Friday, April 29, 2011

Ad men are as guilty as Godmen.

In his column in Mint, Salil Tripathi writes:

..what drew many to his (Sai Baba’s) fold were two central claims: that he was divine, and that he performed miracles. Nearly 60 years ago, Sai Baba began producing vibhuti, or holy ash, and assorted trinkets, watches, sweets and fruits, presumably from thin air. Magicians showed these were conjurers’ tricks, but to no avail. His followers dismissed the magicians as publicity-seeking tricksters. To experience his miracles, you had to submit to him first. That meant that in a nation of massive illiteracy, he was encouraging people to shelve logic. Sai Baba deftly avoided challengers: Rationalist Abraham Kovoor could never meet him, nor did other sceptics. In The Times of India, C.P. Surendran recalls the amusing story when his mother challenged Sai Baba to give her a jackfruit, after he said she could ask for anything, and he’d produce it magically. Sai Baba hadn’t expected her to ask for a jackfruit; he couldn’t; his followers panicked and shouted at her, driving her away.

Consider the allegation made above “that in a nation of massive illiteracy, he was encouraging people to shelve logic”.

As I argued in a post 5 years back, Sai Baba was no different from and no more guilty of manipulation than corporate brand-builders and advertising agencies.

If Sai Baba had to draw attention and create a mass following, he naturally had to differentiate himself from other mortals and create a brand identity of his own. The flowing saffron-coloured robes, his distinctive hairstyle, the hype and the hoopla over his ‘magical’ powers to pull out watches and gold rings out of thin hair, his Bhajan sessions which would send his followers into a trance- all went into the creation of the unique Sai Baba brand . Without this brand pull, he wouldn’t have enticed his followers to come into his fold seeking mental peace and serenity.

So, how is this any different from an advertiser luring you into a make-believe world and leading you to imagine that by procuring a certain type of talcum powder, you would be transported to a sanitized world of blue skies and green grass, where you would have a wonderful spouse, a lovely home, a cute little dog and a smile on all the time?

If you go through the advertising history of Coca Cola and the slogans that they used during various times, you will discern a clear intent to promote a feeling of well-being subliminally and to ensure a brand association with such a feeling. How is Coke’s claim that “things go better with Coca Cola” any different from Sai Baba claiming that “life goes better when you follow me”? Can Coca Cola substantiate this claim and submit to an investigation by a panel of rationalists and eminent scientists?

In fact, Coca Cola’s website describes how even “Santa Claus’ in his red attire was a marketing creation of theirs. Millions of people- not just children- have suspended their disbelief for generations.

In his book, “buy-ology’, which I have discussed earlier, Martin Lindstrom says:

Almost every leading religion has ten common pillars underlying its foundation: a sense of belonging, a clear vision, power over enemies, sensory appeal, story telling, grandeur, evangelism, symbols, mystery and rituals.

But, what is not so well acknowledged is the fact that these pillars happen to have a great deal in common with our most beloved brands and products.

and goes on to provide examples from both, for each of the ten pillars.

When brands and products can cast a relentless spell on seemingly educated  people and make them delude themselves into a false sense of well being, why accuse Sai Baba of encouraging illiterate people to shelve logic and single him out?

If godmen are guilty, so are ad men.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Not doing something.

Would you like to take a vacation that will not cost you anything, yet will rejuvenate your spirits?

I found out how this could be done, after reading a piece by P.G.Wodehouse, titled “The secret pleasures of Reginald”.

Reggie’s method involved not doing something, as opposed to doing nothing. For instance, he would deliberately not spend the weekend with a person of his acquaintance, Bodfish. Nothing was more awful to him than spending a weekend with Bodfish, and conversely nothing was more delightful than not spending a weekend with Bodfish.

Therefore, at the precise time when Reggie would have been heading to Bodfish’s place had he accepted the invitation, he would recline in a long chair in his club, eyes fixed glassily on the ceiling, and delight in not whirling down in his car on the country roads and later in not strolling down to Bodfish’s garage. Soon, he would not go into Bodfish’s house and not listen to Mrs Bodfish on the subject of her son’s premature intelligence. He would then look forward to the happy time after dinner, when he would pass it in not playing bridge with Bodfishes and their neighbour.

Other evenings, he would have a jolly time in not going to the theatre and not watching a play. And so on. These non-visits would perk him up and bring him back to office on a Monday morning feeling like a lion.

So, just apply this technique. Take a week off and deposit the LTA in the bank. Then sit at home or lie down on the sofa at the precise moment when you would have normally set off for office. Then take delight in not driving through traffic and not searching for a parking place for your car. Later, spend some time in not sitting down with your boss for those boring reviews. Enjoy the lunch hour in not eating that dreadful pantry meal at office. Devote an hour or two in not having those tiresome conference calls. And late in the evening, rejoice in not wading through the traffic again.

Do spare a few moments to not writing to me and to not telling me how it works.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

How dare you be happy.

An opinion piece in the Open Page of The Hindu today is critical of the World Cup victory celebrations, or any celebrations for that matter, when farmers in rural India are committing suicide or are languishing in extreme poverty.

Sixty-seventy per cent of India's population is living on less than Rs. 20 a day. A bottle of Diet coke for us? The electricity used in a day-night match could help a farmer irrigate his fields for more than a few weeks! Do you know that loadshedding is also class dependent? Two hours in metros, 4 in towns and 8 in villages. Now, who needs electricity more? A farmer to look after his crop day and night, irrigate, pump water and use machines or a few bored, young professionals with disposable incomes, to log on to Facebook and watch IPL?

