Guest Times: Of marketing and the killing of social reforms

LK Gupta, Vice President – Marketing, LG Electronics India, examines the marketing and social ramifications of a show like Satyamev Jayate on the Star network

May 31, 2012

It is common knowledge in marketing that if you give people what they need you will create a successful product. The corollary is that most successful products will replace something else that was previously thought to be useful. Or, at the very least, you can lull the consumer into thinking that (s)he’s better off with the new order of things even if there is no real use being served by the new product.

It is my assertion that the corporate marketing machinery is working in the same way that opiates and placebos work – giving people an apparent cure without creating a systemic change to root out the disease that troubles them. The raging debate created by Satyameva Jayate on TV, and its (debatable) success points toward the same phenomenon – I want to examine both the marketing and social elements of this case. First the marketing.

Why Marketing?

In a cluttered and increasingly jaded content ecosystem on television, marketers are always looking for a stand-out vehicle to communicate their brand. It is no coincidence that in a scenario of identical looking dance and singing contests, glamour injected cricket of dubious quality and downright egregious reality shows, someone was bound to come in with a show dedicated to social issues of a lot more serious nature.

Does the consumer need it? Yes, at least the urban middle class does. In a disenchanted atmosphere where cynicism abounds regarding leaders, political system and even formerly hallowed professions like the military and medical practice, the masses feel increasingly helpless and perhaps even mentally militant. But there is no assurance from any quarter that something will be done about this terrible mess that the country is apparently in. Even though the Indian public rarely ever takes things into its hands to improve anything, the masses need to know that somebody is doing something about it!

Does the Public Need This?

The marketer has invented, therefore, a paradigm that engages people in a make-believe “wake-up call”. Behind it all is of course the much sought after TRP and the associated benefits to sponsors. A programme like Satameva Jayate is no doubt a risky and diligent effort, but it is at the end of the day a smartly packaged commercial venture for which the marketing guys at Star Network deserve accolades. Let us examine how:

  1. The massification required of social issues is brilliantly done by multi-lingual broadcast across India of problems and ills faced or read about by the common man anchored by arguably the most successful movie star of recent times.
  2. The “product” shows with scary details how widespread and deep the problems are, and exhorts the common man to be aware about them, creating relevance. At the same time, there are easy ways shown to be involved. Also invariably are shown some heroes and success case studies that create a positive feel that it can be done if only someone did something about it. This gives us what I call the social endorphin.
  3. Of course, such content cannot be created without sponsorships and brand engagement. So, you have the usual methods of participation via SMS messages from viewers, creation of a theme song with every episode that can be downloaded as a caller tune on your mobiles and shared on Facebook, and even being able to donate for the cause using the money transfer facility on the sponsor’s telecom network. This creates participation and a sense of self worth.

In a nutshell, the programme gives the masses exactly what they need – the assurance that something is being done about the ills of their society, and that somehow they are also participating in the change.

And now for the social element:

What many may fail to see is that such marketing oriented tackling of social issues can work in a way to create more somnolence, and indeed trivialisation of the very issues that the show purports to solve. I had stated earlier that most successful products will replace something else that was previously thought to be useful. In the case of this successful product – the show – there is creation of wider awareness but at the cost of the viewers’ own initiative to personally do something about the issues in their daily lives. When people see others doing something on a large scale, the tendency for an individual is to step aside and let them do it. And if there is a token participation to be done (such as signing a petition with SMS messages), hey, my job is done! And in any case, the issue discussed last week can be forgotten every Sunday, since there is a brand new topic to debate and outrage after about seven days.

At the very basic level, Indians are notorious for minding their own business and caring pretty much for their immediate surroundings. And, the smaller the surroundings, the better! Till something shows them how to make change, indeed forces them to make change at the personal level, no such movement can come to any useful conclusion. The Anna Hazare case has already shown us that. Moreover, the loss of innocence and sullying of the intended halo is clear from the cynicism generated about the astounding fee (in crores or rupees) charged by Aamir Khan for this noble cause. Not only that, even the ad rates paid by advertisers to the TV channel are being discussed on social media. It takes a particularly gullible person to look beyond all this and get the warm feeling that all is going to be right because someone up there has started doing something about it all. And isn’t that gullibility a hallmark of our mass public?

What’s even more dangerous is the ridicule that one section of the intelligentsia is heaping on such marketing-supported social initiatives. As if the social issue itself is to be doubted. And these are people who are supposedly opinion leaders of society. Not so long ago, a telecom brand started out to save the Indian Tiger. Recently, a consumer goods company launched a campaign to get people to donate their old toys and clothes. And now, Satyameva Jayate. If you follow what many millions on Twitter and Facebook are saying and reading, you will detect a derision, a rejection almost, of anything supported by greedy corporations, however noble the idea.

This brings me to the core of the matter. If a corporation or a celebrity gets really serious about solving, or at least participating in social issues, shouldn’t it/he do it without extracting commercial mileage from it? The moment you put it out there to be broadcast, your credibility starts sinking as also the willingness of real people to do anything real with the issue. The bigger your trumpet, the smaller the impact. Corporate Social Responsibility is most about responsibility, not about quid pro quo publicity.

So, I believe such corporate and profit-making endeavours will end up mortally wounding the chances of real social reforms on a larger scale. Public will become increasingly apathetic or downright cynical because the dream is too large and change too arduous and slow. Marketing will end up killing the social reform agenda.

But till such time we see it clearly, let us all enjoy the show and participate in the chatter.

For, Serious is the new Entertainment.

(Views Expressed here are personal. The writer can be reached @Lk_gupta)


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