In the wrong spirit

July 22nd, 2011

What is it about the United Spirits spoof on the Seagram Royal Stag advertisement featuring a Harbhajan lookalike that really pushes the boundaries of decency? After all, by now we are all used to brands taking potshots at their competitors. And we’ve quite enjoyed some of the creative strategies that have played out in these ad wars. It’s been fun to watch Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Nestlé and Cadbury, Sprite and Mountain Dew, Set Wet Zatak and Axe, and several others trying to pull the rug from below each other’s feet. But what Vijay Mallya’s United Spirits has done in its commercial for McDowell’s No. 1 Platinum is different and calls for some serious thinking.

For one, in all the above examples it was one brand pitched against the other. The joke was on the product, never on a person or, worse, his background. A quick recap of the two ads: The Royal Stag advertisement shows Harbhajan Singh opting for cricket instead of working in his father’s ball bearing manufacturing unit in Jalandhar and finally thinking aloud, “Have I made it large?” The spoof shows a Harbhajan lookalike making giant ball bearings, the size of gym balls, on his first day at his father’s factory and then asking, “Have I made it large?” In walks his father and gives him one slap across his cheek and says, “You were supposed to make ball bearings, not cannon balls.” The next shot shows Team India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who’s sitting in a swanky restaurant, saying, “Forget large, do something different.” The spoof might have been funny had Harbhajan’s story not been the story of his life.

I got to speak with Harbhajan Singh briefly soon after he scored two centuries in the India-New Zealand Test series in November 2010. The bowler had made history by becoming the first batsman at number 8 position to score consecutive Test centuries. During the interview conducted over the phone from an airport while he was waiting for his flight, Harbhajan said it was his father who had encouraged him to chase his dream of becoming a cricketer. Harbhajan has five sisters and comes from a modest family. Yet, his said, his father gave him the courage to follow his passion rather than take over an established family business which was small, but assured security. He also spoke of the dilemma he faced between cricket and the family business at the young age of 20 when his father died.

Should any brand be allowed to mock all this in its attempt to take on a rival? Is all fair, really, in love, war and advertising? I hope not. The ad ends up making fun not just of Harbhajan but also of his dead father.

Coming from where he does, Harbhajan has “made it large”. And so has Dhoni. The Indian cricket team captain who is listed by Time  magazine among the world’s 100 most influential people was also born into a modest family in Jharkhand where his father had shifted to from Uttarakhand in search of a job. The two great cricketers who have been pitched against each other in the advertisement chose to “do something different” and “made it large”. The taglines of both the brands in the surrogate ads apply to them both. So it’s really unfortunate that Dhoni should be part of this. Though he has said that he wasn’t aware of the line the advertisement was taking, that’s a bit difficult to believe. But if he really didn’t, then that is highly irresponsible for a person who comes across as a well-rounded, conscientious and clear-thinking individual. The Rs 26-crore, three-year deal that Dhoni has signed with United Spirits Ltd does not compel him to give the company the right to compromise on that image.

We shouldn’t need rules or guidelines to keep a check on something like this. A little bit of sensitivity from the advertisers would do. And the realisation that between the two, making it large carries more weight than doing something different, especially if the difference is at someone’s expense.

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