Irresponsible brand #57: Maggi addled brains

Irresponsible brand #57: Maggi addled brains

Out from a deep slumber, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India has gotten into a hyper active mode. It started with discovery of Maggi making us eat poison. Soon it turned out, half the products that we daily depend on for maintaining our lifestyle are fucking with us one way or another.

Some people have stopped using some of these products. But the most visible and loud portion of Indian humanity – the upper middle class that is active on social media – has responded in a surprising fashion (and hence this blog). They feel cheated! They sense a rat – not in the product, but in the discovery. They have responded with a sense of loss. They see it as an an unjust act of aggression by the government. They see it as an attack on their way of life.

What does this reaction mean?
1. People trust companies more than government in India.
Edelman’s trust barometer had found out that earlier. But this episode truly reflects the extent of trust that people have in India towards companies and distrust of the government machinery. Even when told about the mortal danger that these products pose, their instinctual reaction is not of running away from threat, but to question the findings. (arm chair restless souls that we are – conspiracy theories are our digestive tracts for consumption of inconvenience.)

2. Convenience is important.
It underlines how integral ‘convenience’ is becoming to our lives. We will trade convenience over quality of life. Even then inconvenience is not strong enough a trigger for people to react. (People do not even react to injustices around them. People only react to threats to their own identity or to the ideas of their utopia.)

3. Identity preservation over life preservation.
Most importantly, people reacted the way they reacted because they saw the discovery as an inquisition over  their way of life. Its not just about the product or its consumption, its the sense of belonging to the world of the makers of these products. This upper middle class got into the upper middle class because their papas (and a few mamas) had a job with these companies institutions. MNCs typically paid more, paid on time, were fair enough in their dealings and maintained the supremacy of English language. MNCs were doors to the best of the west.  The English speaking children of this generation have grown up in image of the branding efforts of these companies. People chose to identify themselves and their lifestyle not with their own acts or rituals, but with acts of their consumption of MNC brands. “I love my maggi.” “i poop apple.”

And hence calling into question a brand is akin to calling them out as idiots, which they obviously resist. When someone says that Maggi has poison, their identity preserving part of the brain says – ‘That can’t be true. The poor maggi (the poor choice of mine) is being framed.’ The identity preserving part of the brain deflects the darts – with conspiracy theories, with blame game, with pointing fingers, with ennui.

There very well may be many questions that need answering – quality of food safety department’s work, more funding for them, vested interests..
But no matter the impetus, the fact remains: maggi has lead. lead is poison. hence say bye bye to maggi. It doesn’t matter who instigated the inquiry or what lead to the finding of lead. All that should matter is that the food has lead.

Maggi’s reaction by itself is disingenuous. They say that the lead in maggi is well within permissible limit. So I googled what the limit is. WHO says that ‘There is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe.’
Essentially, maggi is bullshitting us. and that is a bigger worry than this one instance. It shows that Nestle does not respect lives and would resort to lies and half truths if it helps them in feeding us dangerous junk.

The takeaway:
Why bother wasting time and thought with conspiracies?
The only relevant question here is ‘will it kill me?’ 
Long term or short term doesn’t matter. If it intends to kill you, you run away from it or you kill it. You don’t sit and ask its back story.
And once you kill it, you may work towards making the system work better or punishing the smaller culprits in conspiracies. Don’t loose focus you gadfly.

Unicef flushes good money on bad poo

Unicef flushes good money on bad poo
Just saw this campaign from Unicef done by JWT. It is called Poo2Loo. Apparently its been running for more than a year now with major focus on digital media.

Who is it aimed at?
It is in English. the styling in international. The setting is urban. probably Mumbai. The nearly 3 minute long video does not tell you anything new – why is it still a problem? why do people defecate in open? How can one help? All it does in those three entertaining minutes is elicit a nod from the upper class Indian who feels disgusted living in Indian cities. It reinforces disgust, without telling what is to be done about it. ‘take the poo to the loo‘ doesn’t count because it doesn’t mean anything.
It does not feature the people who defecate at all. Leave alone empathy, there is no recognition of the other class.
It is from a point of view of a class which does not see the other class of people, only their shit.

The video merely bolsters cynicism towards India. It talks to the generation and class of young people in India who want nothing to do with India that exists around them. The campaign talks to the young India that forever lives in digital bubbles of their own making. The campaign depicts the one moment of breach in bubble – the moment when they soil their feet walking on turd while busy texting.

