Here's what we at BE would like to know — what were they smoking? Because it must take a commonsense demolishing drug to release an ad featuring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, decked out in all of Zaveri Bazaar's gold, sprawled in the shade provided by a seemingly malnourished and half-naked but bejewelled child holding up a parasol over her head. The fact that the kid in Kalyan Jewellers' print ad is ten shades darker than its long-time brand endorser Bachchan takes the ad from 'Stupid' to 'Slaver' before you can sneakily cough *insidiously racist*.
In the immediate aftermath of its publication in a national daily, child rights activists wrote an open letter to the actor that's been widely distributed since. And just in case the involved parties missed the memo on the practice of forced child labour and slavery, the writers even drew parallels with many centuries old paintings of Marie Antoinette look-alikes flaunting their black child servants. At the time of going to press, Kerala-based Kalyan Jewellers said they were in the process of withdrawing the ad and issued this statement: "This creative was intended to present royalty, timeless beauty and elegance. If we have, inadvertently, hurt the sentiments of any individual or organization, we deeply regret the same." And Bachchan's publicist's response on behalf of the actor said the "final layout of the ad is entirely the prerogative of the creative team for a brand".
Now, of course, the creative agency took inspiration from those period paintings a little too literally. And yes, they ought to put down that questionable doobie and sign up for ASS - Awareness, Sense and Sensitivity tutorials, yesterday. Without absolving creative agencies of any culpability, one adman finds the celebrity excuse hard to stomach. Says KV Sridhar, CCO, SapientNitro India, "Perhaps it's genuine. But celebrities today make more money from brand endorsement deals than they do from films." In fact, celebrities and their managers are intimately involved in the whole process of ad-making up to a point where they look at the edited footage, ask for the shadow on their face to be removed and add a six pack while you're at it. "They are meticulous and careful because their reputation depends on it," adds Sridhar. So perhaps labelling Bachchan a racist promoter of child slavery is a bit excessive. However, a careless celebrity endorser with the power to influence millions is not. Vivek Bhargava, CEO, iProspect - Communicate2 suggests giving purpose to this madness by turning the entire unfortunate incident into an opportunity to have a bigger discussion about racism in communication from ads to films and our blatant disregard for child rights. He does admit, however, the statement could have been worded better.
In an age when the social media version of kangaroo courts put the fear of God even in the most committed atheist, timeframes and nature of a company's response to a brand faux-pas make or break its reputation. It wasn't always that exacting though. Sridhar remembers a campaign for Bajaj Auto from many moons ago. It featured a rider so comfortable that he refused to get off his bike to get his shoes shined by a kid. Poor shoe shine boys were a common sight in many countries and still are a usual one in India, so the makers didn't quite see anything wrong with the commercial. It ran for a month until a viewer wrote a letter to Bajaj expressing his concern and the company decided to pull it off air.
What it all boils down to, as one adman puts it, is the fact that we are as a people woefully unaware of our inherent biases, which is why villains in Hindi films are always darker than their heroic counterparts. He tells us on condition of anonymity, "In this case someone saw a classical painting and thoughtlessly recreated it replacing a white woman with a fairskinned Indian woman. In my experience with celebrities, ads are always run by them before release. But a lot depends on the relationship with the client. This ad is a double whammy, not only is it racist but also features child labour. 99% of the time one doesn't even know it's plain wrong!"
Neither the first nor the last campaign to have racist undertones, Indian advertising has been struggling with race perception for as long as fairness creams have existed. In 2010, an ad for Parle Agro's lemon drink LMN featured two parched and barely clad African men. They find a tap, ruthlessly unearth it and use it as a shovel to dig for water in drought-stricken lands. Ugandan writer and founder of the Reign Times, SKY Banji, who has spent time in the country, wrote; "Indian marketers have a field day in putting 'blacks' where they've always 'belonged,' at least in the average Indian mindsets." Sometimes as human canopies.
Meanwhile, amidst the backlash to the ad, #KalyanJewellers trended on Twitter (a laudable achievement in itself for brands nowadays) and somewhere a fair maiden said let them have cake. In gilded cutlery.