A Holi-themed advertisement for Surf Excel has received backlash for depicting friendship between a Hindu girl and Muslim boy. Some Indians have also confused Surf Excel with Microsoft Excel and left negative reviews for the Microsoft Excel app.
Hindustan Unilever (HUL) touched a nerve after its ad for Surf Excel has religious undertones.
The ad is set during Holi and begins with a young girl dressed in all white. She is seen cycling through a lane where her friends playfully throw water balloons filled with colour at her.
After the other children exhaust their pichkaris and balloon arsenal, the girl who is now drenched in colour, invites a young Muslim boy to ride behind her on the cycle.
“You can come out now, all the colour is over”, she tells the boy who emerges fully clad in white with a skull cap on.
Seeing the two ride to a mosque, the audience realises that the Hindu girl helped the Muslim boy by ensuring he doesn’t get bombarded with colour before he reaches the mosque.
The ad has a joyous and happy vibe. However, many social media users critiqued Surf Excel for bringing communal sentiment into an advertisement, even if it was celebrating harmony.
Right-wing accounts were the most active
Some Twitter users did not appreciate that the ad was showing the Muslim community in a positive light.
French Security Researcher Elliot Anderson found that people were tweeting under the hashtags #BoycottSurfExcel and #BoycottHindustanUnilever at a rate of 170 tweets per hour.
This means that Twitter was flooded with 8,300 tweets per hour on the subject for two whole days.
He added that of the images related to those hashtags, one of a Muslim woman in a niqab being chased and hit by a man was second-most shared.
Anderson even managed to isolate which accounts were most active in the triade against the ad. @Amanatlani1 and @bhattjikamal collectively tweeted about the ad almost 500 times.
Anderson added that the top 20 accounts that were most actively engaging with the ad were right wing- something that is easily identifiable through their biographies and images.
One account’s bio read “My religion is Hindu. I proud to be hindu.” Another said he was a strong RSS supporter. Others said they were “pro-Hindu” or “with NaMo”.
Upon further analysis, Anderson found that although the right-wing “troll” community accounted for only 5% of users tweeting about the Surf Excel ad, they generated a massive volume of content.
“5% of the Twitter accounts involved, generated more than 10% of the tweets made on a specific time range. Seems like a good disinformation weapon”, he said.
What did they say?
People tweeting against the ad called for boycotts of Surf Excel and Hindustan Uniliver products.
Niket Sharma tweeted an image of all the products managed by HUL and said that people should not buy any of them.
“Here is the picture, you need to check before buying anything. #BoycottSurfExcel @HUL_News Leave Hindus alone. Make ads on other religions because WE are not interested in your products”, he said.
Sanket Shrivastava said, “#BoycottSurfExcel remove this add either we bycott your every product..”
Some even posted discriminatory tweets against the Muslim community
People posted graphic images of Eid-al-Adha, a Muslim festival involving animal sacrifice, to imply that Muslims are savage and violent.
Others demanded an apology.
Dileep Jaiswal said, “One of the worst Ad ever by Surf Excel. It should be rolled back and @HUL_News should apologize for hurting sentiment of our religion. #BoycottSurfExcel”
Supporters of the ad said that the film portrayed a much-needed narrative of communal tolerance and mutual respect.
They also said that Indian secularism should be widely celebrated.
Manish Yadav said, “I think this is the best advertisement of surf excel this show secualrism’ and religion harmony of our country”.
The Hindu Defense League—an account followed by Narendra Modi—tweeted that HUL had no right to film such ad and “preach” to Hindus on how to celebrate holi.
Microsoft Excel gets bad reviews
In all the chaos, people began conflating Surf Excel with MS Excel and left negative reviews for the mobile application, mostly on Playstore.
People gave MS Excel one star reviews and commented that the app was promoting anti-Hindu content and sentiment.
Many made light of this confusion. Some even recalled a similar incident of people boycotting Snapdeal.
In 2017, CEO of Snapchat Evan Spiegel said he did not want to expand operations in countries like India and Spain because the app was for rich people.
This offended many who mistook Snapchat for Snapdeal- an Indian online shopping platform- and called for boycott for the latter.
Addressing the misunderstanding, CEO of Snapdeal Kunal Bahl tweeted, “Ppl asking us to make a statement that @snapdeal is not @snapchat was possibly the last thing I thought I would ever need to do.”
While such incidents might seem funny over reactions, the fact that so many people are misunderstanding simple details like company names is extremely telling of how irresponsibly we consume news.
Such phenomenon is deeply concerning, especially because India already deals with a large scale of unverified content on social media like WhatsApp and Twitter.
As we head towards election season and recover from escalating Indo-Pak tensions, all eyes are on social media in India and how much that dictates political discourse in the country.
Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius