Surf Excel Holi ad controversy: Keeping trolls away, the HUL way

(From left) HUL was trolled for its Surf Excel ad where a young girl helps a Muslim boy avoid being splashed with colour on Holi and the Brooke Bond ad where a son abandons his father at the Kumbh Mela before having a change of heart and going back t
A little girl pedals her way down the road, calling out to her friends to play Holi. Water balloons fly thick and fast and she's soaked in colour. The kids however soon run out of stock. It is the moment she's been waiting for. She gives the green signal to a boy standing around the corner. He hops on to her bicycle as they make their way to the nearest mosque. There's not a stain on his clothes. He’s happy and so is she.

Hindustan Unilever's latest commercial for detergent brand Surf Excel has evoked sharp reactions on social media—some have liked it, some have not and some see it as a case of love jihad. The debate continues to roil the social media timelines, making this the third instance in three months where the country's largest advertiser has found itself at the receiving end on Twitter.

Its previous two outings, for Brooke Bond (Kumbh Mela is a place where the elderly are abandoned and the latter for touching upon sensitive issues such as same-sex relationships and inter-faith marriage.

While some brand experts caution that in a country heading towards general elections, the strategy of picking up controversial issues is a double-edged sword, some say that a brand has every right to speak its mind. "I don't see anything wrong with the issues selected by the advertiser," says N Chandramouli, chief executive officer, TRA Research, which brings out the annual Brand Trust Report. “HUL is well within its right to do so. However, the issue has to stick to its core. If it doesn’t, the cracks will show up as it did with Brooke Bond’s ad, where linking elderly abandonment with a religious gathering didn’t cut ice with certain sections of society. It is a case of poor execution. But at an overall level, there is nothing wrong with a brand taking a stand.”

In an age of purpose-led advertising, brands, say experts, are increasingly turning their attention to burning issues around them. HUL’s portfolio of brands espouse some virtue or the other. In the case of Brooke Bond, for instance, it is about brotherhood. Lifebuoy speaks about health and hygiene, Close-up is all about togetherness and Dove about inner beauty.

Not only HUL, even its closest rival Proctor & Gamble (P&G) has joined the cause-wagon. It has raised its voice about gender inequality (Ariel’s #Sharetheload), menstrual taboos (Whisper), and more recently, toxic masculinity (Gillette). The latter’s campaign in January, which flipped the brand’s popular tagline—‘The best a man can get’ to ‘The best men can be’ saw mixed reactions on Twitter. The ad, released in the US, showed how men could stand up against bullying, sexism and harassment. While some hailed P&G’s courage, others found the ad preachy and insulting. P&G stuck to its guns, saying that it was promoting “positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man”. Just as HUL did with the Holi campaign saying that the campaign embodied its ‘Daag Acche Hain’ or ‘Dirt is good’ philosophy. 

Santosh Desai, managing director and CEO of Future Brands, says that brands need to be honest with their communication, not over-reach. “If risk on social media can be avoided, then a brand should consider it. If not, then at least be honest and admit to the mistake and course correct with simple and effective communication,” he says.

Ashish Mishra, managing director, Interbrand India, says that brands could navigate social media by telling “interesting stories”. “If real stories are told by customers, employees or even allied stakeholders or the brand has a powerful message, this could work,” he says. In 2018, for instance, Airbnb,  responded to the travel ban imposed in the US by the Trump administration with a campaign titled ‘Let’s keep travelling forward’. The video highlighted the importance of movement in building nations and the campaign was hugely popular. 

Sometimes, just being straightforward clicks.

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