How can we splurge thousands on our birthday parties and zoom past in our AC vehicles and sit in cushy chairs in our AC offices and plan a weekend trip to Coorg when on the way, in those small villages, just a few minutes' walk from the roads, someone might be consuming pesticide or hanging himself from a tree for just Rs.10, 000? How can we?

This is not new. P.Sainath has never missed an opportunity to remind the nation, whenever it celebrated any success in any field, of its extreme insensitivity to the plight of farmers. “Nero fiddling while Rome was burning” has been the recurring charge levelled in all his speeches.

Today I saw a tweet which suggested that there should be a ban on ads on days when a prominent person had died. Is it not wrong for consumers to think of splurging on goodies, when a section of the population is grieving over the death of an individual?

Those who take such a grim view of the situation and recommend universal mourning till every single person is relieved of his suffering are appealing to your sense of guilt. How can you indulge in such joyous celebrations and festivities when elsewhere your own countrymen are wallowing in such misery? Implicit in their admonition is the presumption that happiness is a zero sum game. If I am happy, it must be at the cost of someone else in the world, which makes my state of happiness morally repugnant and unacceptable.

This argument does have some basis. In cases where farmers are deprived of their ancestral land to benefit or enrich an industry, or when rural India is denied basic facility while urban India gets disproportionate attention, they are victims of a zero-sum equation, which needs to be corrected. After all, the total funds available for development are finite, and there should be an equitable distribution.

But, even if and when such equity is established, we have to reckon with variation in human responses.

As the unit becomes larger- from families to neighbourhoods to towns to states to nations- the diversity among human beings increases. There would be a variety of moods and sentiments at any time arising out of unique developments in one’s vicinity, and unless it is a disaster of a large scale (war, earthquakes, and terror attacks) it is impossible to get all people emotionally aligned. On the continuum scale ranging from celebrations on one end to mourning on the other, different people in different locations will find themselves at different points at different times.

I must therefore have the right to celebrate a World Cup victory, without having to feel guilty for the misfortune that has befallen the farmers. This is not being insensitive or apathetic, nor am I belittling the problem that they face. I am merely exercising my right to be happy when the occasion so justifies.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

"The Entitlement to moralise"

If public figure A criticizes another public figure B on issues involving morality or ethics, or takes a strong position on any matter, A immediately lays himself open for a scrutiny of his own credentials to speak out against B or to take up the cause.. When some evidence of past wrong-doing or an act of impropriety is found, A relinquishes the moral right to criticize B, and the sting is taken out.

Some recent examples: Within days of his successful fast as part of his anti-corruption crusade, Anna Hazare’s past was examined and some evidence found of some observations made by Justice Sawant against him. Arundhati Roy who has taken on the entire State on several issues was found to have constructed a house on notified farm land in violation of law. So, she stands discredited.

The principle here is that as Hazare and Roy do not practice what they preach, they undermine their own message and are guilty of hypocrisy. He who hasn’t sinned alone can cast the first stone at others.

For the sake of this argument, if we concede that both Hazare and Roy are well-intentioned in their respective crusades, does the fact of their wrongdoings elsewhere in the past make them unworthy of taking up the crusade or cause? Will dismissing them thus not amount to commiting an ad hominem fallacy?

A.C.Grayling examines such a moral dilemma in one his essays (" Entitlement to moralise") in his book, “Thinking of Answers”. He says:

There is a point of philosophical importance here for the endeavour of trying to live an ethically good life, It is that there is such a thing as “doing one’s moral best’, which may and usually does fall short of what counsels of perfection require, but nevertheless constitutes a serious gesture in the right direction. A person who is vegetarian, but owns leather belts and shoes, may reason that being an habitual meat-eater makes a vastly greater slaughter-footprint than owning a pair of leather shoes, and trusts that this will make some degree of difference towards the good.

…What the idea of ‘doing one’s moral best’ comes down to, when it is sincere and genuine, is something close to Aristotle’s idea that, in effect, one lives an ethically good life by trying to do so. The trying is itself the succeeding; otherwise the only good people would be perfect people, and all those striving to do their moral best would not be good people.
…In a sin culture, even a suspicion of hypocrisy in the messenger is enough to harm the message. The tacit idea is that if the source of the claim is polluted, the claim itself must be questionable. In the Greek view, the value of what is said and the character and the actions of the person who says it are separate things, and can be independently evaluated on their merits.

…Human beings are a mixed alloy, familiarly enough; the very same person is capable of being good and terribly bad at different times or in different respects, and that inescapable fact makes the greatest moral philosophers almost at one in insisting that we should resist the mistake of thinking that anyone is wholly one or the other, even at their best or worst moments respectively.

I would rather have an energy-wasting Gore fighting to save the planet than an energy-wasting Gore not caring about the planet. People like Gore have a platform and the worst thing they could do is fail to use the platform in support of worthwhile causes, whether or not they are personally no better than the rest of us in doing their individual bit.

Applying what Grayling says to our context, we can disagree with Hazare on his methods, and also his insistence on extra-constitutional appointments, but should not invoke some past misdeed of his to discredit him in this situation. Same with Arundhati Roy.