How Cartoons got me into trouble

Our marketing plan had been finalised and everything was ready to go. We were quite proud of how the creatives had turned out. It celebrated all the great icons of the Kannada film industry. A similar campaign had just finished in another part of India which featured the Bollywood stars, and had been received well, and we were anticiapting even better results with our regional adaptation of it. The outdoor hoardings were being put up  and rest of media push was all set to roll-out. I was chilling at a colleagues farewell party out-of-town, when at 11.30pm my phone rang and all hell broke loose.

It was a call from my branch in Bangalore – “Our hoardings which are being put up tonight have been attacked by some people from that right wing Kannada political party, and we are getting threatening calls, what should we do?”. The guy calling me was prone to being a bit nervous, so I wasn’t really sure how serious this was. Karnataka (and Bangalore) had slowly seen a growth in the  right wing ideologies, and all of such political parties  were looking to find agenda in public space to latch onto.  I tried to tell him to stay a tough ‘I am sure it will pass away by morning. We cant get bullied like this and react to every little threat we get.’ But he insisted that is serious. ‘The guys who were putting up the hoardings in one part of town have already been beaten up. These goons are now threatening to burn down all our hoardings with blow torches.’ I vividly imagined all of our hoarding burning in massive flames lightening up the night sky of Bangalore. However spectacular the visual looked, it wasn’t really what we had in mind when we set out to design a campaign that sets the city on fire. I walked out of the noisy club into the fresh air cool air, it had just stopped drizzling. I wanted to take an appropriate action without taking any hardline position on the issue. The last thing I wanted was a campaign that was misunderstood by consumers. But first it was important to ensure safety of people – ‘Hey, first alert the police, down the shutters of the office. Let me figure out what we should do next and will call you back. Call me if you hear anything more on this’. This was an important product campaign for us. A lot had been riding on its success. Pulling off the campaign would have costed money and another 3 weeks delay.

He called back five minutes later, ‘Seems like now the fan clubs of the Kannada stars want to outdo the political party, and even they are starting to call and complain about the creatives. We even had some news channels call in and asking about it’. The Media had sniffed a story and the circus was about to start. This campaign was clearly over, and we were about to go on the wrong side of our audience too. I quickly reached out to my CEO and shouting above the loud music inside the club tried to explain the gist of what all was happening, and that we may have to call this campaign off, he told me to do whatever was right.

My phone rang again and this time it was an ex-employee who now worked as a news anchor with a TV news channel. ‘Hey, could we do a quick interview live on TV with you right now on the ongoing violence that is happening as a result of your campaign’. ‘Hmm… sure, but are you guys reporting from the spot? and what violence? what are you seeing there?’. He said they had only heard about it and they were on their way to the spot to cover it live. I didnt want media to sensationalise this too much and wanted to say my bit to keep it as non-controversial as possible, so I agreed to the interview. He told me the newsroom will call me back in a while. I made the next call to the guy putting up our hoardings– ‘Pull off everything, will chat about rest of it tomorrow’.

Someone from the newsroom called in next trying to pull me into a live link ‘…please be online we will take you on-air in just a moment’. It had started to drizzle lightly again, the music in the background faded a bit as I composed myself and was determined to not let the news presenter get away with some silly twist on all of this. “…and here we have Mr Rahul with us to comment on the emerging situation. Thank you for joining us Mr Rahul, we heard that you have received threats and some people have torn down your billboards over the new campaign you have put out, what do you have to say about that?’. I took a deep breath, ‘Yes i heard about it just now. It is an unfortunate incident and we have no intention of hurting anyones sensibilities. We will take appropriate action to deal with it.’ But the news anchor wont let go “But sir, do you think it is the right what that political parties are doing? I mean is right to be so intolerant to the culture, and do you think they are trying to score political points … etc etc”. “Our only concern is that we dont offend the fans of Kannada film industry, if they are upset about it then we will take all steps to address their concern… etc etc”. The duel went on for a while – they wanting some comment on the state of the society or on the right wing political party, and I wanting to tone it down and not acknowledge the political party again. They finally gave up and I hoped I was boring enough not to be put on-air for this. I relaxed for a bit, still unsure if we were capitulating to a threat or were we correcting a mistake.

My phone rang again, it was an unknown number. ‘Is this Rahul?’. The sound belonged to a guy who seemed pretty adept at extortion calls and likes. ‘Yes Rahul here… who is this?’. The guy ignored my question ‘Mr Rahul, how are you playing with the sentiments of people…? who gave you the right?’. I held my calm, if I got rattled then he would win. ‘Who are you? What is your name?’ I ask firmly. He will need to play my game if he wants to chat with me any further. He gives me his name, and went onto say ‘How can you make fun of Kannadigas? How can you make cartoons?’. What he saw as a Cartoons, with the associated meaning of them being disrespectful, was to us a great artistic rendition of the Kannadiga icons presented in a fun way. This guy didn’t seem interested in chatting about semantics with me, but I was still going to try it. ‘Mr X.. have you seen the hoarding yourself?’ he says yes, he even had a picture of it with him. ‘Ok, read out for me what does it say?’. He starts reading it out as he signed it all off with my brands tag line, which just sounded so evil in this raspy voice. “See Mr X… how does that offend anyone? Those images are depicting all the great people of the industry. What we have written in that hoarding is saying nice things about them all. Shouldn’t you be congratulating us for doing the good work?’. I guess that was a bit too cheeky and I had led him on too far too quickly, and he recomposed his anger again. ‘You people from outside you think you can get away with anything. We will come to your office… we know where the office is’. I told him, ‘yes, you are welcome there… I am out of the city today, but I look forward to meeting you tomorrow’. This went on for a while, and then I told him, and we have anyway heard from the fan clubs of that star, as we have taken note of their concern and even before he called, we had decided to pull off the hoardings, and didn’t need his call to figure out what we had to do. He went on spewing anger, and I kept on treating his anger with a cold, firm response, not even trying to match his fury.

I headed back home thinking of all that we needed to do to prepare ourselves for whatever may happen in the morning. I was still trying to come to grips with the insanity of it all – how could something as innocent as artistic illustration get us all into trouble? It made no sense. But this was a mob thinking – you can never argue with it. There is no dialogue possible when the other person is approaching it irrationally. Everyone spent the next day in office nervously. Police sat outside the office enjoying our hospitality. All those who had helped design the campaign were feeling a bit embarrassed to have misread the mood.

But this wasn’t anyone’s fault I guess. It is a peculiar strain of vestigial irrational emotion that seems to have been leftover inside us from our wilder days, and which erupts periodically to remind us of the distance we still need to cover emotionally as a race. It dosent need much to erupt –  a tacky video, a random sentence, a news story, an imagines slight on the honour or even a rumour. Hopefully someday we will all evolve into more tolerant beings…

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