What was the objective?
To break the taboo about talking potty among young apparently. People might share the video but that is not all. They are sharing cynicism with the video about India. And the cynicism perpetrated is not constructive either. It merely is.

Its like saying ‘Just say no‘, but worse
(worse because it is useless)

‘Just say no’ was a command to the drug user by a clueless non drug user. Just say no was  not as much about actually solving drug abuse problem as much it was about making the non-drug users feel good about themselves. “We know better and we are telling you to stop doing it.”
It was more harmful than useful.

About poo2loo… “The best way to start is to spread the word that this is not acceptable in the India we all want to live in” says a bureaucrat from Unicef

So Unicef is consolidating the view of what is not acceptable among upper class Indians through upper class channels in upper class language about lower class Indians who do not have access to toilets for whatever reasons. And it fails to communicate to those who do it about what is not acceptable. (I guess, Unicef rightly assumed that people who defecate in open aren’t necessarily poor. They have TVs, mobile phones. Many of them use internet once in a while. But do they seriously think that this video will reach them? They could have just checked out content on the mobile phones of the guards and drivers who work in Unicef office. They don’t download multimedia off net like we do. There is a whole micro economy of content that feeds into phones of the lower middle class. and this video cannot possibly find its way in there.)

Poo2Loo has a catchy song and command to be bandied about by the upper class. The fact that no solution was even hinted at in the video is not a coincidence. It was meant for the entertainment of the upper class. If even a hint of something useful were to intrude the jingle, it would have gotten too real too fast. It is like the problem animators face with the valley of uncanny. getting real spoils the broth. the video would have never received even the modest views that it has.

But then what is the point of making the video?
exactly. good money wasted. I bet there was no strategy planner involved with the project from JWT. It is a vanity project by a creative team with intentions of award in craft and a client who wanted to show something appealing to higher ups abroad.
Tell me if I guessed wrong.

Inventing indulgent future for the rich

Inventing indulgent future for the rich

Saw this promotional video for Bosch’s automated driving system. There are similar efforts being attempted by other corporates too, notably Google.
But here again, I feel corporates are trying to answer the wrong question.

‘In the future’ – we shouldn’t need to travel unless we desire to travel (that is to say, travel only for leisure and not because you must to earn your bread). Our scientific endeavors need to be geared to completely remove commutes from our lives. In which case, driving would become an activity largely undertaken for leisure.
But the fact remains, the way our economy is geared, people must leave there homes and travel greater and greater distances to bigger and bigger cities to earn. In China alone, 120 million youngsters leave their homes to find jobs in a year.
Why is globalization only aiding economy and not human will? (Jobs migrating to cheaper and cheaper venues, forcing people to migrate towards jobs. As against, people moving to different places on their own volition without economic coercion facilitated by globalized economies that only aid mega-corporates.)
In the age of cloud-this and cloud-that, why do we still need to commute to earn? Why are companies not trying to reduce commutes and are instead are trying to automate commutes? Even Google, which is in the business of cloud this-that.

We need our best minds to focus on the way we are going to work together, live together; not on the way we indulge ourselves.

Also, where are all the new cars going to go? the virus like expansion of cars on our roads will make it astronomically costly in future to own/ operate one. only a few would be able to afford mobility. Drive around Delhi and know what a dystopian future of road looks like. there are no more roads for more and more cars! We will be forced to de-incentivize individual driving.  

Why invent for a future that is not going to present itself ever? why invent for indulgence of the rich?

What does the ford figo controversy mean?

1. What is it all about?
A few risque ads were released on a showcase website that features ads from across the world. I won’t get into details here as it has been amply dissected everywhere else already. (this one reading might help get you up to speed.)

Lets get the obvious out of the way – Of course the ad is appalling. (and of course scam culture must die.)
Perhaps its existence is unwarranted. But the reactions to it were confused. What I am interested in the curious collective response: It is a mix of regression, repression and pandering to powers that be.

2. What are they exactly reacting to?

God knows.
Some people read the ad as ‘condoning of rape culture’. Some were reacting to ‘Berlusconi’. Some to existence of ‘scam ads’ and quite a few others to the fact that it came from Ford.

In the absence of context, all readings are fair. But the absence of context itself is unfair.

The context in which the ad was created is this one – The ad was intended for other ad folks who appreciate bad communication (the kind that is needlessly layered, needlessly twisted, needlessly ‘smart’). Irony is in fashion. The ad was ironical. It was sure to be a success in that context.

