How does Brand SRK resist boycott calls?
In a research article published in Advertising & Society Review in 2008, ethnographer Julien Cayla noted that the actor Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) was the kind of Pan-Indian symbol needed in an extremely heterogeneous nation like India, divided by language, race, regional communities, religion, class, and caste. This pan-Indian from the SRK brand made it particularly valuable to the marketing community. Over a decade later, SRK has built a legacy in Indian advertising, supporting more than 40 brands including Hyundai, Reliance Jio, Byju’s and BigBasket, among others. But Brand SRK’s role in the great unifying narrative may no longer hold true in contemporary India, where advertisements have been targeted for being “anti-Indian”.
SRK’s most recent advertisement, for Cadbury India, scheduled for Diwali and intended to promote India’s kirana stores and neighborhood grocery stores – essentially, pandemic-hit businesses and e-commerce giants – has been aired in the midst of a controversy surrounding his son, Aryan Khan, in which the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) arrested him in connection with a drug raid. The arrest led some groups on social media to demand a boycott of SRK’s ads earlier this month. In response to hashtags such as #BoycottSRK, one of India’s most notable startups, Byju has temporarily suspended its ads featuring SRK.
Aryan spent 25 days in jail on a drug case and was released on bail on October 28.
It’s a tough time for advertising in India. A neo-Swadeshi movement emphasizes that it is not enough to “do in India”; you also have to be the right kind of Indian. Ads, brands and their ambassadors that do not match the majority seal of approval have faced a major backlash in recent months. The reasons for the boycott are as comical as they are serious – FabIndia used Urdu for a Diwali party clothing line, Ceat Tires asked actor Aamir Khan to deliver a public service announcement to children on popping crackers on the road, Tanishq featured interfaith weddings for an online bridal jewelry last year. FabIndia was also arrested for failing to place bindis on female actors.
In this holiday season alone, calls to boycott brands are increasing. Designer Sabyasachi, whose new mangalsutra line has designs featuring models in underwear, is one of them. Another was Fem Bleach, Dabur’s line of beauty and hygiene products, which featured a lesbian couple observing Karva chauth. People weren’t calling for a boycott because the ads showed regressive and patriarchal practices disguised as progressive or inclusive, but because they hurt Hindu feelings. Dabur has canceled the ad and it remains to be seen how Sabyasachi responds. In India’s growing cancellation culture, which is reinforced when social media screams boycott of brands, it seems that when brands back their ads, refusing to take them down, they are often referred to as anti-Indian.
Adman Piyush Pandey, President of Global Creation at Ogilvy and Executive Chairman of Ogilvy India, says ads removed due to threats are ridiculous. “I think it is absolutely important that the advertisement is directed to the government of India and the government of the states concerned. There is a need for protection, ”Pandey says. He adds that if people have problems with ads, they should know that ASCI (Advertising Standards Council of India) does a lot of screening and, if that’s not enough, they can take legal action, he adds. he.
Ogilvy India directed Mondelez India’s Cadbury Diwali commercial, in which SRK is suave, cheeky and warm at the same time. Anil Vishwanathan, Senior Director of Marketing, Mondelez India, believes that when it comes to SRK and the Cadbury advertising in question, it was all about the heart. Vishwanathan says that for this initiative, the brand wanted “a familiar face, and we wanted to make it big – to impress our small retailers.” When they contacted SRK, the actor supported the specific campaign and the SRK team, who he said are not afraid to experiment, saw the merit of the idea. “It wasn’t so much for the brand, but for the mind. When we think of love, heart and warmth, who is better than SRK? ” he says.
Pandey, who has worked with SRK over the years, says the actor undoubtedly has huge appeal. Compared to sports personalities, who are celebrities in their own right, SRK brings performance. “He has charm and an audience that has a lot of love. While among athletes, there is a lot of respect and admiration, ”he adds.
Byju signed SRK as a Brand Ambassador in 2017, and became SRK’s biggest contract to date, estimated at Rs three-four crore per year. The recent advertising campaigns were carried out by Spring Marketing Capital. Commenting on a May 2020 campaign, Mrinal Mohit, COO at Byju’s, had said in reports: “With the immense popularity that Shah Rukh Khan enjoys, we are confident that we will be able to meet the common concerns of parents and further shape the evolution of learning taking place across India.
