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In the last few days, a couple of big and iconic corporate brands of India took a bold step and announced that they will not be advertising their brands on news channels that show toxic content. There is no clarity as yet on which these news channels are, and the term “toxic content” still remains ambiguous – at least for me and a lot of people like me.

At the outset, there appeared to be three main angles to this issue: the Corporates; the Channels; and the Toxic Content. However, when I dived a little deeper into this, a few more angles emerged – the brands owned by these corporates, the consumers, other mediums of news and content including social media, and the ecosystem that surrounds us. While the owners of these two corporate groups have all the right to decide where to spend their marketing money and who are we to say otherwise. As a consumer and an observer, this decision however does raise a few points in my mind. This blog by no means attempts to judge anybody or have a false notion of expertise on the subject. There is no intention whatsoever to support any particular channel or a specific ideology and hence my request to the reader is to look at these as mere observations -

1. While these iconic brands have been around for as long as I can remember and have been a part of India’s story since many decades, it is a little difficult to believe that there have never been actual times of distress and unrest in the country. There have been wars, riots, famines, floods, elections, political witch-hunts, scams, assassinations, public outrages and there was an actual state of emergency once and India has had significant number of terrorist attacks over the years. Based on the technology available, strength, medium, platform and access to public – the news media has reported each of these with equal fervour. The reportage in some of these cases has been excessive, arguably biased, and intrusive for the people involved besides being harmful for the country. Why did these corporates not think of taking such a stand earlier in similar instances where so-called targeted vilification of individuals or a group of people by select media houses occurred?

2. As I write this I come across a tweet by a politician from the leading opposition party openly encouraging some big corporates to follow the examples set by these brands by shunning advertising on a particular news channel – does this mean that the stand taken by these two so-called trendsetting corporates was politically motivated?

3. Most of the news channels have been extensively pursuing a single story aggressively and extensively based on the line of narrative that suits them, for example: the SSR Case, Hathras, Palghar, etc. And almost every channel has to answer for the limits that were crossed, then why only select channels and their audiences being penalised?

4. The programming and content of any channel, whether it is a news channel or any other is dictated by the preferences of the audience. So if select news channels pursue a story and manage to sustain it for a long period of time, arguably it could be a result of two things – one; that they have substantial information and proof regarding the story, and two; that they have managed to hold the interest of a large chunk of audience. By discriminating against the channel, aren’t these corporates discriminating against its audience?

5. As responsible Corporate Heads, don’t these decision makers have to account for the opinion of the stakeholders before taking such a decision?

6. Have the consequences of polarising decisions like these in terms of their impact on the brand image and their sales been analysed before taking such a decision?

7. If a corporate brand decides to pursue this line of thought while doing business, will it extend to other functions of their business like Human Resources, Procurement, etc.

8. If they have decided to ban their advertising on these channels, does that mean they have decided to ban their audiences from those channels as well?

9. Can a brand discriminate between audiences based on their preferences for consuming content? Will we next see disclaimers to this effect before or after the commercial is aired? Will this disclaimer be placed on the product packaging or the user manual as well?

10. Does this mean that their brands are only meant for a certain kind of audiences?

11. Does this mean that I cannot have my Tea with biscuits manufactured by your company if I want to enjoy them while watching that channel, which according to you shows toxic content? Or if a viewer of one of these news channels walks into the showroom to buy a motorcycle manufactured by one of these corporates; will this prospective consumer be turned away because he/she watches the said channel?

12. There has always been a section of people voicing out for freedom of expression being curtailed when the government initiated censorship rules, especially regarding the content that is created and consumed by the public at large. Are these corporates indirectly trying to have a say in what content we should consume from now onwards?

13. Who decides which content is toxic and which isn’t? Isn’t the choice of content that someone prefers to consume, subjective to that person – what is toxic for some might be preferable content for others and vice versa.

14. Dozens of soap operas on TV have stories woven around child marriages, dowry, illicit children, extra marital affairs, shape shifting creatures, ichhadhari nagins, etc; not to mention reality shows that encourage voyeurism, tell you how your life can change by answering just 13 general knowledge questions so there’s absolutely no need to study hard and work hard on your career, reality shows where children sing and dance on songs that are way above their understanding just for a career and prize money – isn’t that toxic? Isn’t this sort of content harming us as a society on a much deeper level? As responsible corporate, shouldn’t you be doing something and stop spending on those channels as well!

15. And finally, what if the tables were to be turned? What if the audience decides to respond to this stand taken by these corporates and stops using their brands? It did happen recently with a big Jewellery brand. Will these brands accept it sportingly and learn to live with a marginalised market share and loss of revenue, not to mention the undeniable loss of brand image. Or will they cry wolf, run to the government / blame the government for not creating an amicable business environment and in an ironical rant that reeks of hypocrisy shout through every medium available about the hate and toxicity that prevails in the country!

These are some of the many reasons why this stand taken by the so called iconic corporate brands of our country doesn’t convince me that it is a well-thought-out move by them. In the times that we live in, there are many different narratives floating out there and since everybody seems to be talking at the same time, none of these narratives are long-lasting. Everyone has their own version of truth and we are all shouting at the same time – thus rendering any narrative fickle and flawed. In such times, maybe there is a case to be made here where the people at the top of the food chain in these corporate organisations, need to function in a slightly detached manner as far as their brands are concerned and keep their personal views and inclinations away from what their brands stand for.

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