The context in which the ad existed – of wall-less web: The web necessarily destroys walls and hence creator’s control over the message. and hence the hate that Justin Beiber receives, unjustly. Justin’s audience perhaps are the 13 year old girls (or the ones who feel that way). So if you are not a 13 year old girl, perhaps you should simply not listen to his songs. The hate mongering is unjust. The absence of walls, puts the onus on the listener to chose what he listens to.
So the first reading is who chose to read it? – The media.
Media is doing its job of magnifying things that need to be magnified. Is it’s reading unjust? Perhaps, because it pushes out the creator’s intent altogether. (However, the intent itself is problematic, a subsequent issue that was thankfully brought to fore and would hopefully culminate with the end of scam ads.)
It is also unjust because media must be conscious of the effect it has. The superficial analysis in most media outlets, created confusion regarding the outrage. Everyone was outraged, but no one could exactly put a finger on what.
The confusion is terrible because it creates uncertainties. In uncertainties, when you want to play safe, the casualty would be the space for brand’s interaction with the greater society.
This uncertainty is the mother of ‘doublespeak’. Welcome 1984.

3. Would it have been such a scandal if Berlusconi was not featured in the ad? Replace him with say N.D. Tiwari. What would have been the reaction then?

Certainly, it wouldn’t have received the international fame (infamy?). cries ‘off with the head’. Agency complies.(and here Slate is being irresponsible for not analyzing the issue, but raging like a troll.)

A frequently reposted FB meme, words of Voltaire apparently, tells me that “To learn who rules over you simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”
If the ad is read as a social commentary on Berlusconi’s misadventures, the reaction tells me that Berlusconi was not too pleased with it and turned a few wheels to make himself feel good.

If brands and corporates are increasingly becoming more powerful than entire nations, and are the central arbiters of culture, ecology and our fate, Brands must interact with and communicate broader social issues. 

5. Which brings me to the question of authenticity. How does the brand-agency complex address the authentic voice issue. If someone else (agency) is paid full time to talk on your behalf (brand), the other person at best will be communicating what he ‘feels’ is authentic voice of the person who is paying him.
To ensure authenticity, unfortunately the dialogue between the agency and brand is about ‘control’ – Guidelines, checks and balances.
The ford incident has turned into a statement about the slip in control – hence people getting fired and apologies being extended.

A relationship hinged on the language of control is a prelude to crisis. (Go on, try controlling your friends/ spouse)

6. Ford didn’t intend to say what this commercial said, but it possibly didn’t intend to say what it said with its earlier commercials as well. It was the clever JWT sweet talking me into buying a ford car all this while!

a. Isn’t there something gross about outsourcing your speech? Is outsourcing speech similar to outsourcing cooking your food and laundry? Surely, outsourcing labour is different from outsourcing thoughts and communicated intent. That is why we have the farce of ‘Vedanta’ and ‘Coca cola happiness’. (The issue here is of reading a communication alone (open happiness) v/s reading the communication with the cognizance of who is saying it in what context.(merely saying ‘opening happiness’ while harming local cultures and ecology.))

b. Often agencies present to brands, alternatives of what the brand could say/do. and like a restaurant patron, the client chooses from the menu, what he might want to say/do. The dialogue is in essence in a binary language – yes/no. Imagine, how limiting that is! (Vocabulary of a thousand words v/s vocabulary of ~ 2 words)
If a brand of today was a person, he would be without lips. (how often do clients write actual briefs for an ad? (rhetorical question.))
He needs another person to do its talking. This other person (agency) would be entirely made of sensory organs only – eyes, ears and a big mouth. (Agency = Brahmin. Brands = Kshatriya.)

The reaction tells me, that the organs have failed to evolve together as a single organism. We need more ‘authentic’ voices from within the brand itself, rather than the voice being packaged outside.

Times has come for renegotiate the modern imperative of super specialization – for the sake of authenticity, more producers themselves should also talk. Agencies perhaps need to take on the role of training producers in talking truth engagingly. (hey, big monies there. white space.)

Brands, often lacking in imagination, needs agency’s creativity to appear in sync with the times. Agency people need the podium that brands’ money can buy. Currently, the incentives are structured in a way that will only increase such incidences. (scam ads, misfires, public oops, inauthentic messages)


Originally published at



Irresponsible brand #56: Bisleri

Irresponsible brand #56: Bisleri

See these ads -> Bisleri500 Angry bride, Bisleri500 Casanova, Bisleri500 Superhero

Tell me you didn’t find them disturbing. If you did, stop drinking this irresponsible brand, and if it can be helped, bottled water altogether.

