tested in real-time because it is cheap, interactive and driven by a younger audience. That has translated into a rise in the money spent on digital advertising – $2.59bn in the financial year ending March 2021, up from $2.16bn the previous year, according to a report by media and digital marketing firm Dentsu International.
“Dabur has achieved what they wanted to,” said Harsh Verma who teaches marketing, consumer behaviour and brand management at the Faculty of Management Studies in Delhi University. They have “broken through the clutter of millions of products … It’s all calculated … You become a topic of conversation … that means, you are top of the mind, that means, it will lead to sales.”
On Google’s 0 to 100 popularity scale for search words, “Fem Bleach ad” ranked 18 on October 22, the day it was launched. The next day it dropped to 11. But on October 25, after Madhya Pradesh’s Mishra’s comments, it peaked at 100.
‘There are only two winners’
Rituparna Borah, a queer-feminist activist in Delhi, said when she watched the face bleach advertisement she found it funny because she could see the “lesbian twist coming” and adds that it would not have been a topic of discussion “had it not been banned”.
Upset that the “BJP makes us support regressive things sometimes,” she told Al Jazeera that such advertisements are companies’ efforts to get their hands on the “huge” pot of so-called “Pink money”, the purchasing power of the gay community.
Many in the LGBTQ community, she said, loved the advertisement and the BJP reacted the way it did because “Karva Chauth is a very mainstream, heterosexual thing.”
“Patriarchy is a wall and even if the ad is casteist, Hindu, regressive, even if it’s horrible … it’s a jhatka (jolt), a dent” in that wall. “The masses,” she added, “will see two women lovers, sexual partners and a mother accepting of the fact … The BJP is right [in its reaction]. They are scared of the dent.”
But at the end, she warned, “There are only two winners here — the corporates and the right-wing.”