Yesterday was April Fool’s Day but it is unlikely that your brand dared to pull a fast one on you. Unlike many other parts of the world, where audacious liberties are taken even by legacy players. We are Indians after all, renowned for the inability to laugh at ourselves.
So, what is the origin of this exceptional serious-bone that defines most of us? For men, the answer surely lies in entitlement. Revered by the mother and feted by the wife and deified by the children, he has been taught to place himself on a lofty pedestal. The ego being the most active organ, any attempt at levity attracting punitive wrath, verbal or even more dire. A brand is just a paid vassal, so certainly cannot afford to take liberties.
For women, the scenario is typically different. In a historical climate of male-enforced inequality, she has been laughed at way too often, for undeserving reasons. This subtle but definite form of abuse making her particularly sensitive to unsolicited humour, unsure of the motivations. Brands have stayed clear of this territory, except the odd media entity attempting a deliberately-fake article.
In fact, humour in our country is connected to power distance, the superior at work or family permitted to make a dig. However, when a peer or junior does so, the reactions are stark, rank rapidly pulled to censure the offender. Even in farewell speeches or business meetings, this pattern is common, the licence of liberty earned by demographic or corporate hierarchy.
Yet, at the same time, India has a strong literary and cinematic culture of humour, from time immemorial. We are certainly not a stuffy bunch and enjoy the escapades of fictional characters, when they are not ourselves. Comedians thrive in our domain, often enjoying the same stature as full-blown heroes, contributing much to public delight. Even in the digital world, indigenous memes represent a potent sub-culture while the sharing of jokes on mobile phones is a breezy pastime.
Also, most interestingly, most communities in India have their trademark sub-brands of humour, in tune with native characteristics. The Pune school is well revered for its subtle but scathing undercurrents, while the Calcutta variety oozes with an intellectual-cum-earthy formula. Delhi and North India veer towards the ballistic while in Mumbai, the local trains offer a rich context. It is notable though that these schools do not extend themselves easily to the emerging generations, born to a universal and not localised genre of entertainment.
So, how and when will the Indian learn to laugh at himself or be the butt of a joke well strung? At the present time, our insecurities as a nation are at an all-time low, with rising personal affluence, exposure to experiences and enhanced national pride. So, it does stand to good reason that we should become significantly more human, instead of remaining stuck-up. Also, our personal identities are increasingly less connected to our legacy self-esteem, derivatives of education or lineage. A meritocratic society far more receptive to its frailties and increasingly willing to overcome them.
The change must come from the youth of the country, changing our national DNA for the better in every sphere. Schools must take the lead by conducting sessions on self-deprecation, where individual substance is disconnected from imposed gravitas. Just as the UK has mandated ‘mindfulness’ to be a specified curriculum, we must add the teaching of ‘levity’ from an earlier age. Including the conducting of live shows and skits where like the western world, the importance of self is proportionate and earned, not imposed by some divine decree. For the adults, corporates must hold mandatory workshops to inculcate this spirit, involving family members wherever possible. To build a new brand of Indian, solid as ever but remarkably comfortable with self.
Taking oneself lightly will have hugely positive consequences in social and corporate lives, enhancing happiness in every sense. It will considerably assuage tensions and rage, cardiac and other connected health parameters bound to improve. Brands must play a significant role in this endeavour, spreading this message of lightness in their communication, perhaps as a digital initiative.
I sincerely look forward to the day when Indian brands can confidently pull the leg of their customers — man, woman or child. The beginning of the financial year will then pack in much more meaning than usual.
(Shivaji Dasgupta is the Founder of INEXGRO Brand Advisory and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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