Gokul Krishnamoorthy
Aug 04, 2015

Opinion: Of protests, protesters and the conflict within

Whether it's a 'rap song' against a corporate or call for prohibition, it's critical to respond, but more critical to respond right

Opinion: Of protests, protesters and the conflict within
A headline in today’s edition of The Economic Times reads, 'Ex-O&M creative takes on Unilever'. The reference is to a rap song created by a certain Sofia Ashraf titled 'Kodaikanal Won't'. And to be fair, thanks to it going 'viral', and perhaps aided by the mandatory PR nudges, the 'campaign' for an NGO has been featured all over the media. How a campaign attains what I'd call 'viral velocity' is another debate altogether. And therefore another story.
Back to the Nicki Minaj-inspired (according to some media) rap song telling Hindustan Unilever that 'Kodaikanal Won't' rest until the company does its bit to address the effects of mercury poisoning it is accused of causing in the hill station, thanks to its former thermometer factory.
Quoted in The Economic Times story written by Ravi Balakrishnan is Ogilvy & Mather's Piyush Pandey, who needs no introduction to Campaign India readers. He clarifies in the story that while Ashraf's is a conflict of interest scenario (said to be in her notice period when the video was created), there is 'no dispute since she's already put in her papers'.
My point is not to pick on either the story or Pandey's comment, but the context does bring to light some conflicts we live with.
Let's take two steps back. A creative works for an agency, one of whose large global clients is prominently in the news for its sustainability agenda. The company has also been in the news for allegedly causing severe harm to life and environment thanks to one of its factories, an event that first arose 14 years ago.
In her notice period, and I'm not sure how long she served (though Pandey's comment that he would have wanted her to stay on suggests a reasonably long run), Ashraf decides to take things head on in a manner her trade knows best - by creating a viral video. A rap format only helps things along, though honestly one might have expected better from an ex-Ogilvy hand. The song gets viewed and shared, as do most things against alleged wrongdoings of corporate Goliaths.
But this isn't about a single creative person. It's about a breaking point that all humans face, the one Kamal Haasan's character speaks about in the Tamil film Kuridhi Punal. It's also about the compulsions that force individuals to toe a corporate diktat until they can let themselves break free.
How very often do we hear breakaway independents wax eloquent about doing things 'right' or 'their way'? Can you fault them for waiting until they were able to fly on their own? Not at all. Some cross the bridge when they come to it. Some choose to do so when they wish to. If only the utopian scenario of absolute intrapreneurship existed.
The conflict extends well beyond the corporate world.
An agency that works for one political party could shift loyalties tomorrow, for instance. They are entitled to. The shift may be market-driven, or driven by an internal conflict.
If you spend as much time in Tamil Nadu as I do, it would be hard to miss the protests happening day in and day out for prohibition of alcohol. The call for prohibition and its timing critically point to an eye on the forthcoming State elections. Some have even pointed out that some of those sounding the protest call now, had not paid heed to protests earlier.
But can you blame protesters or discount the cause? Even if you love your daily round (or two), you have to cede that alcohol ruins lives and families. And then, like the rap song, there are the spikes that get the issue noticed.
A 'Gandhian' fighting for the case of prohibition climbed a cell phone tower this week, protesting from atop the structure. He died as firefighters tried to bring him down. Unlike an online viral, this was real. And the parties that called for prohibition have also called for an investigation into his death.
The average adlander loves his or her drink. And many of them also handle alcohol brands. How many would take a stand against alcohol and for prohibition, knowing fully well that it serves joy in moderation but death in excess, and often also spells the ruin of entire families at the bottom of the pyramid?
That prohibition may not be the answer may be a fair argument, but it's a very, very difficult one to make in such circumstances. Anything that is said for prohibition will sound louder and more reasonable.
The Unilever protests have been in the news for a while now. Despite company statements, unless there is a simple and clear response on what it has done or intends to do, the rap and folk songs will  grow, possibly encouraged by this one. The difficulty starts with the fact that the official response cannot carry itself in a song, however well made.
The company has done extremely well to not play into the hands of social media traps so far. Some things are best kept official and above board. Especially when you have the equity, goodwill and trust of customers earned over many, many years, through not just advertising and CSR, but also product.
But, even officially, it needs to speak out through action, to assure the world over and above the social media din, that there is no conflict between what it promises, and what it does.
- Gokul Krishnamoorthy, managing editor, Campaign India @goks140 
Campaign India