Culture as an “attention crutch”

Culture as an “attention crutch”. Is it worth the risk?

Culture as an “attention crutch”. Is it worth the risk?

Companies these days are trying very hard to stand out in the marketing world. Many marketing professionals seem to believe that any attention is good, even if it is a negative one. Marketing professionals deploy obnoxious, culturally repugnant and some base crass presentation to catch the attention worm. A scheme most marketers falter pursuing this strategy is when they attempt culturally centred themes. Humans are culturally rooted animals. People knowingly or unknowingly imbibe cultural traits. It is not just the tradition or principles that they follow, it is very much immersed in their psyche and sentiments. While a commercial portraying a culturally inappropriate content may catch eye balls, it may not help ring the cash bells.

The recent 7UP advertisement stirred a lot of controversy. Keralites and many purists of Indian traditional dance were hurt by the way a Kathakali (classical dance form of the region) artiste was used to cart a aerated bottled drink. Moreover, the Kathakali costume adorned was the costume that depicts Lord Krishna.  Many consumers are so angry that they want to boycott 7UP or even Pepsi for that sake. Thank god, Japan the land of rising sun is not in our neighbourhood. Many of the Japanese would not have liked a Geisha shaking a leg for a Bollywood item number.

Why has this ad hurt the sentiments and considered culturally insensitive.

First of all, Kathakali is not a street dance like  the Amir Khan or Prabhudeva’s pelvic gyrations. It is a tradition art form, depicting the story of Lord Krishna. It is performed by dancers who have undergone years of training in appropriate facial expressions and hand gestures. The dance accompanied by soothing music, singing, percussion, dialogues and narrations is performed only in temples, palaces or houses of nobles and aristocrats.

The creative team behind the ad neither had elementary education in culture or had a sense of appreciation for diversity. The team used a debauched version to peddle their ware.

Marketing managers need to evaluate the risks and rewards. Empirical evidences indicate that while brands may have earned short term “attention”, the companies had to abandon these products. For instance, Lisa Blue Swimwear faced heavy protest from the Hindu community for printing Indian goddess Lakshmi on their swimwear range. The Australian company had to halt all productions and call back their swimwear that had been showcased on the ramp at Rosemount Australian Fashion Week in Sydney. Another example is that of Nike’s Ad in China that showed an American basketball player defeating a Kung Fu master, a pair of dragons and two traditional dressed Chinese women, all in a bad taste.  Thankfully, the Chinese government banned it as they felt this ad insulted their culture and national dignity.

Creativity should not kill cultural instincts and likewise don’t let cultural insensitivity sham your brand image. You don’t want to be there always trying to pace things out. Its better to be on the safer side. Next time you pen an ad, first ask yourself “hey will I hurt someone” if the answer is “no” go ahead. But if the answer is “yes” or “may be”, then just put your pen down for a while and rethink your entire work. Coz if you ask me I would say “Its not a risk worth taking”.


Junior Consultant (Marketing)

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