On October 9, the brand temporarily suspended all ads featuring its brand ambassador. After a hiatus of about four days, the ads resumed on the air, especially during the 2021 T20 World Cup, of which Byju’s is one of the sponsors. But social media users have cast doubts on SRK’s positioning as a brand ambassador for an electronics technology company, when his own son was charged in a drug raid. When The Express contacted Arun Iyer, founder of Spring Marketing Capital, he declined to comment, citing his work overseas. It is not known if Byju’s will continue with SRK as a brand ambassador.
Pandey, happy to note that Byju’s commercials have resumed, says the investigation into Aryan’s case will take its own course. “However, I have a theory that if your son is questioned by the principal of the school, then the father should not lose his promotion… It’s a bit sad,” he said.
Censorship in Indian advertising is not new, however, in the past, advertisements for brands, such as Tuff Shoes, faced a strong backlash and were taken to court, on moral grounds and of decorum. Things, commentators observe, have taken a more community-based turn of late. Ayyappan Raj, co-founder of Writers’ Center The Script Room, who worked in advertising for 18 years, says that regarding recent issues like last year’s Tanishq ad or FabIndia’s this This year there are two sides to the conflict: religion, polarization, and patriarchal gender norms, the latter having also acquired a religious dimension in recent years. “Cinema and other forms of creative expression have been hit hard by this voluntary cultural control for many years. From big movies to famous OTT shows, there have been protests of a similar nature. I guess that was sort of something that happened because the advertising industry is by no means isolated from the rest of society, ”he says.
This isn’t the first time that an SRK brand ad has faced social media hate. Last year, a fake social media account masquerading as Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani tweeted that the industrialist had decided to remove SRK from Jio ads. The unverified account had 12,000 subscribers in less than a month. The tweet had over 50,000 likes.
A hashtag asking to boycott SRK’s ads in October was only preceded by a social media trend to boycott the actor as well. As promotions for his upcoming film Pathan aired, self-proclaimed guards called SRK a “terrorist” and “Pakistani lover”.
Filmmaker Joyeeta Patpatia, who directed the web series Four More Shots Please !, says: “There is a general climate of fear, which is why brands recall advertisements. But when a brand decides to take promotional creations off the airwaves, one gets the impression that the brand is not supporting the agency and the creations. In October 2020, Tanishq was forced to recall a campaign that featured interfaith marriage after it was portrayed by social media users, including actor Kangana Ranaut, as “love jihad.” Tanishq employees were also targeted. “If a brand thinks they are brave talking to SRK, then they need to seriously rethink. I hope brands won’t think about it again, because then [actors] Salman Khan and Sanjay Dutt could not have continued to make commercials or even films, ”Patpatia explains.
In recent years, the value of the SRK brand has declined. According to a 2018 celebrity rating report by global advisor Duff & Phelps, SRK was in fifth place, having been second the previous year. His brand value was 60.7, compared to Virat Kohli, valued at 170.9. Since last year, according to polls, SRK has not been among the top 10 celebrity brands. It’s a long way from the days when Cayla was doing research in the 2000s, when there was a glut of SRK ads in India. Cayla, in her research, noted that many commercials featuring SRK portray a man “fundamentally linked to his Indian roots, but without any constraints to achieve international mobility and success.” SRK is the “New Indian Man” and “Global Indian Man”. The commercials modeled him on the basis of his movie characters, in particular that of the globetrotter but sanskaari Raj by Dilwale Dulhaniya The Jayenge (DDLJ). Cayla cites the example of advertisements for real estate developer DLF, where SRK asks the public to reject Singapore, Dubai and London and instead choose the development of large Indian cities, like Mumbai, Ludhiana or Kolkata.
The Indian public, which once accepted Raj / SRK as a role model, is now almost gone, but some remain hopeful. With the developments surrounding SRK’s family in recent days, there has been a resurgence of interest in what the actor stands for, and it remains to be seen if the advertising industry will follow suit.
Ayyappan worked with SRK on commercials for Tata Tea and remembers him as one of the most professional celebrities to work with and devoid of the temper tantrums people typically associate with movie stars. He says: “SRK is too big a star, too universal, too loved by his fans for his brand value to be affected too soon,” he says.