Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Manipulating India

After our massive general elections impressed upon the world an image of India as a great law-abiding democracy, I waited for the dismal corrective, and sure enough, it came in the grotesque footage of two teenage girls hanging from a tree in a poor village.

It had all the ingredients that constitute the British-created international image of the country: caste discrimination, defecation in the open, callous police (drunk to boot), and brutal violence against women.

Coverage of the crime in our “elite” (read British proxy) media endlessly accentuated those themes, focusing entirely on the grisly crime scene and reducing all actors to stereotypes. There were no specifics about the alleged perpetrators, nothing about the drunk cops. (Were they habitual drunkards or did someone provide them with drink just on that day?)

The clincher was the news that the “United Nations" had "condemned the horrific crime.” It flashed endlessly on television screens for a whole day and hit the headlines in print. Not a single report I have heard/seen bothered to explain that there was no “condemnation” of any sort; a Pakistani journalist who is a veteran India baiter, had asked the Secretary-General’s green-around-the-gills Spokesman what he thought of the crime, and instead of answering diplomatically and personally he had said it was “horrific.”

The timing of the crime right after the elections and transfer of power, its odd coverage, and the UN angle, all indicate a branding exercise similar to those the British have pursued at every opportunity since 1947.

For instance, you will find it in all of the “Indian” novels that have won the Booker Prize, and in Slumdog Millionaire, the Oscar-winning movie made by a British director who completely refashioned the plot and characters of a novel written by one of our serving diplomats and presenting a loving positive image of the country.

You can correlate each of those examples to positive developments in India.

Salman Rushdie put Indian and Bangladeshi independence into a disheartening British perspective.

Arundhati Roy presented Kerala, the most socially progressive state in India, as dankly decadent.

Kiran Desai did a number on the Northeast of the country after a number of foreign-sponsored insurrections were defeated there.

And Aravind Adiga conducted a Jack the Ripper attack on the emergence of Bangalore as an international IT hub.

Slumdog Millionaire took aim at the "India shining" image of an emerging economic powerhouse.

The video of the hanged girls lacked only one ingredient of the stock image of India the British have spread globally: the Hindu-Muslim riot. But it was not altogether missing. It was a strong theme throughout the coverage of the campaign – and rightfully so because of Gujarat 2002 – but the BBC inserted it in a voice-over that drowned out our national anthem at the oath-taking ceremony. Every other channel, including CNN, carried the solemn and moving scene with music intact. (RT was too preoccupied with slamming America to carry anything at all.)

The most amazing thing about this continuing and largely successful manipulation of India’s global image is that most Indians seem entirely unaware that Britain is continuing its colonial era psy-war against Indian nationhood, right down to attacks on Mahatma Gandhi as a shallow hypocrite. All the “Indian” Booker authors dump on Gandhi, as do the “histories” of India that flow perennially from British publishers.

In contrast to Indians, the British are 100 per cent on the ball when it comes to controlling their own image. Their history books ignore Britain’s dominant role in the transatlantic slave trade and London has consistently deflected demands for apologies from its former colonial victims. It has strongly rejected calls for compensation for stolen resources and return of treasured art and artifacts. It has never admitted the horrific toll of death and misery that colonial rule imposed on every territory the British controlled. Instead of admission of guilt and contrition we have the campy violence of James Bond movies presenting murderous British policy as glamorous and sexy.

Not all of it has worked -- James Bond has become a ridiculous figure -- but the massive campaign of avoidance and lies has allowed the British to lecture countries like Sri Lanka on human rights, and to pretend that it is not stealing massively from the poorest countries in the world even as its Prime Minister appears on a panel setting global development goals. It is also the prime mover in the continuing manipulation of the world of Islam.

To understand that success we have to look to the evolution of the advertising industry in the 20th Century under the influence of the work of Austrian theorist Sigmund Freud (1859-1939).

Freud and his Acolytes

As the above-ground criminality of the British Empire submerged into organized crime in the decades after the Second World War, the advertising industry entered a new phase shaped by the thinking of a man deeply scarred by the vicious antisemitism of his time. Freud was skeptical of all religion, dismissing it as an “illusion” and a “form of mental illness.” In his irredeemably materialistic view, adults were no more than overgrown infants suffering from the frustration of their naive self-love and overweening egotism. The resulting “neuroses” made them putty in the hands of an experienced “analyst” (read manipulator).

Freud’s nephew, Edward Louis Bernays (1891-1995), was a key figure in fitting psychology to the arts of manipulating public opinion. He was born in Vienna but raised in the United States from the age of one, in an elite, close-knit Euro centric Jewish community. Working for the propagandist Committee on Public Information during World War I, Bernays was impressed by British success in mobilizing anti-German feeling where none had existed.

In two seminal books, Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923), and Propaganda (1928), Bernays set out his view that ordinary people could and should be subject to elite psychological manipulation and guidance.

