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Much has been written about the controversy raised by the Tanishq ad that depicted an inter-faith marriage.
Since all of you would have seen the ad, I’ll refrain from wasting time and space describing the ad.
The big tragedy about the reams of editorial coverage in print and on news TV is that the focus is on the advertising industry and the debate has been reduced to a discussion on whether brands should ride on ‘political’ developments and ‘divisive’ subjects.
As far as I am concerned, the issue has little to do with advertising and all to do with the larger issue of the collapse of tolerance in society. Much of this erosion of tolerance is provoked by the need to follow the herd to be popular in social media.
Before we get to the crux of this article, which is ‘the interaction between social media and advertising in the Tanishq case’, let me give you a quick lesson in media.
For a moment, think of all news TV consumed as represented by a one-meter rule. All the viewership of ALL the news channels is represented by the one-meter rule. If you look at the share of ALL the English news channels, it will occupy perhaps ONE centimeter of this one-meter rule. “English news is very niche in India, and therefore accounts for only 1% share of News viewership at an All India level,” says BARC.
That’s it. That is the reach of English news channels.
Yet, English news channels are not without influence – perhaps they enjoy unnatural and undue influence, thanks to the scale of India, the low allocation of funds to news-gathering in India – and social media.
So let me illustrate how this undue influence works.
Republic TV does a story, say, on match-fixing.
Republic’s social media handles all talk about this issue.
Republic’s social media team creates a flurry of hashtags connected to the story.
Republic’s social media team ‘buys’ reach (legally) on social media and cause the story and the hashtags to trend.
The underpaid and under-resourced journalists in small towns across India, with no budgets for travel or, indeed, for endless phone calls across the country, take the easy way out and follow ‘influencers’ on social media. In the current illustration, they’re following Republic’s handle and, of course, keeping an eye on trending topics.
So journalists across the country, thanks to this extraordinary, unchecked and unfettered ‘source’, viz social media, decide that the match-fixing story is VERY IMPORTANT.
And they write and file their own stories as well.
So much for what the media does.
The consumer, the citizen, does his or her own amplification, spurred by similar provocations.
The consumer, too, follows influencers and keeps track of hashtags and trends. In addition, the consumer keeps an eye on social media updates of friends and relatives and truly LOCAL infleuncers.
And if the Republic match-fixing story pops up on these pages, up pops the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO). In dealing with the fear, the consumer adds his or own bit of spice to the story, based on the echo chamber he or she lives in.
Now, let’s get back to the Tanishq ad.
Consider what has happened to a citizen of Jamshedpur who has no knowledge of Tanishq or the controversy, no problem with Hindus and Muslims marrying each other and has never seen the ad and has not seen the coverage on TV.
The story appears on Twitter because the citizen’s classmate RT’ed a tweet. In the RT, the citizen’s classmate denounced the ad, denounced Tanishq and denounced the Tata group.
Aware of FOMO, our hero, the citizen of Jamshedpur referred to earlier, RTs the RT.
And, as thousands of similar citizens do the same, a controversy is born, even if the ad has hardly been seen by the majority who protest about it.
Now it gets worse. Politicians of all hues, too, are on social media and follow the same trends.
And, very quickly, they find that they have the opportunity to ‘ride’ a trend. They can profit or lose by choosing one side of the controversy; in the Tanishq case, the ‘profitable’ side was to denounce inter-faith marriages and, consequently, denounce Tanishq.
So they ‘protest’ at Tanishq showrooms, confident in the knowledge that the protest will be covered by media.
And a new story will be born and aired by news channels.
And the new story will find its way into social media.
And the new story will come back to Jamshedpur.
And FOMO will make the new story trend….
It’s a new news cycle. Unchecked and without a sense of responsibility. More frighteningly, no one has control over this beast.
Tanishq was a victim of this uncontrolled and vicious beast.
The question is: Who is the next? And the next? And the next?
Anant Rangaswami is the editor of Storyboard, the advertising, media and marketing show on CNBC TV18. He is also senior editor at FirstPost.com, and has authored two books, ‘Watching from the Sidelines’ and ‘The Elephants in the Room: The future of advertising in India 2016.
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