Friday, July 30, 2010

The me-too syndrome

In his column today in Hindustan Times, Ramchandra Guha raises the question of why the HRD ministry has short-listed the following four names for the brand ambassadorship of its adult literacy programme: Nita Ambani, Supriya Sule, Kanimozhi and Priyanka Vadra. He suggests that this should be taken as a slap in the face for women because all four are nobodies in their own right. If they are anybody at all, they are merely wives or daughters of politically or financially powerful men. He proposes instead another short list, honouring the work women themselves have done—Shabana Azmi, Chanda Kochar, Kiran Mazumdar and Ela Bhatt.

I am all for Guha’s list of illustrious women, and, as he says, we could add dozens of more names to it. But the questions he asks at the end of the column are not exactly the questions in my mind. He asks, “What are the origins of this ridiculous proposal? Is it a manifestation of the feudal culture within the allegedly democratic government of India or is the handiwork of a particular individual, seeking to please the richest and the most powerful people in India?” The questions are rhetorical. Everyone knows the answers. Of course we are feudalistic. The HRD ministry can be no different. So whether it’s the whole ministry or an individual member who came up with the “ridiculous suggestion”, it must have had every member’s approval for it to get into the Press.

The question in my mind is something else. I want to know what brand ambassadors do. Since the concept belongs to marketing, a return to origins is important to see how its spin-off is expected to function. In marketing promotional models are hired to drive consumer demand for a product, service or brand. Their single most important qualification is an attractive physical appearance. They must also be literate because they are expected to provide information to prospective customers/clients face-to-face. Finally, they must be some kind of performer because they are supposed to deliver what is described as “a live experience that reflects on the product or service they are representing.” In brief, persuasion by every means is what promotional models do.

Now in adult literacy, the information part is easy. You are telling grown-up men and women the tremendous advantages that will accrue to them if they learn their letters. Nita Ambani is eloquent on the blah-blah aspects of social good. She said in a guest column for Businessworld on 16 May, 2008, “Philanthropy in the Indian context is an extension of our age-old belief in Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, wherein we regard the world as a family. All the men and women are thus our brethren. Of course, today we have moved well beyond this philosophical definition. For what we do in the name of philanthropy isn’t born only out of love of humanity. It also stems from our efforts to address the biggest problem humanity has created for itself — the increasing gap between the rich and the poor.” One may rely on her then to produce some equally impressive fluff to sell adult literacy.

But what will she do with the questions that are bound to follow in a face to face encounter? What will she say to Gangamma from Dharavi who asks, “I work the whole day in four houses and come home late evening to cook and take my husband’s beatings. So where’s the time to study letters?”

Will Nita Ambani say, “Oh dear! You work in four houses? I don’t even work in mine so I’m in no position really to answer your question. So sorry.”

What will she say to Sakina from Malvani who says, “The only time I have to myself is when the whole family is asleep. But I’ll need light to learn letters. And that Anil Ambani is charging us so much for electricity, we don’t switch on our lights only.”

Will Nita Ambani sniff up her brand new nose and say, “He’s like that only, that Anil.” Will that bring Savitri anywhere near books?
Let me turn for a moment from this depressing prospect to Dr Madhav Chavan’s NGO Pratham. Chavan left his job to become part of Maharashtra’s adult literacy campaign of the late eighties. Now he concentrates on children’s education. Pratham has also appointed a brand ambassador, Anupam Kher. From him we know clearly what he will do as a brand ambassador. He says he’ll leverage his media image to “augment Pratham’s fund-raising capacity.”
That’s a very useful thing to do and celebrities are extremely useful in doing that kind of thing. But an NGO is in constant need of funds and so needs a celebrity. Does the HRD ministry need funds? Aren’t we paying taxes? And aren’t we also coughing up something called education cess? Where’s all that money going?
No, it’s not money that the HRD ministry is looking for. It’s looking for a with-it image. In marketing, their syndrome is called “me-too”. When your mind is too impoverished to think up a new idea, you just pinch one from the next person, colour it blue or pink and market it as “the new way to a new you”. Brand ambassadors are today’s concept, and an eminently pinchable concept too. Narendra Modi’s got Bachchan (paid ambassador though he is) for Gujarat tourism. Let’s have one for adult literacy. It’ll like make adult literacy like really sexy. Way to go baby!