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Ad Recalled

As far as buying jewellery is concerned, we don’t have much room for negativity. But we always have room for more

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We may say sona-chandi in the same breath but our daughters will always be named Sona. Have you ever met a Chandi?

India’s love affair with gold is a cliché but we can’t seem to snap out of it. In 2011, India reportedly imported more gold than any other country, around one-fifth of the global supply that year, which is equivalent to nearly all the gold the Swiss have stashed away in their central bank vaults.

Jewellery has always been about status and security, should you (touch wood) fall on bad times. We have all grown up on stories from the Partition when people residing on the Pakistan side of the Radcliffe line stitched ornaments into the hems of their petticoats and left their homes to come to Hindustan. Or dug a hole in their backyard and buried a stash, hoping to retrieve it later.

(Imagine the number of residents of Lahore and Karachi with kitchen gardens that could regurgitate jewels instead of gobhi. If only they knew.)

But if there’s one state in India that is known for its gold, it is Kerala. Everyone knows of Kerala’s ‘lau’ for gold. Malayali ‘Gelf’ returnees grabbing their electronic items from the airport luggage belts are themselves human conveyor belts for the gold chains they are bringing home.

In the 1990s, while pan-Indian brands like Tanishq and Gitanjali Gems were making their presence felt, Kalyanaraman’s in Thrissur was an established textile business that specialized in wedding finery. Customers began urging the store to also provide jewellery so it could be a one-stop wedding shop, and by 1994, that is what the business set out to do. At the time, Kerala already had a few established jewellery stores – Malabar Gold, Chemmanur, Josco and Alukkas, to name a few.

Despite all the local and national competition, Kalyanaraman’s jewellery store did really well. As it expanded, it began relying on brand ambassadors to advertise its jewellery. Since timelessness and intergenerational appeal was key, the brand ambassadors were either regional film stars or people related to the stars. So while Shivaraj Kumar was chosen for his own star status in Karnataka, he is also Kannada superstar Rajkumar’s son. Tamil star Prabhu Ganesan is the son of the legendary Sivaji Ganesan. Telugu star Nagarjuna Akkineni as well as Malayalam star Manju Warrier are also associated with Kalyan Jewellers because of their regional star power. Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, on the other hand, are the brand’s ambassadors at a pan-India level.

Kalyan Jewellers became one of the pioneers in standardizing jewellery buying and offering certifications. Recognizing the fact that the country was made up of different markets, it made an effort to cater to regional tastes. But even while keeping local preferences in mind, it took its signature designs across the country.

So it seemed a perfectly logical move when, in 2015, Kalyan Jewellers decided to release an advertisement that was not just local in flavour but was also in keeping with its persona of being a national player. The idea was to present royalty, timeless beauty and elegance. Who better than Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, former Miss World, and their very own brand ambassadress, to showcase their products?

The advertisement featured the actress reclining comfortably on a chaise longue. Behind her was a painting of a thin, dark-skinned child holding a giant parasol over her, protecting her from the shining sun. (No matter that she could outshine the sun itself with the ornate jewellery she was wearing.) The reference was clear, if a little thoughtless. It seemed to be an attempt to recreate paintings from a couple of centuries ago when European (read white) noblewomen sat around while ‘native’ (read dark) servants did all the work. And it was quite the norm for many of the servants to be underage.

On seeing the ad in the morning newspaper, the reactions were instantaneous. First of all, people did a quick check to see whether they had time-travelled and woken up a few centuries ago. Then they sat down to tweet, post protests on Facebook and register their dismay in print. The ad and its models brought to the fore accusations of racism, classism and ageism.

In an open letter to Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, a group of activists – which included a former chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights – told her that the ad was ‘insidiously racist’ and that she herself seemed to represent ‘aristocracy from a bygone era – bejewelled, poised and relaxing while an obviously underage slave-child, very dark and emaciated, struggles to hold an oversized umbrella over your head.’

The letter went on to say, ‘As an influential member of the Indian film industry and a popular star with a large fan following, we trust that you wish to use your image in a manner that promotes progressive thought and action, and would not knowingly promote regressive images that are racist and go against child rights.’

That is to say, the very ‘fair’ lady as opposed to the ‘dark’ child was a deliberate visual effect. The ad was not just racist, it also showed serfdom and child labour to be acceptable.

The company apologized for inadvertently causing offence and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s publicist replied that the actress had no clue about the final ad because she was photographed against a plain background. Well, what can be photoshopped-in can also be photoshopped-out. And that is exactly what happened.

The ad was withdrawn and then re-released without the image of the slave-child. The controversy did not seem to affect business, though. Apparently, very few people would stop buying from a brand because it displayed its ignorance and social ills in an advertisement. The ‘open letter’ making the rounds on Twitter did not upset the target audience. The letter itself was noticed mostly because it was addressed to Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.

In 2015, Kalyan Jewellers had similar revenue and margins as Tanishq, and in January 2016, the company announced that it would hit the 100-showroom mark by the end of the financial year by adding 14 new showrooms. Which tells us that for us, as far as buying jewellery is concerned, we don’t have much room for negativity. But we always have room for more.

Excerpted with permission from Hachette India

Book details: ‘Stark Raving Ad: A Giddy Guide to Indian Ads You Love (Or Hate)’ by Ritu Singh; 272 pages; Rs 350

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