26 December 2014

“And then he told them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone’.” Nothing new, and nothing really good, it seems, as one observes in a glimpse the global spread of what was once a fundamental belief in and for inclusion. As traditions of spiritual wisdom undertook their translocal destiny, splitting and excluding appeared a more sound option than bridging across cultures and society. But when inclusion becomes exclusion, the play of cultures becomes a power play and across-within groups, the light and pervasive inter-connection of cultures disappears from the surface. A certain limited spirit of the market rises, as no one any longer believes that truly innovative creations can guarantee the elaboration of equitable communities. Advertisement is brought in, responding to its favourite assumption: the insurmountable struggle of identical siblings. As we, thus, believe in the very veil of appearances, all means become valid to permit this fight to the finish – terror prevails well beyond Bethlehem and Peshawar, in a world culture preferring success over connective spread. But the News reached us nonetheless, serenely eternal and regularly awaited, like the Santa of our children. Thus, even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for this Santa-Clause, an open, always incomplete proposition, promises rewards to those who believe beyond the seen. This week on LILA Inter-actions, Saurav Das attempts an introspective exploration into the functions of advertisement for our belief cultures, and he points towards the possibility of a non-competing practice of the commercial. Lijo Stephen Chacko reaffirms today’s need for beliefs, but a belief connecting communities through service, faith and loyalty, as real action truly supplants mere talk.

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Belief Resources

Saurav Das

Acting Now

Lijo Stephen Chacko

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When embarking upon any debate on beliefs, it seems prudent to clearly define what exactly we are talking about. The following five dictionary definitions seem to be the most relevant:

  • Reality – The state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them.
  • True – In accordance with fact or reality.
  • Belief – An acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof.
  • Trust – Firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.
  • Faith – Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.

The reality is that Christmas is held on December 25th in the Gregorian calendar. The truth is that Jesus Christ was born sometime between 7 B.C. and 5 B.C. and that the church co-opted the pagan celebration of the winter equinox when it proved too hard to eradicate. The belief is that a fat man in a red suit breaks all laws of relativity and leaves gifts for children worldwide in a single night – gifts that just happen to be directly proportional to the income of the kids’ parents. The trust is that good behaviour will be rewarded in life. The faith is that we are all special and our life has purpose and meaning in the universe.

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Henry Ford said it best – “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” For the most part, our beliefs are a summation of childhood conditioning and adolescent agonising. It is rare to see people spontaneously examine their beliefs; that would be comparable to checking the engine while driving the car. People rarely change their existing beliefs without the involvement of a strong desire or fear. Unless a new category is being created (Virgin Galactic and space tourism, for instance), companies and brands have to deal with existing perceptions and beliefs about their products. At this point, the advertiser has two options: faking it till he makes it into their hearts and minds, or changing their hearts and minds. You only get one guess as to which path the majority takes.

Douglas Holt, author of How Brands Become Icons says,

The right identity myth, well performed, provides the audience with little epiphanies – moments of recognition that put images, sounds, and feelings on barely perceptible desires. Customers who find this kind of identity value in a brand forge intensive emotional connections. Emotional attachment is the consequence of a great myth.

Sex Sells?

We are emotional creatures. For the capitalist, this means that purchase is never driven by the cheapest price. A prime example being the failure of the Tata Nano in India. Instead, the brand must struggle to form the strongest possible emotional attachment, which is the reason for one of the advertising clichés – ‘Sex Sells’.

Personally, I hate advertising and do my best to avoid it, whether by fast forwarding, skipping or blocking it. That being said, we need advertising for a few reasons. Fundamentally, without letting consumers know about the products, how are products going to get to the consumer? This is the first role played by advertisement. Secondly, advertising, in a sense, is the official art of modern capitalist society. It is what ‘we’ put up in ‘our’ streets and use to fill up to half of ‘our’ newspapers and magazines, it commands the services of perhaps the largest organised body of writers and artists in the whole society, with their attendant managers and advisers.

Brands have spent more than Rs. 371 billion in 2014 on advertising. And it can contribute to societal improvement. A good example of money being spent right would be HUL’s Project Shakti, which reaches 3 million households in 100,000 villages. By 2010, it provided livelihood-enhancing opportunities to about 45,000 women in 15 Indian states. This was expected to grow to 75,000 by 2015. In return, the company earned around $15 million in revenues.

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The main reason why advertising is legitimate is that it does not seek to restrict profit to a select few. This is more a function of the free-market economy, and human greed taking over the governance of its rules. After the banking collapse in the U.S. that led to a worldwide recession, nobody was put into jail. Rather, the banks were bailed out and laws were created to ensure bailouts of future collapses rather than system reforms. CEO compensation has gone up from $800,000 in 1965 to an average of $15 million each year in 2014.

Humanist advertisement?

Consumption leads to profits leads to growth leads to jobs leads to consumption. As long as we continue to embrace this economic reality, ensuring your message reaches the maximum number of people will always be the largest priority. Good advertising is a science, but great advertising is an art. When brands succeed at helping consumers attain self-actualisation, there is no pain or suffering they will avoid on the path to purchase. But with so much clutter, it becomes much easier to paint by numbers. The problem comes when rather than understanding our needs, brands try to define and shape them. Inevitably, sales drop and course corrections happen where advertisers struggle to get back to ‘reality’ rather than ‘vision’.

