New Delhi: On Friday, a day after Reliance Industries’ Mukesh Ambani kicked-off his company’s ambitious telecom venture, India woke up to full front-page advertisements of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in what appeared to be an advertising campaign for Reliance Jio.
“In the journey of time, there come a few life changing moments. Our honourable Prime Minister’s inspiring vision of a Digital India is one such movement. Jio is dedicated to realising our Prime Minister’s Digital India vision for 1.2 billion Indians. Jio Digital Life will give the power of data to each Indian, to fulfil every dream and collectively take India to the global digital leadership…,” reads a paragraph of text that comes just below an image of Modi in dark blue jacket, which is incidentally the same colour as Jio’s logo.
Over the course of the day, irate readers and citizens vented their surprise and anger over a Prime Minister endorsing a private product. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal slammed Modi, tweeting out that the prime minister of India “openly endorsing Reliance products”. “Any more proof required to prove that Modiji is in Ambani’s pockets? PM of India openly endorses Reliance product,” Kejriwal said in further tweets.
By evening, the television advertisements had started. A ninety-second clip (shown above) starts with images of India’s most famous icons: Swami Vivekanand, Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and Mother Teresa. This gives way to a portion of Modi’s Independence Day speech this year, where the prime minister speaks of his government’s Digital India programme and how it will uplift India. The final portion links Reliance Jio’s aims specifically with Digital India, and talks of how the service will connect India’s 1.2 billion people with free voice calls.
“The video, if not the newspaper advertisements, seem to be very cleverly played. There’s no specific talks of a product or product launch. They have tried to play it off as a dedication to Digital India, even though its clearly obvious that it is not. I mean it comes one day after Jio launched,” said the senior executive of one of India’s largest advertising and public relations firm, who declined to be identified.
The most important question that emerged, both in online debates and during The Wire‘s interviews with various industry and political stakeholders is whether Modi’s image was used in the brand campaign illegally. Is permission required to use the prime minister’s image in both advertisements and tributes or dedication campaigns? The first line of defense, the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act, 1950, clearly states that “…No person shall, except in such cases and under such conditions as may be prescribed by the Central Government use… for the purpose of any trade, business, calling or profession… any name or emblem specified in the Schedule or, any colourable imitation thereof without the previous permission of the Central Government or of such officer of Government as may be authorised in this behalf by the Central Government.”
This law suggests that written permission is required: In fact, in April this year a Pune-based real estate company Maple Group was pulled up after it used advertisements containing pictures of Modi and Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. According to a media report, the ads apparently conveyed that the company’s real-estate developments were part of the Prime Minister Awas Yojana scheme, although the Maple Group added in a disclaimer that the firm’s projects were self-developed. The Reliance Jio campaign, on the face of it, appears to have taken a similar angle; marrying the Jio product to Modi’s Digital India.
When contacted, Reliance Jio representatives did not respond to requests for comment. This story will be updated with their statement when The Wire receives it.
Multiple political and advertisement industry stakeholders The Wire spoke to emphasised that it was highly unlikely that this brand campaign would have occurred without some sort of informal agreement or at the very least prior intimation on the part of Reliance.
Sanjaya Baru, former media adviser to the previous prime minister, pointed out that during his tenure, a private company would have usuallybeen required to obtain permission before embarking on such a brand or advertising campaign. “I would say that it would definitely be normal for the company and the prime minister’s office to talk first or for the company to ask for permission before this happened,” Baru” told The Wire.
Executives from some of India’s biggest advertising firms also pointed out that there had been almost no incidents like this in the past; where a large conglomerate the day after its product launch had carried out dedications to the prime minister in the form of a brand and advertising campaign.
“This is definitely not normal. I can’t think of any incident in the past that resonates with this or is even similar to this. There’s no established protocol for it within the advertising industry. There are certain rules. Companies can use icons and famous people who have passed away like Mahatma Gandhi. But this [using the PM’s photo] is not kosher within the industry and raises interesting questions about appropriation. Can other companies come forward tomorrow and try to connect their products as fulfilling some government initiative,” said Santosh Desai, a well-known marketing professional who also heads brand services firm Future Brands.
The consensus amongst the advertising industry currently seems to be that the advertisements themselves are not illegal, but are highly improper.
“There’s no way a company like Reliance, which is placing the biggest bet of its life, leaves things like this up to chance. I highly doubt this was done without permission,” said the senior executive of a marketing firm that in the past has done work for government projects such as ‘Make-in-India’.