In a research article published in Advertising & Society Review in 2008, ethnographer Julien Cayla noted that actor Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) was the kind of pan-Indian symbol necessary in an extremely heterogeneous nation like India, divided along the lines of language, race, regional communities, religion, class and caste. This pan-Indianness of Brand SRK made him especially valuable to the marketing community. More than a decade later, SRK has built a legacy in Indian advertising, endorsing more than 40 brands, including Hyundai, Reliance Jio, Byju’s and BigBasket among others. But Brand SRK’s role in the grand, unifying narrative may no longer hold true in contemporary India, where advertisements have been targeted for being “anti-Indian”.
SRK’s most recent commercial, for Cadbury India, timed for Diwali and intended to promote India’s kirana stores and neighbourhood grocers — essentially, businesses affected by the pandemic and e-commerce giants — has aired right in the midst of a controversy surrounding his son, Aryan Khan, wherein the by Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) arrested him in connection with a drugs raid. The arrest led to certain groups on social media demanding a boycott of SRK’s advertisements earlier this month. In response to hashtags such as #BoycottSRK, one of India’s most notable start-ups, Byju’s temporarily suspended its commercials featuring SRK.
Aryan spent 25 days in jail in a drugs case and was granted bail on October 28.
It’s a difficult time for advertising in India. A neo-swadeshi movement emphasises that it’s not enough to “Make in India”; you also have to be the right kind of Indian. Commercials, brands and their ambassadors who don’t match the majoritarian stamp of approval have faced a major backlash in recent months. The reasons for boycotting are as comical as they are grave — FabIndia used Urdu for a Diwali festive clothing line, Ceat Tyres had actor Aamir Khan deliver a PSA to children on bursting crackers on the road, Tanishq showcased inter-faith marriages for a bridal jewellery line last year. FabIndia was also pulled up for not placing bindis on the female actors.
In this festive season alone, there are more calls to boycott brands. Designer Sabyasachi, whose new line of mangalsutra has creatives featuring models in underwear, is among them. Another was Fem Bleach, Dabur’s line of beauty and hygiene products, which featured a lesbian couple observing Karva Chauth. People weren’t clamouring for a boycott because the advertisements showed regressive, patriarchal practices masquerading as progressive or inclusive, but because they hurt Hindu sentiments. Dabur cancelled the commercial and it remains to be seen how Sabyasachi responds. In India’s growing cancel culture, which gets bolstered when social media cries for boycotting brands, it appears that when brands stand by their advertisements, refusing to pull them down, they are often labelled anti-Indian
Adman Piyush Pandey, chairman of global creative at Ogilvy and executive chairman of Ogilvy India, says that advertisements being pulled down because of threats is ridiculous. “I think it’s absolutely important that advertising addresses the government of India and the government of the states concerned. There is need for protection,” Pandey says. He adds that if people have issues regarding advertisements, they should know that ASCI (Advertising Standards Council of India) does a lot of screening and, if that’s not enough, they can seek legal recourse, he adds.
Ogilvy India made Mondelez India’s Cadbury Diwali commercial, which has SRK being suave, cheeky and warm, all at once. Anil Vishwanathan, Senior Director, Marketing, Mondelez India, thinks that when it comes to SRK and the Cadbury’s advertisement 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 — so that it wows our small retailers.” When they reached out to SRK, the actor was supportive of the specific campaign and SRK’s team, which he says is not afraid to experiment, saw the merit in this idea. “It was not so much for the brand, but the thought. When we think about love, heart and warmth, who’s better than SRK?” he says.
Pandey, who has worked with SRK over the years, says that the actor undoubtedly has a huge appeal. As compared to sports personalities, who are celebrities in their own right, SRK brings in performance. “He has charm and a fan following that has a lot of love in it. Whereas, with sportsmen, there is a lot of awe and admiration,” he adds.
Byju’s signed SRK as brand ambassador in 2017, and became SRK’s biggest deal yet, reportedly estimated at Rs three-four crore annually. The recent ad campaigns were made by Spring Marketing Capital. Of a campaign from May 2020, Mrinal Mohit, chief operating officer at Byju’s, had stated in reports, “With the immense popularity that Shah Rukh Khan enjoys, we are confident that we will be able to address the common apprehensions of parents and further shape the evolution in learning that is taking place across India.”
