A smiling Bipasha Basu is lying on a couch on her stomach, looking away from the camera. She is in her inner wear. A hunky Dino Morea, bare-torso and in just his shorts, hovers over her, trying to pull off her underwear with his teeth. The sexual undertones in the photograph are hard to miss. The year was 1998. And winds of change, brought about by the liberalisation of 1991, were blowing through the country when Swiss innerwear brand Cadilla dropped this ad-bomb on the country. The ad raised the hackles of a few women’s organisations and it was later withdrawn. India’s emerging middle-class too didn’t find Cadilla to be a good fit and the company’s products disappeared from the country. But the ad—bold and beautiful—remained in our memory as an example of raw sexuality packaged as a promotional campaign.
Fast forward to 2021. It’s a new India, they tell us. The rules have changed. And social media sets the agenda. As Dabur India, a household name in the country and abroad, found out when it tried to push the envelope of creativity and inclusivity in an advertisement for its Fem Creme Bleach. The ad, set against the backdrop of Karwa Chauth, shows two women celebrating the Hindu festival for couples—applying bleach on each other and then gazing at each other through sieves. Social media erupted in a frenzy. Many praised the company for the “progressive” ad but many more flew into a rage against Dabur for promoting same-sex relationship and what they called a mockery of “Hindu religion and Hindu festivals”. A Madhya Pradesh minister even threatened legal action. A chastened Dabur pulled down the ad and apologised. The company—an icon of the ‘Made In India’ brand—said it “strives for diversity, inclusion, and equality” and added that its intention was “not to offend any beliefs, customs and traditions, religious or otherwise”.