If you ask me whether advertising provides hope, I would point to the fact that every piece of communication revolves around the primal urges of desire and fear. Brands no longer exist and operate in our physiological or social ‘need gaps’. Thus, ultimately, do advertisements shape belief? I believe that the answer is a resounding no. The majority of advertising is plain vanilla that only resonates with strongly held, existing beliefs, and reinforces them. Breaking the existing norm and challenging beliefs is an extremely risky task, which few dare to take on no matter the rewards.

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I read that 21000 people die every day of hunger-related causes all over the world. That’s about 70 Malaysian airline crashes a day!

Then, in a recent UNDP conference, I hear them talk about how we cannot possibly have structured-engineering solutions to complicated social and developmental issues… I tell myself: O, for Christ’s sake, Christmas’ sake, let’s go ahead and do whatever we can!

There would be intermediary stages, partial solutions. Fine, let us push the damn envelop. Let the structured solutions get outdated at some historical juncture, but at least let it serve its stipulated function.

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There is no end to getting to the depth of things, the correctness of things, through discussions. But, things have to move at some point, lest people die – at the border as well as on our safer streets. Discuss, only without any option to get out of the discussion without a solution. For, statistics must move us to act; discussions, too. As someone from the Defense Services background, I would further say: Where a bullet is needed, give a bullet; where food is required, give food. All that, after a ‘reasonable’ amount of discussion.

What is the role of faith in the life of one who earnestly attempts, beyond the talks, to ‘do’, to ‘deliver’? Having lived the three-dimensional life of a mountaineer, a submariner, and a sportsperson, I believe, faith goes hand in hand with loyalty. One climbs a mountain in the total belief that someone is manning the safety line. A fleet decides to steer a course with the faith that their submarine has established patrol in an ordered area. A forward believes that whatever be the odds, he needs to be at the right place because another teammate will ‘make’ the move for you to tap the ball into the net.

Well, revolutions are started and sustained on beliefs. The greatest acts of a human being are undoubtedly founded on the belief in the loyalty of a friend, a comrade, a colleague, a people. Whatever be the support of science and technology and training, it is the individual operator who makes the difference, and brings about a change – and what is he/she at the core, but a set of beliefs! Belief can indeed incite passion as well as ride over it till kingdom come.

The loyalty of a Kamikaze

There is no martyrdom when belief and loyalty join hands. Things just get done. Period. For a Kamikaze pilot, in those last minutes when he is diving his plane into the funnel of a ship, what holds his nerves together but belief, faith, loyalty?

Defies logic in a way, but in another dimension, belief is logic. Play by the rules of these intangibles – true loyalty to a person or cause does not mean sycophancy: it means sticking your neck out to fight with that same person or within the ambit of the cause. But you never leave. You will dive into the funnel – willingly, happily.

How do these values work in these times? As we are yet to recover from the shock that Peshawar has given us this Christmas season, one is reminded of the story of the children killed around the time of Jesus’ birth. An uncanny coincidence that affirms the message of this Christmas: about the possibility of pro-action in a world that has been rendered unbearable by humankind; about being of service to the underprivileged, moulded by faith, and fuelled by loyalty.

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Jesus, the son of God could have been born into royalty. But it was decided and also written that he would be born into a poor family, in a cattle shed. Consider the symbolism here – he, from his birth itself had been ordained to identify with the poor and the downtrodden. His was a life led for the upliftment of the masses – mostly through acting, preaching, exhorting. But if needs be, he could take any matter into his hands – did not he wreak havoc for the people who were desecrating the church? Peace through conflict, if that be.

Born in poverty

We cannot afford being indifferent in these times; we have to get creatively involved, even if that involves destruction. That’s His message. And if there was a requirement to show that he could do it, he did it too—carried the cross, all the way up. He never compromised; he took things head on.

Think of the rape cases happening in the country, which we seem unable to stop, even after all the fanfare and display of will after the horrible Nirbhaya case. Why can’t there be a crack team, supra-constitutional, created by the people to dispense quick justice? Really big crises, especially when cancerous in their growth, should be dealt in ways that are not the norm. Should we either fear it or feel guilty about it? If we are able to sleep peacefully even after a 2 year old is raped, then we will be able to sleep peacefully after terminating rapists without protracted judicial processes. Maybe worth a thought.

What was the requirement for Jesus to touch and cure leprosy? He might as well have just cured the leper from far! The urgency of touch was important: that was the message, the deep social message which the likes of Sri Narayana Guru and Ambedkar fought for, centuries after him. Touch the entire world with the best of intentions, with the best of our abilities, and do it NOW. That seems, to me, the universal message of Christmas.

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Saurav Das is in charge of planning in a Media Agency of Gurgaon. He holds a Bachelors in journalism and a Masters in marketing communications. He is a passionate traveller and a voracious reader.
Lijo Stephen Chacko is Head of Operations at the Head Held High Foundation. An engineer by formation, he was a military submariner. He also climbed the Mount Everest.

Disclaimers: The opinions expressed by the writers are their own. They do not represent their institutions’ view.
LILA Inter-actions will not be responsible for the views presented.
The images and the videos used are only intended to provide multiple perspectives on the fields under discussion.

Images and videos courtesy: Fine Art America | Coloribus | American Humanist | Wallpaper Web | Courant

Voice courtesy: Shriyam Gupta

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