Bias seen in Advertising

‘Seinfeld’ is one of the favorite TV serials of many and it was no surprise that it was one of the most popular American serials of all times. What is surprising is though it was the fact that Seinfeld fails to make it to a list of top 50 TV serials amongst African Americans. On hind sight it is not so surprising, for in the end, for all its irreverence ‘Seinfeld’ was largely a ‘white’ serial.

There were few black characters and even the most prominent of them, ‘Jackie Chiles’, was a caricature of sorts. Indians would be quick to point this out as yet another example of racism in the land of milk and honey. We can’t comment on that and make the above point merely to reflect about our own TV programming and a little bit of what is marketing myopia.

When one looks at the numerous ‘Saas-Bahu’ soaps on air there is one pattern that’s visible. Invariably the casting is along caste lines. Not that the actual actors playing the roles are selected basis their caste but that the principal protagonists belong largely to the upper castes. A cursory listing of the surnames of most soap opera families will reveal that the Sharmas and the Guptas are aplenty.

In India surnames for long have been a dead give away of caste and while it is possible that this is one of those remarkable coincidences (just as fans of Seinfeld would say that too much is made about the lack of black characters) it is fairly reflective of the fact that when most of us think India we think of it largely (whether knowingly or unknowingly) as an upper caste world.

For TV serials are not alone in exhibiting this behavior, even the advertising and marketing community seems to have a similar bias. When one speaks to the planning or the marketing community, society in India seems to be largely the Hindu society with the focus being on the upper castes. Many planning documents will draw on ‘Sanskrit’ origins of words often delve into Hindu mythology and upper caste rituals. There is no allusion to the rituals, myths or semantics of the lower castes. And all this despite most marketers being on record that it is rural markets which are their focus today.

Unlike in America, where historically the black population was a small minority, in India the lower castes comprise the bulk of the population. Unlike in the US where targeting the white community made greater commercial sense for most marketers, in India, one would imagine that the future (when the caste and class equation becomes more balanced) will belong to the lower castes. Currently though there exists a very high degree of co-relation between caste hierarchy and class hierarchy that is a large part of the upper class is likely to emanate from the higher castes. Perhaps a possible explanation is that there is a general belief that over time there will be a certain degree of

Lower castes will tend to shy away from their roots and tend towards upper caste rituals and practices. But far more likely is the fact that somewhere we are spending more time selling to ‘people like us’ and missing out on the larger audience of ‘people like them’.

And so we will celebrate yet another Independence Day and here is how it will be branded. There will be, if memory serves us right, an address to the nation from the Red Fort by the PM, some reference to Nehru’s ‘Tryst with destiny’, some VIP or the other hoisting a flag and a gaggle of schoolchildren meeting up with the President. Then there will be patriotic songs playing on radio stations, a tricolor tucked away in the corner of the top right hand screen of the music channels and celebrities giving their take on what Independence Day means to them in the papers.

There will be companies (largely the public sector) issuing ads congratulating the nation, some restaurants offering ‘Independence Day’ offers and some malls screaming about a ‘Freedom’ sale. There will be TV discussions on the state of Independent India and movie channels will run some or the other so called patriotic movie. And lastly there will be large cars with the tricolor fluttering on the windshield bought from those canny street signal salespeople.