Stigma in the age of the social media boycott

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Several companies and brands, such as Tanishq, Fabindia and Dabur, have been in the eye of a “stigma” storm, with their “progressive” advertising being criticized and attacked for disrupting certain social “norms”. In Dabur’s case, it was an ad showing a same-sex couple celebrating the Hindu festival of Karva Chauth, while Fabindia’s “culturally inappropriate” Diwali-themed ad showed a collection named Jashn-e- Riwaaz. Last year, a Tanishq advertisement describing an interfaith marriage received a similar reaction on social media, as she was accused of promoting “jihad of love” and “bogus secularism”. With the #BoycottTanishq trend on Twitter, the company was forced to ditch it. Other companies in India have also faced anger at the ads, including Hindustan Unilever for Surf Excel, Mankind Pharma, Ceat Tires, Manyavar and Myntra. While such attacks and ad takedowns cause much consternation among intellectuals and liberals who bemoan the death of progressive values, the issue needs to be viewed in the broader context of marketing and the phenomenon of market stigma.

Market stigma has been defined as the labeling, stereotyping and devaluation by and of various business stakeholders – including consumers, businesses and employees, shareholders and institutions – and their offerings, such as products, services and experiences. Stigma has two aspects: first, it differentiates the “object” / entity being stigmatized on the basis of a perceived norm, and second, it devalues ​​the “object” / deviant entity. Stigma is of concern due to unwarranted and exaggerated perceptions of the actual attributes, risks and associations of products, and its potential to harm both the products / entities and the users associated with them. Marketers need to understand this phenomenon and then fix it.

Stigma in India is generally based on historical and socio-cultural forces. However, marketers can also be guilty of stoking such stigma for their own business interests. Take the ‘Mauka Mauka’ campaign on Star Sports in 2019, or the many pre-India-Pakistan cricket advertisements that are based on chauvinism, branding Pakistan as ‘the other’. An Amul ad in 2020 coinciding with India’s TikTok ban showed girl Amul fighting a Chinese dragon, thereby “altering” China in the process. No wonder then that the harmless Indian celebrations of Pakistani cricket victories have the potential to transfer stigma to those celebrating. Commercial stigma could be costly to marketers at times, as Kent RO discovered last year when his adverts for the Attacks and Breadmakers showing household helpers as possible carriers of covid infection came in. arrivals for flak and had to be removed. Marketers must then understand that the stigma is deeply democratic; it treats all “offending” companies equally, regardless of their reputation and stature. Stigmatizing traders may themselves be “stigmatized” in the process.

Marketers may also need to watch out for new arenas where stigma occurs. Social networks offer it new avenues, Twitter, Facebook and even Linkedin acting as battlegrounds where companies fight for their reputation and against exaggerated perceptions. While companies that sell widely stigmatized products (like fur and silk) can be scolded through traditional media channels, companies that offer services and experiences seem to bear the brunt of the social media stigma. . Recent examples would include Swiggy and Zomato, and even WhiteHat Jr and Byju.

The socio-cultural environment of India today presents a unique challenge to marketers as the market presents old and rigid conventional socio-cultural norms combined with new and powerful social media tools deployed by (sometimes marginal) groups. eager to eliminate ‘deviant’ behavior. This would be even more true for companies selling particularly vulnerable products, such as those designed for female menstrual hygiene and intimate use (such as contraceptives, especially female condoms), whose advertisements often elicit emotional reactions in the market. looking for a change in behavior, due to their vivid images and salience. Their promotional efforts can lead to additional stigma. Marketers must find ways to reverse such stigma through action at the subliminal level.

This is the case with Cadbury India. In the midst of the pandemic, even as worried consumers turned to big-name products and services to the detriment of smaller sellers, Cadbury launched an advertising campaign using artificial intelligence and featuring Shah Rukh Khan that aimed to orient buyers to small businesses. This may well have acted as a much needed de-stigmatizing force.

Marketers of various products, services and experiences should not only recognize and guard against the potential for stigma, they should take a proactive role as de-stigmatizing forces, challenging negative stereotypes and providing positive support. . Advertisers could start by portraying girls (rather than boys) in advertisements that encourage victory and achievement, thereby guarding against even small and unconscious forms of stigma. We need thoughtful efforts. Just tweaking an iconic TV commercial to replace a man with a woman as a cricket star, for example, may not do much to reverse an old stigma associated with women excelling in the sports arena. . For marketing to function as a force for social change, marketers must recognize their social responsibility in the face of ever-changing stigma.

Tulsi Jayakumar is Professor of Economics at the SP Jain Institute of Management & Research (SPJIMR) in Bhavan. These are the personal opinions of the author.

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