That attitude was reinforced by the French theorist Gustave LeBon, proponent of “crowd psychology” and the “herd instinct;” and Wilfred Trotter, an Englishman who authored Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War and pioneered the concept of “group dynamics.”

Hitler’s publicity chief, Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) was a fan of all three writers and his use of their concepts gave an entirely new meaning to the word “propaganda.” (Previously, it had been used mainly by the Catholic Church, which set up in the 17th Century the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, the congregation for propagating the faith.)

After World War II Bernays set up shop in New York as a “public relations counsel” and worked for corporate clients like the American Tobacco Company, for which he ran a campaign famous for equating smoking with women’s liberation: one effective stunt was the “torches of freedom” parade, a group of lovely models walking around puffing on cigarettes.

Working for the United Fruit Company (later Chiquita Banana), Bernays branded Guatemala’s democratically elected president as a Communist, bringing on a CIA sponsored coup, a brutal dictatorship, and the original “banana republic.”

He saw that as “engineering consent.”

His tactics became part of the tool-kit of American electoral strategists who discovered they could mobilize voters of particular groups with utterly dishonest propaganda.

These antecedents are the dirty secrets of the advertising industry, studied and admired but not celebrated. The person the industry acknowledges as the “Father of Advertising” is a British Intelligence officer, David Ogilvy, who had, during World War II, "extrapolated his knowledge of human behavior from consumerism to nationalism” and suggested tactics successfully used by the American Psychological Warfare Board. (The quote is from a biography issued by the firm he founded, Ogilvy & Mather.)

After the war, Ogilvy built one of the most successful advertising agencies in the world, and by the time he retired in 1972, it was an international conglomerate, the Ogilvy Group. He returned to work a decade later to found what is now Ogilvy India. (Piyush Pandey, head of Ogilvy India, was consultant to Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial campaign.)

In the final decade of the Cold War, London-based WPP (for Wire and Plastics Products, the original business of its boss Martin Sorrel), began to buy up advertising agencies. He made hostile bids and took over two New York based giants, J.Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather. Sorrel now controls the largest advertising conglomerate in the world and figures 366th on the list of the world’s Top Jewish Earners; his current wife is the public relations director of the World Economic Forum

Advertising in India

It is interesting to note that a part of WPP, Soho Square, produced the Voltas commercials that caricature Tamils.

Voltas came to Soho Square after giving up a nine-year advertising partner in 2009 and changing its agency twice more before settling on Bangalore-based Meridian in 2011. (Meridian changed its name and is now part of with Ogilvy's New York based boutique Soho Square.) Trade papers said the churn reflected the search for a strong “Indian” slant to its campaign.

What that means is a moot point. Unlike Western agencies, which have minutely detailed statistical analyses of audience preferences and responses to particular ad campaigns, Indian Mad Men fly in the dark`, guided by their instincts.

Many of them use White models and Western music in commercials because their instincts tell them that is the best way to “sell up” (i.e. associate products with a social demographic “superior” to the target audience).

Others seem to be guided by the “Oh it’s so cute,” responses of family and friends (the Vodafone “utch” and flipkart’s grotesquely dressed children.)

Yet others seem motivated by nothing more than a desire to subvert the social values of impressionable viewers; so much so, that one I noted earlier even forgot to mention any product at all.

A current nitwit example is a commercial starring a White woman biting into an apple and another bouncing her very ample breasts. I have been unable to locate the product either on the Internet or in stores; perhaps I’ve got the name wrong, but it flashes so briefly on screen it is hard to tell.

The offensive Voltas air-conditioner commercials fall into a category of their own: they do not "sell up" and are in fact, crude in approach and execution; they seem to exist purely to brand Tamilians in a certain way. Since I wrote about that, another commercial caricaturing Punjabis has aired, selling the app WeChat. It is as anti-national as the Voltas ad, for the same reasons. (WeChat is a Chinese product, and given the potential for misusing information collected from its users, any Indian who uses the app would have to be certifiable.)

To find out the reasoning behind the Voltas ad campaign I called up Deba Ghoshal, head of the company’s marketing department. After a few preliminary exchanges, when I asked about the thinking behind the "Mr Murthy" ads, our phone connection went suddenly bad. He asked that I email my question. I will send him this article and will share his response with readers.

Tailpiece

The freaky road accident that killed cabinet minister Gopinath Munde could be an assassination. If it leads to a promotion for General V.K Singh in the cabinet reshuffle to come, we can conclude that those who paid the piper during the election campaign are now calling the tune. BJP members of parliament will then have to weigh their loyalty to the current government against their love of a free India.

Meanwhile, can we have a judicial probe into Munde's death, please. 

2 comments:

desicontrarian said...

Very detailed and lots of insight. Does it supplement the analysis of Atrocity Literature by Native informants? If so, are the booker and pulitzer winners knowingly playing their roles?

Bhaskar Menon said...

I just looked at the links provided by desicontrarian and the answer is yes. I think we are all on the same track.