On October 9, the brand temporarily suspended all advertisements featuring their brand ambassador. After a pause of about four days, the advertisements were back on air, including during the T20 World Cup 2021, where Byju’s is one of the sponsors. But social media users raised doubts about positioning SRK as brand ambassador for an edtech company, when his own son had been accused in a drugs raid. When The Express reached out to Arun Iyer, founder of Spring Marketing Capital, he declined to comment, citing work abroad. It’s unclear whether Byju’s will continue with SRK as brand ambassador.
Pandey, glad to note that Byju’s commercials have resumed, says that the investigation into Aryan’s case will take its own course. “However, I have a theory that if your son is being interrogated by the principal of the school, then the father shouldn’t lose his promotion…It’s a bit sad,” he says.
Censorship in Indian advertising is not new, however, in the past, advertisements for brands, such as Tuff Shoes, faced a heavy backlash and were dragged to the court, on grounds of morality and propriety. Things, observe commentators, have taken a more communal turn of late. Ayyappan Raj, co-founder of writers’ hub The Script Room, who worked in advertising for 18 years, says when it comes to the recent issues such as last year’s Tanishq advertisement or this year FabIndia’s, there are two parts of the conflict—religious polarisation and patriarchal gender norms, with the latter also gaining a religious dimension in recent years. “Cinema and other forms of creative expression have faced the brunt of this strong-willed, cultural gatekeeping for many years. From big movies to famous OTT shows there have been protests of similar nature. I guess it was kind of an eventual thing to happen as the advertising industry is not in any way isolated from the rest of the society,” he says.
This is not the first time that a Brand SRK advertisement has faced social media hate. Last year, a fake social media account posing as Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani tweeted that the industrialist had decided to remove SRK from Jio advertisements. The unverified account had 12,000 followers in under a month. The tweet had more than 50,000 likes.
A hashtag asking SRK’s ads to be boycotted in October was only preceded by a social media trend to boycott the actor, too. As promotions for his upcoming film Pathan were streamed, self-proclaimed gatekeepers called SRK a “terrorist” and “Pakistani-lover”.
Filmmaker Joyeeta Patpatia, who made web series Four More Shots Please!, says, “There is an overall climate of faith which is why brands are recalling advertisements. But when a brand decides to pull promotional creatives off the air, it feels like the brand isn’t backing the agency and the creatives.” In October 2020, Tanishq was forced to recall a campaign that showcased inter-faith marriage after it was construed by social media users, including actor Kangana Ranaut, as “love jihad”. Tanishq’s employees were targeted as well. “If a brand thinks they are being brave by talking to SRK, then they have some serious rethinking to do. I hope brands don’t rethink doing so, because then [actors] Salman Khan and Sanjay Dutt couldn’t have continued doing ads or even films,” says Patpatia.
In recent years, SRK’s brand value has seen a dip. According to a celebrity evaluation report from 2018 by global advisor Duff & Phelps, SRK was down to the fifth position, from being second the previous year. His brand value was at 60.7, when compared to Virat Kohli, valued at 170.9. As of last year, according to surveys, SRK is not among the top 10 celebrity brand endorsements. It’s a long way from the time Cayla was researching in the 2000s, when there was a glut of SRK advertisements in India. Cayla, in his research, noted that many advertisements that feature SRK depict a man “fundamentally connected to his Indian roots, yet unconstrained from achieving international mobility and success”. SRK is the “new Indian male” and “the global Indian man”. Advertisements modelled him based on his movie characters, particularly that of the globe-trotting yet sanskaari Raj of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ). Cayla cites the example of commercials for property developer DLF, where SRK asks audiences to reject Singapore, Dubai and London and instead choose development of large Indian cities, such as Mumbai, Ludhiana or Kolkata.
The Indian audience, which once accepted Raj/SRK as a role model, has now nearly vanished, but some hold out hope. With the developments surrounding SRK’s family in recent days, there has been a renewal of interest in the what the actor represents, and whether the advertising industry will follow suite is to be seen.
Ayyappan worked with SRK on commercials for Tata Tea and recalls him as one of the most professional celebrities to work with and devoid of tantrums that 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.