Deepavali ads are only skin-deep

NOVEMBER 12 — Movies are exaggerations. They occasionally represent truths, our best intentions or our worst ones, and indeed a fib here and there. All in two hours or so.

Add “based on actual events” and all is fair play — as long as America wins World War II and girl marries only one of the boys.

But they entertain, so kudos.

If movies, with some art at heart even if eyes squarely on the money, are easy prey for backlash, imagine advertisements which are purely financial.

There is no discussion necessary to recognise the predatory nature of ads.

More so for festive seasons, where corporations cash in on our sop and almost bewildering need to believe, whatever we need to believe within an ad’s run time.

Happy Deepavali, everybody, and welcome to the annual discussion of the exploitive nature of Deepavali advertisements and how Malaysian Indians disappear thereafter till the next edition.

But there’s a caveat this year, seeing it’s Deepavali Covid-19 edition, the column will endeavour to not make the holidays suck more than it has to. Will slip in some good news.

As posited above, corporations are colour-blind, they cannibalise every festivity equally. So, it’s the same for Raya and CNY, and if that kind of parity exudes a warm feeling for humanity inside your soul, embrace it. In a cynical world, all blessings are divine.

Only difference is, outside Deepavali, Malaysian advertisers cringe at using Malaysian Indians as leads.

They are in the ads, but they are not the ad, if you get the drift.

Corporations are convinced, not the least because their executives grew up in Malaysia, that race colours consumer behaviour. The rule of thumb appears to be lead talents can look Malay or Chinese, but definitely not Indian. They feel consumers react better to such visuals. Or even better, the lead talents look decidedly Pan-Asian, in which case the viewer can assume whatever he wants to but is assured nevertheless the lead talents are not Indian.

Horrible much? Maybe, but companies can do what they want with their money.

What is shocking, and here we revert back to Malaysian Indians, a large number of them agree with the advertisers.

That fairer skinned people are better to look at.

How so?

To begin with, while objecting to their exclusion from mainstream ads, a lot of Malaysian Indians given a choice prefer fairer over darker. While Caucasians flock our beaches for better tans, Malaysians find ways to avoid the sun in fear of developing a tan.

My late mom would tell me disapprovingly how football is making me darker. She’d point to my infant picture. I’d retort that my lack of appeal to girls is hardly down to skin tone. I also add baby pictures in bars send the wrong message.

I’ve oodles of aunties thrilled when a fair one — Indian or what not — marries into the family. Maybe it’s inherited Dravidian guilt from centuries of South Indian social class, or can we be direct, caste. Maybe.

However, the “if I was fairer it might be  better” complex remains  and that’s for the Indian community to wrestle with. They have their own demons to overcome before they can see the light.

The salient summary, Malaysian Indians are complicit.

Back to the industry. Both advertisers and content developers.

My problem with Deepavali advertisements is the massive overreach for an inclusive society within the advertisement while those making them are completely cognisant and comfortable with the fact after the shoot is done they can go back to their usual work where Malaysian Indians become invisible.

If companies consciously set noble and awesome associations, and not try to match the lofty expectations, they are cowardly.

It’s instructive to add here, many Malaysians — Borneo people — and Malaysian elements — Borneo culture — go missing too. This race myopia is not limited to Malaysian Indians, but Deepavali does allow an entry point to this massive inclusivity discussion.

To avoid convolution, here’s the position.

I’m not advocating race quotas, in fact I am arguing against quotas. The Deepavali ads are exactly that, every year Malaysian Indians are used to sell unity for two weeks and for the rest of the year not seen fit to sell cars, car batteries, household detergents or toothbrushes.

The Deepavali season underlines the gaping absence outside the holiday.

Our ads don’t have to be formulaic like multicultural teenage vocal bands. When there’s five of them, make sure there’s one Chinese, Malay, Indian, Malay again and then an Iban. So, they can harmonise the voice of Malaysia with cheesy tunes.

While the low bar in the short term can be numeric representation, the higher bar has to be naturalisation of presence.

Malaysia can’t stay in the short-term that long.

Deepavali rainbow

The good news.

The situation is set to improve.

Because corporations like to be on the right side of history, or at least join the victory parade. It’s profitable that way.

Woke culture, Black Lives Matter and all other social justice movements imbue a need for correction, even if ever-present the danger of over-compensation and conservatives’ resentment of the nanny-state.

It’s the rage, and looking colour-blind is the mood of the planet, even if hate has not been exorcised from our souls. Corporations don’t need reminding, they have market research.

Which is why more upmarket brands in Malaysia, joined the chorus and shift from the fixed view that dark is undesirable. Their segments are more clued in to global sentiments.

Eventually, yes, even in Malaysia, FMCG companies are going to colour up their ads, because it starts to look rude not to.

Not limit minorities to seasonal ads which scream tokenism.

That’s the upside.

The tide to normalise all groups into a shared space grows, and veers away from old gestures to pat minorities on the back for integrating. All the oceans merge and waves hit all shores, even in seemingly impossible Malaysia.

That’s the light at the end of the tunnel.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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