Take it off the table! Anti-endorsement, a smart, new protest tool

Ads are supposed to be persuasive. Good ones can make people change their brands of toothpaste, underwear and car. Great ones can make god-fearing believers out of atheists, Beefeaters out of Bombay Sapphires, and BJP members out of Congressmen. Truly brilliant ads are capable of changing sexual preferences, cigarette brands and make Congressmen out of BJP members.

As far as persuasive advertising goes, while everyone has been watching football during this Euro Cup, I have slowly but surely been drawn to the electronic billboards on the sidelines of the fields. Alcohol (and cigarette) advertising is banned in India. But there it has been, during every single match since the Euro began, in full view in its greenish splendour: ‘Heineken’.

Over matches, and over the heads of the venerable ministry of health and family welfare, millions like myself may well be drawn to the flashing lights of a product that is available in India but whose advertising is prohibited, lest India turns alcoholic by suggestion. Thankfully, with TikTok disallowed in the country, the urge to trawl the app upon seeing its name also flashing on Euro billboards has been resisted.

But the little ironies of geographical restrictions of advertising apart, there is the other, less practised form of advertising: the dissuasive kind. Usually, this comes in the form of statutory warnings like ‘Tobacco Causes Painful Death’ — the irony of which is lost upon the consumer, considering it is the smoker who is supposed to see (we don’t) this message upon buying a pack of cigarettes, not the potential smoker before he or she actually decides to live the chug life.

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Which is why, despite my feelings against Portugal’s Prettiest, Cristiano Ronaldo’s agitprop before Tuesday’s Portugal-Hungary match was dissuasive guerrilla advertising at its dissusavviest. Removing the two bottles of Coca-Cola, a Euro official sponsor, that were placed in front of him, then muttering, ‘Agua’ (water) followed by a Lord Vader-like ‘Co-ca-Co-la,’ sent out the message loud and clear: don’t have Coke, have water. If this was Greta Thunberg, only cyclists, vegans and Pepsi officials would have rejoiced. But this was CR7, a product, beneficiary and practising artist in the brand universe. Cristiano is no woke spoke in the wheel. He is the wheel. The gesture was like Baba Ramdev, after thinking over it for some time, displaying his opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).

While brand bajao pundits are seeing this ‘taking a product off the table’ as a warning for brands selling unhealthy consumables — will Coke now get into the broccoli juice business? — I see it as a new protest method of choice. Candlelight vigils? Oh so Elton Johnish. Effigy-burning? Barring Ravan, Indrajit and Kumbhakarna, you never can make out who the effigy is supposed to represent. Protest rallies? Not in this Covid bazaar. Signature campaigns? Echo echo chamber chamber.

Instead, have a product, or a symbol of something, you oppose placed very visibly on a table. It could be an F&B product like a bottle of gau mutra, or a symbol of oppression like Robert Vadra. Once you’ve settled down, put on a deadpan face like Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. But unlike the Bond villain, do show your hand by actually taking the item of your distaste off the table, and replace it with an item that you want to advertise.

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This second bit was missed out by Paul Pogba when he followed up Cristiano’s gesturpolitik by taking the Heineken (non-alcoholic beer) bottle off the table without replacing it with something else. As a result, unlike Coca-Cola share prices, which dropped during CR7’s press conference, Heineken’s never turned flat. Consumers, whether of F&B or of politics, abhor a vacuum.

This off-the-table agitprop could very well pick up. And best of all, it’s safe from mousetraps like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. So, like Archimedes (no, he is not a Brazilian footballer), give me a table and a cauliflower head on it, and I shall move the world with a platter of kababs.


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