Story of the bottled water

If not, let me shepherd out the outrage.
What do you think is the brand trying to do through these ads? Its a classic advertising attack on your current behavior.
Not all behavior change objectives are bad, but they always have a big responsibility – In your quest for increased usage/ preference, you don’t want to bring harm to a culture or people. I believe Bisleri has been tremendously irresponsible in multiple ways.

The behavior shift sought here is that from shared drinking to individualistic drinking. While traveling you would often see us Indians sharing a bottle, sharing food. Sharing is a big part of how Indians define themselves.
However, sharing is perhaps a newer value that India tried to inculcate in its socialist days. Deeper in Indian psyche is the notion of ‘impurity‘ – the impurity of low caste that might pollute your food/ drinks. In marathi the word for a vessel/ plate/ food item that is eaten/ touched by someone else is ‘ushta’. In Hindi, is it ‘zootha’ (false?) All local cultures have a word for this sense of ‘pollution’ of food when it is touched by someone of lower caste.
The socialist ideal sought to change this corrupt culture. The culture of sharing was born in reaction to the divisive culture of caste. And Bisleri goes and sabotages the whole 60 year exercise in undermining the caste structure.

See the reactions of all girls in the ad film. Then see this documentary – ‘India Untouched’. (Every Indian must see this documentary.)

 India untouched

What do you think now? What is Bisleri advocating? Why the outrage? why the slap? Bisleri is asking Indians to react strongly to anyone drinking from ‘your’ bottle.
I work in an advertising firm. Ads try to propel individualism further as it is usually beneficial for brand. But the objective here is not individualism only. The objective is the reaction – a violent reaction. 

Perhaps there is a slight distinction here. The purity sought here (consciously. Though subconsciously this ad will turn the wheels of caste) is not from a caste perspective. Its from the modern phobia of ‘germs’. See any westerner in India – how obsessively they drink only mineral water. They have a valid reason for the same, India is a large dumping ground and hence dangerous to their health. If you drink from tap in Mumbai, you might as well be drinking from sewer. It would be absolutely foolish for anyone to drink from open source water in urban India.
But what has happened is, carrying a mineral water bottle (Plastic) has become a ‘class symbol’. You would see idiots buying and then throwing the plastic bottles near the pristine Himalayan streams in Uttarakhand and Kashmir. Monkey see monkey do – Indian ‘aspirers’ see westerners drinking only from plastic bottles, and then mimic them blindly. (And then restaurants (the modern arbiter of class) use this wonderfully to their advantage where if you ask for tap water, the server would look at you quizzically – as if sizing you up. )

Bisleri is not trying to instill a new culture. It is taking a small culture of fear of these aspirers and then propagating it further.
Why is it always women who get angry in the film? Its not a coincidence. The pallbearer of hygiene and traditions, women are the early adopters Bisleri is after. There’s another insight about Indian women here. You won’t find as many Indian women traveling alone as you would foreigners in India. Why do you think that is the case? Yes, India is a despicable place when it comes to Women safety and hygiene. But how do so many westerners manage it, whereas so many urban Indians cannot? Why do urban women forever live in bubbles of their own? What does it say about us? Perhaps a debate is to be had later.

Finally, I come to the ecological aspect of this brand exercise. What is the ecological cost of a individual plastic bottle used once, shared never? Undoubtedly, the brand is trying to increase its usage – frequency and units (more people more often). So this translates to quadrupling of plastic waste. How is Bisleri going to do its bit to unclog Indian waste?

I believe brands must be taxed for the cultural costs, ecological costs that they outsource to tax payers. Right now the Bisleri500 bottle is priced at Rs. 10. Which does not take into account its ecological cost to Indians. The bottle will wound up in a sewer, clogging it, causing floods. It would stay around for thousands of years polluting the atmosphere. It is undermining traditional practices of water harvesting/ water distribution and even the traditional free tap water distribution systems. (Why do you think, these days so many of the public drinking water faucets are broken or tampered with? The local Bisleri dealer had nothing to do with it?)

Lastly, see the end of all the TVCs. Everyone is as if slapped into behaving in the new 3 step way. Isn’t it time, India slapped brands like these into behaving more responsibly?

P.S. – You might like to join this community started by a friend ‘Planet trash’. and also check out the cool venture called ‘waste ventures‘.