Those who grew up in India in the seventies and eighties would be familiar with Mandrake the Magician. Along with Phantom, he fought a lonely battle against evil, before the other caped superheroes arrived on the scene to save the world. One of his great strengths was his ability to wave a hand at any situation and make people see exactly what he wanted them to see. When Mandrake ‘gestured hypnotically’, the world obeyed him or at least so it appeared. There is reason to believe that the India of today has great belief in the power of ‘gesturing hypnotically’, of believing that problems of a complex kind can be fixed by waving a vague hand at them.
The Odd-Even experiment is a prime example of making vague gestures in the face of concrete problems. The first time around, it was a radical idea, one that harnessed public opinion into a form of collective action for a specific experiment. Now, it seems less clear as to what the objective is- studies seemed to show that the experiment did not really reduce pollution. The reduction of congestion can hardly be a valid reason for causing so much disruption; besides in the long run a measure like this might well serve to increase vehicular population than to limit it, defeating its purpose altogether. Even the specifics of the scheme are hazy in logic- for instance, cars with children in school uniform are exempt, so what happens to those on the way back after dropping their children?
Or take the recommendations of the Parliamentary committee about celebrities being held culpable for the claims that they make while promoting products. Apart from stiff monetary fines, the proposal includes the possibility of sending them to jail in certain cases. It is easy to understand the anger felt by consumers if an advertiser lets them down particularly when they have been reassured by the presence of a celebrity brand ambassador. But to actually lay the responsibility at the door step of the celebrity is to convert this anger into reckless action. For one, celebrities are not experts who can certify the authenticity of claims made by the advertiser, nor can they stand guarantee to their financial position. They can at best ask for an undertaking to this effect from the advertiser. Also, why should only the celebrity bear this responsibility, why not the media outlet that carries the advertisement? And much more importantly, if the larger concern is to crack down on irresponsible or misleading advertising, why not tackle the larger problem in a systemic way rather than focus on the most glamorous but minor part of the issue?
A similar haziness pervades the question of the IPL being shifted out of Maharashtra on account of the drought. To believe that a cricket tournament will directly affect the status of the drought in the entire state is ridiculous. Would the water thus saved find a way to the drought hit areas? Are cricket grounds not watered in any case? What about the other ways in which in water is used? If the intention is to preserve water, should there not be a comprehensive effort? There may be many things wrong with the BCCI and the IPL, but they cannot be made to carry the burden of water availability in Maharashtra. One could suggest that it would be sensitive on part of the BCCI to act on its own, but for a court of law to enforce this is to convert what is at best thoughtful advice into an inescapable imperative.
Such examples abound. A university withdrawing an invitation to a retired JNU professor because he was ‘considered as mentor of the group of students of JNU, who were involved in anti-national activities in JNU campus recently’ and suspending the professor who invited him. Subroto Roy of Sahara languishing in jail because of his inability to pay an unprecedented bail amount of Rs 10,000 crores. A court ordering that Shimla be connected by air. Harsha Bhogle, a much loved and respected commentator being sacked -vague rumours link this move to veiled criticism of his excessive on-air neutrality by Amitabh Bachchan. Each of these actions stands alone as a one-off random event, somebody’s whim that somehow passes muster and is allowed to stand in spite of obvious flaws in logic.
Instead of hard-headed examination of facts leading to defensible action, what we see are sporadic and impulsive actions that respond to the sentiment around a problem rather than the problem itself. The chosen modes of action cater to the aura of popular feeling around a subject- hence the focus on spectacular and arbitrary tokenism. Facts do not seem to matter in a literal sense. The feeling seems to be that the world can be what we wish it to be- arrayed loosely around the impression of facts. After all, if we can agree on something, why does it need to be true? To concede a fact, however obvious and well established, is today considered to be an act of grace, rather than an obligation to reality.
This pattern is common to all the institutions that matter- the state, the political establishment, the judiciary, academia and media. Events are arbitrarily assigned significance, words are made to take on meanings, loose impressions are acted upon as if they were concrete facts, slogans are mistaken for a plan of action. The belief in one’s ability to hypnotise reality so that it appears to be different is pervasive. It is not just that the symbolic is replacing the substantive, but that even the symbolic is at best sporadic. Systemic intent is leaking out of all institutions and being replaced by arbitrary swishes of a token nature. Incoherent wishfulness is the hallmark of a child who looks to a magician to wave the world into submission but for an entire country of wannabe Mandrakes to be gesturing hypnotically at reality is a little troubling. And there is no one sadder than an inept magician.
About the author: Shri Santosh Desai is presently the MD & CEO, Futurebrands . Prior to this, he was President of McCann-Erickson, India . An IIM Ahmedabad PG with 21 years of experience in advertising and a key note speaker at advertising forums in India, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Colombo, Lebanon, Bali, etc., he conducts workshops and seminars on a broad range of subjects in marketing for companies and educational institutions in India and abroad. He has addressed the global management boards of several multinationals including Hershey’s, Microsoft, Philip’s, Unilever, Coke and Reckitt Benckiser to name a few.
A thought leader in understanding the relationship between culture and brands and the consumer as a product of his or her cultural context ,he is also the author of ‘City City Bang Bang’, a weekly column in The Times of India.
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