Google’s bold and deceptive Partition ad campaign

People think of Google, Apple, Coca-Cola and so forth as brands, but these names are better thought of as branding irons designed to leave an indelible imprint on their customers’ brains. We are the cattle and even though the branding process is seemingly anodyne — generally producing pleasure rather than pain — when branding “works” it yields a form of ownership. Except unlike livestock which have no loyalty to their owners, we allow ourselves to be corralled and tethered with no visible restraint. We have become the most successfully domesticated of animals.

Advertising is all about short-circuiting reason and misappropriating emotion in the service of a commercial goal. It aims to sear a brand onto the brain in conjunction with a positive feeling, so that the brand on its own can later trigger the same feeling.

The Partition of British India in 1947 resulting in the creation of the republics of India and Pakistan involved the displacement of 14 million people and the deaths of as many as one million. Many of the wounds have still not healed after the subcontinent was ripped apart. But here comes Google with an ad called ‘Reunion’, offering a balm in the form of a touching short story.

“I don’t work on a computer and I have no idea what Google is. But I am glad to be a part of what I thought was a very sentimental story,” said M.S. Sathyu, who plays “Yusuf”, an elderly sweet seller in Lahore who features in the advertisement.

The Indian Express reports:

The three-and-half minute ad was shot in different areas in Delhi, including an old haveli in Connaught Place, Red Fort, India Gate and a small scene in Lahore, Pakistan. “We have all heard stories about Partition and how friends and families were separated. So the background for the ad was set. But we wanted to make sure we did not adhere to clichés,” says Mumbai-based Amit Sharma of Chrome Pictures who directed the commercial.

As the ad begins we see an 80-something-year Baldev (VM Badola) in his small store in Delhi narrate the stories of his childhood to his granddaughter Suman (Auritra Ghosh). He reminiscences about times with his best friend, Yusuf (MS Sathyu), flying kites in a park in Lahore and stealing jhajariyas from Yusuf’s Fazal Sweet shop. This sends the granddaughter on an online search until she speaks to Yusuf himself. And on her grandfather’s birthday, she arranges a reunion between Yusuf and Baldev.

Google offered its advertising agency broad latitude in crafting a message:

The scriptwriter for the ad, Sukesh Kumar Nayak of Ogilvy and Mather, says that he was pleasantly surprised when a tech giant like Google specified in their brief that the only thing they wanted was to see was how meaningful the search engine is in real life. “Our entire life revolves around Google, it is our instant response to something we don’t know. But we wanted to dig deeper, and make the connection between real life and Google, magical,” says Nayak.

Or to put it another way, to contrive a connection between real life and fantasy, since as Hamna Zubair points out, the barriers between India and Pakistan are far more extensive than any that can be bridged by Google.

It is notoriously hard for an Indian national to get a visa to Pakistan and vice versa. In fact, as little as five years ago, after the Mumbai bombings, it was near impossible. A series of false starts, misunderstandings, and in some cases, outright armed conflicts have plagued the neighbors ever since they came into existence in 1947.

Whereas an American citizen, for example, can get a visa to India that is valid for 5 or even 10 years without much fuss, a Pakistani citizen has to fill out a “Special Pakistan Application” and get an Indian national living in India to write him or her a letter of sponsorship. Even then, a visa isn’t guaranteed, and your passport could be held for many months as you’re screened. Indian citizens who want to visit Pakistan don’t have it much easier.

For the many, many Indians and Pakistanis who have families across the border and want to visit them, this is a constant source of grief. We all wish it were easier to traverse the India-Pakistan border, but this is not the case, and never has been.

So while Google’s ad does tap into a desire many Pakistanis and Indians have – that is, to end long-standing political conflict and just visit a land their ancestors lived on – it isn’t an accurate representation of reality. At best, one hopes this ad may generate a greater push to relax visa restrictions. Until then, however, just like India and Pakistan posture about making peace, one has to wonder if Google isn’t indulging a little fantasy as well.

Ironically, a real life connection that Google hopes its audience must have forgotten was evident in the Mumbai attacks themselves in which the terrorists used Google Earth to locate their targets.

If Google was really making this a better world, the more reliable evidence of that might be seen in search trends — not feel-good commercials.

What are the hottest searches right now? Indians are preoccupied with the departure of cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, while Americans focus on the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Still, since a commercial like Reunion conveys such a positive sentiment, can’t it at least be viewed as harmless? And might it not provide a useful if small nudge in the direction of India-Pakistan reconciliation?

Those who define the strategic interests of each state have much more interest in shaping rather than being shaped by public opinion. Moreover, the resolution of conflicts such as the one that centers on Kashmir hinges on much more than a desire among people to get along and reconnect. Google has no interest in changing the political landscape; it simply wants to expand its market share.

Aside from the fact that a commercial likes this conveniently ignores the messiness of politics, the more pernicious effect of advertising in general is cultural.

The talent of storytellers and artists is being wasted in advertising agencies where creativity is employed to strengthen the bottom line — not expand the imagination.

Even worse, metaphor — the means through which the human mind can most evocatively and directly perceive connections — has been corrupted because above all, advertising trades in the promotion of false connections through its cynical use of metaphorical imagery. Advertising always promises more than the product; it equates the product with a better life.

Just as Coca-Cola once promised to create a world in perfect harmony, now Google promises to bring together long lost friends.

Both are seductive lies and we gladly yield to the manipulation — acting as though our exposure to such a ceaseless torrent of commercial lies will have no detrimental impact on the way we think.

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3 thoughts on “Google’s bold and deceptive Partition ad campaign

  1. bobs

    Google would never dare make an ad featuring an Israeli goggling away to find a lost lost friend from the holocaust. Rightly so. But they must have figured Indians are sufficiently “infantile” they won’t even object to the crass manipulation. I am curious what the reaction will be.

  2. bobs

    They would have to be, I can see that. Takes intimate knowledge of the place to pull off something like this. But some of my Indian friends are the biggest fans of Tom Friedman, that condescending, patronizing, racist twit. So I am not even sure there’ll be a pushback. Eric Schmidt must be thrilled. Partition cost a million lives but, hey, Google saw to it that they didn’t die for nothing…

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