‘More than fatheads’: Africans object to portrayal in Indian ads

Archna Shukla

A plane crashes in a desert. There appears a group of hungry tribal men, ostensibly Africans, who begin to rummage through the debris of the plane. A young boy among them sees something shining at a distance. He jumps in to claim the object. It turns out to be food wrapped in a silver foil. He takes a bite, but is distraught. He has burnt his mouth because the food is steaming hot. The film, a 10-second advertisement, ends with the message “Rakhe khana garma garam (keeps the food hot)”, along with the name of the manufacturer, SR Foils and Tissue Ltd.

“Hunger is a universal phenomenon. We all love food and we relish it the most when we are hungry,” says the spokesperson of the Delhi-based company, dismissing the observation that the use of African tribals to depict the “universal” phenomenon is, even if unwittingly, racist in nature.

Many Africans living in India, however, disagree. In a website thereigntimes.com, which gets a lot of traffic from people of African origin, they are expressing their anguish at recent examples of Indian advertisers using tribals, mostly and admittedly, Africans, to convey their messages.

“I and my friends have been outraged. It is sad to see us being portrayed as fatheads,” says Banji, a Ugandan studying in Bhopal, who runs the news and current affairs website.

In a recent article on the website, Banji said: “In the land of a billion and multiplicities of diversities, across almost all aspects, such as belief, food and more so people, one would think that such diversities should be matters of great pride, celebration, rather than ridicule.

Unfortunately that’s not the case in the Indian Subcontinent.”

Banji and his friends have been most enraged by ads from beverage makers Coca-Cola and Parle Agro for their brands Sprite and LMN, respectively. There are, however, more “offenders”, including telecom service provider Vodafone and engine oil and lubricants company Castrol.

The Coca-Cola ad shows two young men stumbling upon a group of African tribals in a jungle. (The ad makers admit that they shot in Africa.) While one of the men tries to please the tribals with some funny dance moves, the other one simply offers them Sprite and wins their heart. The Sprite campaign has a series of such ads, in one of which the “smart” guy flanked by two semi-clad “tribal” women asks his friend if he should let them loose on him.

The Parle Agro ad for its lemon drink LMN shows two thirsty African men digging through the sand and pulling out some watery roots to quench their thirst. Telecom operator Vodafone, which, in fact, has won praise for its Zoozoo campaign, recently aired two ads in the series arguably showing tribals in poor light. One of the ads, meant for conveying that subscribers can get their bills in local languages, shows an enraged “tribal” Zoozoo who is not able to decipher his bill being placated by a suave, suited Zoozoo.

“These ads are not only outrageous but also ridiculous. I have failed to know why such an MNC of that reputation as coca cola would choose such an AD,” says Mukasa, an African national, on thereigntimes.com.

The ad fraternity, however, sees the commercials as harmless and “humourous” creative efforts. “There is nothing racist. If at all, the protagonist in our ad is being respectful to the tribals and is treating them as equals which is why he offers them his favourite drink Sprite,” says Ajay Gehlaut, a creative director with Ogilvy & Mather, the agency that made the ad.

Rajiv Rao, national creative director with the same agency, which also executed the Zoozoo campaign, says: “We didn’t think of all these things. We wanted to convey our message in a humourous way... That’s all.”

Those at the receiving end, however, are not amused. “Things are as it is not too pleasant for us (the black people) here (in India). Such ads only leave a bad taste in mouth,” says Banji. He has asked makers of such ads to tender “an apology to all those who have been hurt” and “also desist from using such commercials in future”.